Traditions: Christmas Sweets

MANTECADOS AND POLVORONES

One of the most enjoyable parts of being in a new country at the holidays in taking in some of their traditions and where better to start than with the sweets! At Christmas time, there are lots of great treats to be found, but the most typical in my experience are the mantecados and polvorones.

 
         There are so many varieties to choose from-- you're gonna want to try them all!

        There are so many varieties to choose from-- you're gonna want to try them all!

 

HISTORY

These sweets are made in Andalucía, though now distributed throughout the country. The orignal recipe was brought to Spain by the Moors and they’re actually quite simple. The main ingredients are pork fat, flour and sugar. The use of pork fat was required during the Inquisitions as the leaders of the Inquisition wanted to use it as a means of uncovering any secret Muslims or Jews. Nowadays, other alternatives—especially olive oil—are available as well. Still, you can’t get away from the fact that their name comes from manteca, or lard.

WELL, WHAT ARE THEY?

Despite sounding gross from my last paragraph of explanation, I promise you these are really tasty treats and unlike anything you have had before! They also come in an assortment of flavors, including but not limited to almond, coconut, cinnamon, lemon, and chocolate. Although Wikipedia’s English version chooses to classify mantecados and polvorones as shortbread, I don’t believe this translation does the Spanish sweet justice.

The solid texture of these ‘cookies’ is utterly fragile, crumbling into a dusty mess at the wrong touch of a finger (makes sense, as polvo translates to dust)*. Handled delicately, however, they maintain intact and have a sweet, almost heavy taste. It’s strange and hard to explain…you simply have to try them yourself.

So what’s the difference?

This question has been haunting me since I discovered these Christmas sweets (which are more and more available year-round). I recently had a chat with the saleswomen who works at my local Delicias de Navidad** and she surprised me by confirming my suspicions that they’re basically the same, just different shapes. In digging a bit more on the internet, I’ve discovered a few more details.

It basically comes down to a rectangle-and-square situation. You remember those geometry days, right? How all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares? Well mantecados are rectangles and polvorones are squares. Basically, you would be correct in simply grouping them altogether as mantecados because they share that same recipe. However, once almonds are added to the mix—either literally in the dough or crumpled on top—and the flour is toasted, the mantecados are also considered polvorones. Traditionally, polvorones are covered in a powdered sugar layer as well. If none of that really matters to you, the difference that you’ll see on the shelves is that mantecados are round in shape whereas polvorones tend to be oblong ovals.

So there you have it, a quick guide to mantecados and polvorones. You’ll now know way more than I did when I started enjoying these ‘Christmas delicacies.’ So what do you think, will you give them a taste test? What about sending some home to mom and dad? Let us know about your experiences!

Sincerely,
Spain

*I recently discovered that some people like to avoid this hazard by squishing down their mantecado while it's still in the packaging. This way, the dusty consistency becomes more compact. I haven't tried it personally, but sure seems like it'd be effective.

**This is a shop that pops up here in Granada for just two months a year to supply the high demand for these treats at Christmas time.