This is a two-butt kitchen!” So my grandmother Elsie would say, shooing away the young’uns perpetually underfoot at mealtime. Her words came to mind more than a few times as I embarked, in my equally compact kitchen, on the preparation of mole poblano, a sauce notorious for its many steps and list of ingredients as long as your arm. This paragon of Mexican cuisine is as beloved as the possibly apocryphal story that depicts its creation: nuns from a convent in Puebla, scrambling to come up with an appropriately dignified meal for a visiting bishop, slaughtered their geriatric turkey and made an accompanying sauce out of, it would seem, the entire contents of their pantry.
Turns out I didn’t need a big kitchen (though that would have been nice), only a healthy chunk of time and this detailed recipe from Maricel E. Presilla’s masterful Gran Cocina Latina. And I found the whole operation—part science experiment, part art project—to be almost meditative. It’s immensely satisfying to watch a spoonful of cloves and a handful of raisins here, a blackened onion and a scrap of dry tortilla there coalesce into a glossy, mahogany-colored sauce of darn near miraculous complexity. Mole is truly exquisite, and maybe just what you’re looking for if you happen to have a feast to serve and a turkey on your hands.
The Dried Chiles
5 ounces pasilla chiles
5 ounces ancho chiles
4 ounces mulato chiles
1 chipotle chile
1 one-inch Ceylon cinnamon stick (canela)
1/4 teaspoon whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon anise seeds
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
The Nuts and Seeds
1/3 cup whole almonds (about 1 1/2 ounces)
2 1/2 tablespoons sesame seeds (about 1/4 ounce)
The Bread Thickeners
1 slice from a baguette or 1 slice of sandwich bread (about 1/4 ounce) half a store-bought corn tortilla
The Seasoning Vegetables
2 medium plum tomatoes (about 6 ounces)
1 small white onion (about 5 ounces), unpeeled
6 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1/2 cup dark raisins
2 cups freshly rendered lard or fruity extra-virgin olive oil
3ounces grated brown loaf sugar, muscovado sugar, or packed dark-brown sugar (about 1/2 cup)
3 1/2 ounces chocolate, preferably a dark premium chocolate with at least 50 percent cacao content, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon salt, or to taste
Preparing the Dried Chiles: Stem and seed the chiles, reserving two tablespoons of the seeds (except those of the chipotle). Heat a comal or griddle over medium heat until a drop of water evaporates on contact. Working in 4 or 5 batches, add the chiles and roast, pressing with a spatula, until fragrant, less than 1 minute on each side. As they are done, place them in a large bowl. (Leave the griddle on the burner over low heat.) Cover the chiles with 5 cups hot water and let sit until softened, 20 to 30 minutes. Drain, reserving the soaking liquid.
Place the reserved chile seeds on the griddle and roast, stirring occasionally, until very dark. Set aside.
Working in batches, place the chiles in a blender or food processor with 1 cup (or as needed) of the reserved liquid and process to a smooth purée. Pour into a bowl and set aside.
Preparing the Spices: Place the cinnamon, cloves, anise seeds, peppercorns, and coriander and cumin seeds on the griddle and roast, stirring, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Remove at once. Grind to a fine powder in a spice or coffee grinder and set aside.
Preparing the Nuts and Seeds: Place the almonds on the griddle and roast, stirring, until golden, about 2 minutes. Do not scorch. Set aside. Add the sesame seeds to the griddle and roast, stirring constantly, until they start to pop, about 1 minute. Remove at once. Place the nuts and seeds in a small food processor or spice grinder, add the reserved roasted chile seeds, and process to a coarse powder. Set aside.
Preparing the Bread Thickeners: Place the bread slice and tortilla half on the griddle and toast until the bread is golden on both sides and the tortilla is brittle, about 2 minutes. Set aside.
Preparing the Seasoning Vegetables: Working in batches, place the tomatoes, onion, and garlic on the griddle and roast, turning occasionally, until the tomatoes and onion are blackened and the garlic is dark and soft to the touch, about 7 minutes. Remove from the griddle. When the vegetables are cool enough to handle, peel the onion and garlic, remove the most charred bits of the tomato skins, and set aside.
Preparing the Fruit: Place the raisins in a small bowl and cover with 1/2 cup of the reserved chile liquid. Set aside.
Grinding the Prepared Ingredients: Place the tomatoes, onion, and garlic in a food processor or blender with the ground spices, the nuts and seeds, the bread and tortilla, and the raisins and their chile liquid (the liquid helps the action of the blades). Process to a fine paste. Scoop out into a bowl.
Frying the Mole: Now you are ready to assemble the mole. Heat the lard or olive oil over medium heat until fragrant and pour in the chile purée. It will splatter vigorously, so be careful. Simmer, stirring frequently, for 20 minutes or until the fat begins to separate from the solids and sizzle. Stir in the vegetable purée and cook, stirring to mix well, for about 25 minutes, until the fat again begins to separate from the solids and sizzle and the sauce thickens to the point where you see the bottom of the pot as you move the spoon. Add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Add the chocolate and cook, stirring, until it is melted, about 2 minutes. Taste for sweetness and add more sugar if needed. Season with salt. Force the purée through a fine-mesh sieve or chinois into a bowl, using a pestle or a wooden spoon.
If you are planning to use this paste at once, dilute it by stirring in an equal amount of good chicken or turkey broth until the mole is as heavy as tomato sauce. It isn’t absolutely necessary, but the consistency will be much silkier if you again force the thinned mixture through a fine-mesh sieve.
Pour over roasted turkey or chicken and top with toasted sesame seeds, or dredge some shredded turkey in the mole, roll into enchiladas, and top with more mole and toasted sesame seeds.
If not using immediately, cool the mole paste to room temperature, transfer to several storage containers, and pour a thin film of melted lard or oil over the surface to help keep it from spoiling. Seal tightly and store in a cool place or the refrigerator for no longer than 1 month. When ready to use, dilute the paste with broth to achieve desired consistency.
Adapted from Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America, by Maricel E. Presilla. Copyright © 2012 by Maricel E. Presilla. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company Inc.