Why New Mexico’s state cookie has stayed true over generations
New Mexico is one of only two states in the U.S. that has an official state cookie. Lawmakers so designated the biscochito in 1989, but the cookie was a tradition in New Mexican households long before that.
As I walk into Celina’s Biscochitos in Albuquerque, I am instantly greeted with the delicious smells of almond, cinnamon, and sugar.
The bakery started at the South Valley Economic Development Center and then moved to its current location in the North Valley in 2013 after demand for its cookies exploded.
I spoke with owner Celina Grife about how she has turned the state cookie into her livelihood after being a real estate agent during the 2008 housing crisis.
“I liked my clients, that was the best part of working with them in real estate, but this is more fulfilling as far as bringing back memories to people and their families as well is really special,” Grife said.
Celina’s sells up to 8,4000 cookies per day between the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in early October and Christmas.
The recipe that Celina uses at her bakery she learned from her grandmother, Maggy, when she was 21 and she hasn’t changed the basic ingredients like lard and brandy. But she does sometimes add things.
“We do a lot of twists on our products,” she said. So we do a red chile biscochito, we do a green chile pecan, we do lemon. We’ve been doing these that way for like the last ten years. We’re kind of known for kind of taking them in different directions. It’s very important to me that we keep the recipe there and that they still taste like a biscochito but you’re gonna get a subtle hint of something else.”
Krys Curry, the manager of Celina’s, had never had a biscochito until she started working at the bakery two years ago. But she has come to learn its significance to people and the culture of New Mexico.
“To me it means tradition, because that’s the biggest feedback that I get from any people we talk to,” she said. “People have teared up and they're just like ‘This is the closest it tastes to my grandmother’s’ or things like that. You know, these are recipes from previous generations. It’s just – it is New Mexico.”
Biscochitos have been passed down over generations. Families all around New Mexico bake these cookies in their home for special occasions year round, especially for Christmas, but their origin began when the state was still part of Mexico.
Jane Butel is a food historian who teaches cooking classes here in New Mexico. She pins the cookie’s creation to the defeat of an invader.
“The biscochito was initially developed as a present for their men and husbands that defeated the french army on a warm Spring afternoon in May of 1863” said Butel.
That day is now known as Cinco de Mayo and while this is where our state cookie was born, it was only the beginning. Many, like Celina, use the traditional recipe that makes the cookies melt in your mouth. Butel warns that New Mexicans who experiment outside of that tradition may run into trouble.
“Most of the people around here make it as a sugar cookie and that's why they’re really tough,” Butel said. “But they should be made with lard, because lard is the shortest of all shortenings. It has the greatest ability to cut the protein or gluten strands in flour.”
My abuelita, Socorro Casas, uses the traditional recipe with lard to keep her cookies soft and sweet. But she said her secret isn’t just lard. I spoke with her and my Tia, Araceli Casas, as Socorro was baking and asked her about what makes her biscochitos perfect.
“Because she makes them with a lot of love and she’s careful and makes sure that everything is clean,” Araceli translated for Socorro, who speaks primarily Spanish. “It’s just perfect, she said. Her recipe’s just perfect.”
Araceli laughed. “And she’s saying you can have a taste if you’d like.”
I grew up eating these biscochitos and can taste the love that goes into them. I believe the same could be said about baking in households across New Mexico. The tradition of baking biscochitos is one way families live on from generation to generation.
Life can speed by and it can be easy to forget where you come from. Holding on to traditions filled with love and culture can help. My Tia feels the tradition deeply.
“She just puts so much love into her cooking. You can feel it, you can taste it!” said Araceli. “We definitely want to get that from her because we do want to keep passing it on,”
Whether you bake your biscochitos with lard, butter, or a vegan substitute, the most common ingredient is love, —- and that travels through generations.