SAN PEDRO ATOCPAN, Mexico -- Few dishes central to Mexican cuisine are as little-known outside the country as molé, the thick, dark sauce redolent of chocolate, anise, chile peppers, sesame and myriad other complex flavors.
That's because molé is as laborious to make as it is delicious to eat. It can take days to hunt down, prepare, grind, brown and mash the ingredients.
Molé dates to Aztec times, and its many variants are served in Mexico on special occasions.
"We eat molés at festivals, weddings, birthday parties, even at wakes," said Gabriel Sanchez de la Cruz, a spokesman for this mountain town a little more than an hour's drive southeast of Mexico City, where a national molé festival is under way.
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Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to San Pedro Atocpan each October to dip into a variety of dishes made with the sauce, which holds an honored spot in the national cuisine. The town claims to make 60 percent of the processed molé that is sold in Mexico.
Molé's texture is thick and slightly oily. Think heavy barbecue sauce. Ground peanuts and sesame seeds -- as well as the optional lard -- give the sauce its heaviness. The flavor is peppery, nutty, earthy, cocoa-y and smoky all at once, with elements of fruitiness tossed in. It can be as hard to describe as good varieties of wine.
Bite by bite, molés are making headway in the United States. For a formal state dinner at the White House in May, President Barack Obama invited a guest chef from Chicago, Rick Bayless, who put a Oaxacan black molé on the menu. It was a brave move. The guest of honor was President Felipe Calderon of Mexico.
"I chose the black molé because it is one of the most complex molés flavor-wise and one of the most difficult to make. It took me over 20 years to get it right," said Bayless, who is the chef at Chicago's Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.
"Shopping for it alone is daunting," Bayless added, providing his own recipe to McClatchy. "But I always encourage all home cooks to try recipes or projects" -- building a pit to roast a suckling pig, for instance. "I think it is great to push yourself."
Bayless, who won Bravo's Top Chef Masters in 2009, told a sold-out audience at the University of Texas at Arlington on Thursday that being able to cook the ingredients to a perfect charcoal-blackness (see step 1 in accompanying recipe) while finishing three other courses during the show's final challenge was one of his proudest culinary moments.
Bayless' version of molé comprises 26 ingredients. Other recipes call for more than 30, providing an overlay of gastronomically complex flavors.
The word "molé" is derived from the Nahuatl word "mulli" or "molli," for sauce or concoction. It's commonly prepared with four types of dried chiles -- mulato, pasilla, chipotle and ancho -- which must be seeded and ground into powder.
As recently as a few decades ago, the chiles were ground by hand on metates, or stone slabs. Dozens of women would take part in communal events for weeks before annual festivals.
"I remember that you'd see two lines of 25 metates, and everyone would grind face to face," said Angelina Cordero, a molé maker.
Grinding the chiles was the most laborious part of making the sauce, and the advent of small electric mills in recent decades hastened preparation. Readying the chiles is still time-consuming, however.
"You have to work with a tiny knife to cut the chiles open and get out the tiny seeds," said Beatriz Meza Retana, spokeswoman for the National Molé Festival.
Molé recipes are often family secrets. Juanita Evillano, 64, the owner of El Jacal restaurant in San Pedro Atocpan, said she learned how to make molé when she was 8 years old.
After the Spanish conquest more than 500 years ago, cooks began to add new ingredients such as cinnamon from Sri Lanka, sesame seeds from the Arab world, cloves from the Far East and sometimes anise and coriander seeds.
Over the decades, molé makers took some of the pungent bite from the chiles by throwing in unsweetened chocolate, pine nuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds and different types of fruit, such as ground raisins and fried banana, specifically a type known as a platano macho.
"The banana is used so that it's not too spicy," Evillano said.
Still, the complex aroma of molé is such that security officials at Mexico City's international airport told the Reforma newspaper this year that passengers carrying molé were triggering bomb-detecting equipment. They asked passengers to declare if they toted molé sauce or paste to avoid unpleasant delays.
At the high altitudes and cool temperatures of central Mexico, semi-processed molé paste can be kept for six to eight months unrefrigerated, several producers said.
Town leaders of San Pedro Atocpan, population about 9,000, say that 92 percent of its adults take part in the artisanal making of molé, sending it to Mexico City and across the nation in large plastic buckets. Producers tweak their recipes and claim special qualities for their own molés. One shop claims that its sauce never produces the indigestion for which heavy molé sometimes is known.
When one producer, Angelina Cordero, was pressed to reveal her secret ingredients, Sanchez, the town spokesman, jumped in: "What you're asking are very specific questions that would reveal part of the patrimony of San Pedro Atocpan."
Town fathers are trying to develop a seal of geographical origin to give the molé produced here a special boost, like champagne from France, Iberian ham from Spain or special balsamic vinegar from Italy.
Prepared molé in jars or sealed packs often is available in large supermarkets in the United States, but none of it yet comes from San Pedro Atocpan. The town's small producers are still trying to master the quality-control rules needed to export.
"It's going to happen," said Manuel Trujillo, an engineer at Don Pancho, the biggest molé producer in San Pedro Atocpan. "The strongest enterprises will start to export to the United States and Europe."
Demand for molé among Mexican immigrants to the States will drive the market, Trujillo said, and slowly the palate of non-Hispanics may take to the sauce.
In the end, Cordero broke down and revealed the secret ingredient in her almond molé: "Love, always love, so that it tastes better. Yes, love, yes!"
Oaxacan black molé with braised chicken
11 medium (about 5 1/2 ounces total) dried mulato chiles
6 medium (about 2 ounces total) dried chilhuacle chiles (see note at bottom)
6 medium (about 2 ounces total) dried pasilla chiles
1 dried chipotle chili (preferably the tan-brown chipotle meco)
1 corn tortilla, torn into small pieces
2 (1/4-inch-thick) slices of white onion
4 garlic cloves, unpeeled
About 2 cups rich-tasting lard or vegetable oil, for frying chiles
1/2 cup sesame seeds, plus some for garnish
1/4 cup pecans
1/4 cup unskinned or Spanish peanuts
1/4 cup unskinned almonds
About 10 cups chicken broth, canned or homemade, divided use
1 pound (2 medium-large or 6 to 8 plum) green tomatoes, roughly chopped
4 ounces (2 to 3 medium) tomatillos, husked, rinsed and roughly chopped
2 slices stale bread, toasted until very dark
1/4 teaspoon cloves, preferably freshly ground
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, preferably freshly ground
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, preferably freshly ground Mexican canela
Scant teaspoon oregano, preferably Mexican
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 ripe banana
1/2 cup (about 3 ounces) finely chopped Mexican chocolate
2 or 3 avocado leaves, if you have them
About 1 tablespoon salt, depending on saltiness of chicken broth
About 1/4 cup sugar, or a little more
2 large (3 1/2- to 4-pound) chickens, cut into quarters
1. Pull out stems and seed pods from chiles, tear them open and shake or scrape out seeds, collecting them as you go. Scoop seeds into ungreased 8- to 9-inch skillet along with tortilla pieces. Set pan over medium heat, turn on an exhaust fan, open a window and toast seeds and tortilla, shaking pan regularly, until burned to charcoal black, about 15 minutes. (This is crucial to molé's flavor and color.) Scrape them into fine-mesh strainer and rinse 30 seconds or so, then transfer to blender.
2. Set another ungreased skillet or griddle over medium heat; lay on a piece of aluminum foil and place onion slices and garlic cloves on it. Roast until soft and very dark, about 5 minutes on each side for onion slices (peel them off foil to turn them) and about 15 minutes for garlic (turning frequently). Cool garlic a bit; peel it and combine with onion in large bowl.
3. While onion and garlic are roasting, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Return skillet to medium heat and add scant 2 cups lard or oil, to about 1/2-inch depth. When fat is hot, begin frying chiles a couple at a time: They'll unfurl quickly, then release their aroma and piquancy (keep exhaust on and window open) and, after about 30 seconds, be lighter in color and well toasted (they should be crisp when cool, but not burnt smelling). Drain well, gather in large bowl, cover with hot tap water and let rehydrate 30 minutes, stirring regularly to ensure even soaking. Drain, reserving soaking liquid.
4. While chiles are soaking, toast seeds and nuts. Spread sesame seeds on baking sheet or ovenproof skillet. Spread pecans, peanuts and almonds on another baking sheet or ovenproof skillet, then put both into oven. In about 12 minutes the sesame seeds will toast to a dark brown; nuts will take slightly longer. Add all of them to blender (reserving some sesame seeds for garnish), along with 1 1/2 cups of the chicken broth, and blend to as smooth a purée as you can. Transfer to small bowl.
5. Without rinsing blender, combine green tomatoes and tomatillos with another 1/2 cup broth and purée. Pour into another bowl. Again without rinsing the blender, combine roasted onion and garlic with toasted bread, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, oregano, thyme, banana and 3/4 cup broth. Blend to smooth purée and pour into another small bowl.
6. Finally, without rinsing blender, add half the chiles and 1/2 cup soaking liquid; blend to a smooth purée, then pour into a 4th bowl. Repeat with remaining chiles and another 1/2 cup of soaking liquid.
7. In 8- to 9-quart pot, preferably Dutch oven or Mexican cazuela, heat 3 tablespoons lard or oil (some of what you used for chiles is fine) and set over medium-high heat. When very hot, add tomato purée; stir and scrape pot (a flat-sided wooden spatula works well here) for 15 to 20 minutes until thick as tomato paste and very dark. It'll be the color of a cinnamon stick and may stick to the pot in places. Add nut purée and continue stirring and scraping until reduced, thick and dark again -- this time it'll be the color of black olive paste -- about 8 minutes. Add banana-spice purée; stir and scrape another 7 or 8 minutes as the whole thing simmers to a thick mass about the same color it was before you added this one.
8. Add chile purée, stir well and reduce over medium-low heat until very thick and almost black, about 30 minutes, stirring regularly (but not constantly). Stir in remaining broth, the chocolate and avocado leaves, if using; partially cover and simmer gently about an hour, for flavors to come together. Season with salt and sugar, remembering that this is quite a sweet molé and sugar helps balance the dark, toasty flavors. Remove avocado leaves.
9. In batches in loosely covered blender, purée sauce until as smooth as possible. Pass through medium-mesh strainer into large bowl.
10. Return molé to pot and heat to simmer. Nestle chicken leg and thigh quarters into sauce; partially cover and cook 15 minutes. Add breast quarters; partially cover and simmer another 20 to 25 minutes, until all the chicken is done.
To serve: With slotted spoon, fish out chicken pieces, and transfer to large warm platter. Spoon a generous amount of molé over and around them, sprinkle with reserved sesame seeds and set triumphantly before your lucky guests.
To store: The molé sauce can be made several days ahead, covered and refrigerated. It gets better, in fact. Heat sauce to simmer before adding chicken, and cook until done.
Note: Chilhuacle chiles are very difficult to find unless you are in Oaxaca, and even there they're sometimes hard to obtain. Without them you can make a very respectable black molé with 6 ounces (12 total) dried mulato chiles, 2 1/2 ounces (8 total) dried pasilla chiles and 1 ounce (4 total) dried guajillo chiles.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 740 calories, 55 grams fat, 29 grams carbohydrates, 50 grams protein, 110 milligrams cholesterol, 1,009 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber and 61 percent of calories from fat.
-- chef Rick Bayless