La Noche Buena: Spanish traditions persist in New Mexico

At Christmastime, the old Spanish traditions in northern New Mexico are strong. The preparations in the weeks before lead up to the joyful celebration of La Noche Buena, the Night of Nights, Christmas Eve.

Festivities begin Dec. 12 with presentations of the centuries-old shepherds' story in the mystery play ''Los Pastores.''

In remote villages and city neighborhoods, people get together to reenact the story of Mary and Joseph's search for lodging in the Las Posadas, a drama that takes place over the nine nights before Christmas.

Then when Christmas Eve arrives, glowing candles inside small paper bags, called farolitos, line the roofs, walls, and walks of homes, public buildings, and churches. Little bonfires, luminarios, are lighted in front of many houses.

The Noche Buena feast with native New Mexican foods is traditional among many Spanish families here.

Days before Christmas, dozens of spicy filled turnovers, called empanaditas, and rich cinnamon-anise cookies, called biscochitos, are baked. They are often served with hot cider.

The feasting after the Misa del Gallo begins with steaming bowls of posole, a stew of hominy and bits of pork seasoned with oregano and whole pods of red chile.

The main course of the meal includes layered red enchiladas, bowls of miniature tamales, Spanish rice, refried pinto beans, and calabacitas. Puffy fried sopaipillas and round loaves of Indian bread are also served.

In addition to biscochitos and empanaditas, there's always a very special bread pudding, capirotada, the holiday dessert. It is full of melted cheese, pinon nuts, raisins, and cinnamon. Mexican chocolate is a favorite hot beverage.

The feasting and festivities continue on Christmas Day. Friends, neighbors, and relatives go visiting with gifts of biscochitos, tamales, and other foods.

Years ago, many foods were dried and stored in preparation for the Noche Buena feast in winter. Drying was the common way to keep beans, squash, chile, sweet corn, hominy, and some meats.

Today in the Southwest, these dried foods are still available, and it is possible to re-create a Noche Buena feast as it would have been a century ago.

Here are some recipes using modern ingredients for convenience, but first, a note on hot chile.

For many New Mexicans, chile is food, devoured in quantities, not merely a condiment. The taste for hot foods is an acquired one and the degree of hotness is very personal.

In New Mexico a bowl of sour cream is served with almost any hot dish. It is the best fire extinguisher of all. Biscochitos 1 1/2 cups lard 3/4 cup sugar 2 egg yolks 1 tablespoon anise seed 1/2 teaspoon anise extract 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 6 cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 cup milk 1 cup sugar 1 tablespoon cinnamon

Cream lard and sugar together. Beat in egg yolks, anise seed, anise, and vanilla extracts.

Sift flour, salt, and baking powder together. Mix into creamed mixture until flour is just absorbed. Add 1/4 cup milk and mix well. Dough should be soft, but firm enough to roll out. Add more milk if necessary to make dough smooth but not sticky.

On floured pastry cloth, roll dough to 5/8-inch thickness. Mix together sugar and cinnamon; sprinkle dough lightly with cinnamon and sugar mixture. Cut into shapes. The fleur-de-lis is traditional.

Bake in 350-degree F. oven 10 to 12 minutes.

Cookies should be light brown on the bottom and pale on top. Avoid overbaking. Yield: 5 dozen or more.

These shortbread-like cookies taste better if made a few days ahead of time. Pumpkin Empanaditas Dough 3 cups all-purpose flour 2 teaspoons baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 3/4 cup shortening 1 egg 1/4 cup water Filling 2 cups pumpkin puree 1/2 cup pinon nuts or walnuts, chopped 1/2 cup raisins, chopped 1 cup dark brown sugar 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon cloves 1 teaspoon ginger 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons butter, melted 1/2 cup fine, dry bread crumbs Milk and sugar for glaze

To make dough: Sift flour, baking powder, and salt together. Cut in shortening with pastry blender. Stir in egg and add water a tablespoon at a time , mixing after each addition.

Dough should be soft, but not sticky. Knead briefly, shape into 3 balls, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate.

To make filling, combine all ingredients except milk and sugar and mix well.

To assemble empanaditas: On a floured pastry cloth, roll out a ball of dough to 1/8-inch thickness.

Cut circles using a 2 1/2-inch round cookie cutter. Place a teaspoon of filling on each circle. Moisten edges with water, fold over, and press edges together firmly with fork to seal.

Brush pastries lightly with milk and sprinkle with a little sugar. Bake in 400-degree F. oven 15 to 20 minutes. Yield: 4 dozen. Posole 2 pounds pork shoulder, in 1-inch cubes 2 quarts water 1 tablespoon salt 5 garlic cloves, minced Large red chile pods, broken in thirds 1 teaspoon oregano 8 cups canned hominy, drained

Simmer pork in 2 quarts of water 2 hours. Combine remaining ingredients and simmer 45 minutes.

Some people prefer posole thick, without much liquid. Others like it with lots of broth as a soup.

It's served both ways in the Southwest. To make it thicker, let it simmer without a lid so liquid will evaporate.

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