A labor of love.
Ask any cook who knows their Mexican cuisine, and that’s what they will tell you about mole, one of Mexico’s most iconic and decadent contributions to the culinary world.
A far cry from the lackluster “chocolate sauce” one might find in Americanized Mexican food joints, authentic mole plays host to upwards of 30 ingredients, including chile peppers, nuts, spices, fruits, tortillas and sometimes chocolate, and can take 4 to 6 hours to make correctly.
“You really have to be passionate to create [mole], because it’s not easy,” Carlos Gaytan, chef of Michelin-starred restaurant Mexique, explained to me on a recent frosty morning in Chicago. “You have to find the balance over time of sweetness, spiciness, bitterness; all those elements you need for the mole to be a success.”
Thanks to the labor and precision required to make, the sauce is not an everyday accoutrement. Gaytan grew up in the state of Guerrero, where his mother would make mole Teloloapan for special occasions, like weddings, baptisms, birthdays, and holidays. For this reason, he says he doesn’t make mole very often, opting to save it for when he has time to prepare it with the right amount of attention and care.
While numerous stories exist, no one really knows where the first recipe originated, but since the early 1500s, mole variations have become widespread throughout the country. Some are named after color, like amarillo (yellow), verde (green), negro (black) and rojo (red), others after certain key ingredients, like pipian (pumpkin seed) and almendrado (almond). The state of Oaxaca alone boasts seven variations, including the “table-staining” Manchamantel. Gaytan says the mole Teloloapan served at Mexique lands somewhere between a mole rojo and mole negro, with a fine balance between sweetness, spiciness, and acidity.
With so many different versions existing across state lines, certain ingredients weave a thread of commonality between the variations. Chile peppers always set the tone, with some recipes boasting three to five different types to increase complexity. At Mexique, Gaytan starts with a selection of ancho, guajillo and mulato chiles. From there, he adds a mixture of spices (cinnamon, cumin, cloves), nuts (almonds, walnuts, pistachios), fruits (dates, plantains, coconut) and the key ingredient – bitter chocolate. Not every variety of mole employs chocolate. Those that do – like mole negro, mole poblano and mole xico – usually integrate mild, sweet chocolates. Gaytan says Chocolate Abuelita is the most popular brand, but he uses bitter chocolate at Mexique to achieve a darker flavor profile.
Because mole demands so many ingredients and so much time, patience and balance are both important. Having a great palate makes it easy to experiment, but if you’re not familiar with different kinds of Mexican spices and chiles, and how they might blend with dark, bitter chocolate versus milky sweet chocolate, for example, it’s wise to source a recipe. Gaytan also recommends paying close attention to cooking temperature. Some moles use roasted ingredients, while mole negro calls for charred ones. Some recipes call for toasting the tortillas, whereas others do not. Every decision changes the final product.
Once the ingredients are all mixed and ready to simmer, Gaytan says “If you use really low heat, it’s going to be very successful. You use high heat, it’s going to be a burned mole because the ingredients are so heavy and everything goes to the bottom of the pot.” At the restaurant, the sauce simmers for about two hours for expediency’s sake, but when he has time, he lets it sit for much longer to reach an ideal balance. “It needs 6 hours to cook and marry the flavors. You’re not going to just cook mole in an hour. It’s not going to have the same flavors.”
Gaytan’s Teloloapan mole is served with chocolate-chili braised pork cheeks, Brussels sprouts, pumpkin risotto and pickled butternut squash at Mexique, but the chef says when mole is done right, it can be enjoyed on its own, or simply with a tortilla to mop up the sauce. “Mole is something that should be served very simple. It’s a mistake that chefs do all the time, pairing mole with expensive meats like duck or venison. You’re just killing one or the other. Use chicken, turkey, pork. Those meats do not overpower the flavors of the mole. Let that mole that you just spent six or seven hours working on be the star of the dish,” he said.
6 ancho chiles
6 guajillo chiles
6 mulato chiles
1 cinnamon stick
2 ounces raisins
4 ounces young coconut
4 ounces walnuts
4 ounces almonds
4 ounces pistachios
1 ounces sesame seeds
2 whole cloves
1 teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon cumin
2 bay leaves
1 slice white bread
2 corn tortillas, toasted
10 garlic cloves
3 tomatoes, roasted
1 Spanish onion, roasted
4 green tomatillos
1 ripe plantain, roasted
10 ounces dark bitter chocolate
1 gallon chicken stock
Seed and stem chile peppers. Toast chiles in batches on hot skillet until color changes. Rehydrate chiles in warm water 15-20 minutes. Put a dash of oil in the skillet, then warm corn tortillas until surface begins to brown. Set aside.
Chop tomatoes, onion, tomatillos, and garlic and saute in pan with oil until simmering, then transfer to food processor. Add chicken stock, rehydrated chiles, bread, tortillas, plantain, spices, and sesame seeds. Blend until smooth. Return mix to pot on stove, and add chocolate. Simmer on low temperature for 2 hours.