This Mole Sauce Makes Any Occasion Special
Make chocolate-tinged Mexican mole for Cinco de Mayo or any other day you declare a fiesta.
By Robert P. Walzer in the Wall Street Journal
A FEW MONTHS ago, my wife’s family and I crowded into a kitchen in the Pantitlán zone of Mexico City to help prepare for my mother-in-law’s 86th birthday party. As her canary, Güero (Blondie), chirped excitedly along, the apartment filled up with huge pots full of colorful Mexican dishes and sauces—from tacos to guacamole to refried beans—plus roughly 10 pounds of fresh, warm tortillas. The centerpiece: mole poblano.
Though this rich, chocolate-tinged chili sauce hails from the city of Puebla, the guest of honor, Esperanza Garcia (known to everyone in our family as Doña Esperanza), learned to make it in her hometown of Pachuca, in the central Mexican state of Hidalgo, when she was 14. She has served it, typically with an accompaniment of chicken or turkey, for weddings, birthdays, saints’ days and baptisms ever since.
Across Mexico, mole has become a mass-produced commercial product. Yet Doña Esperanza still makes it in her old-fashioned and labor-intensive way, and for the 20 years that I’ve known her I’ve been content to devour it without really knowing how it’s prepared. On this last visit, my wife, Anabel, and I finally studied and documented the process, determined to reproduce it in our own kitchen.
Doña Esperanza’s version is a complex mélange of about 24 ingredients, anchored by four types of chili—chipotle, ancho, mulato and pasilla—as well as plantains, various nuts and seeds, and the defining touch of bitter chocolate. Partly because my mother-in-law makes enormous volumes of mole—which she gifts to her eight children and 45 grandchildren and great-grandchildren—the process takes her two days, starting with a trip to a street market and including a visit to the molinero, or chili grinder. The result is a moist paste that can be stored in the refrigerator for weeks.
On the day of the party, that paste was mixed into a broth made from chicken and then poured over the cooked poultry. Things turned raucous when seven mariachi musicians arrived, cramming in alongside dozens of relatives and friends, with the kids breaking from a fierce game of soccer outside to join us.
As the mariachis played “Amor Eterno,” the tequila-drinking partygoers belted out the lyrics in unison, perhaps slightly out of key, arguing and laughing over which song to request next. “Quien paga manda” (“He who pays orders”), yelled Anabel—my first hint that we would be the ones footing the band’s bill. So we requested another classic, “Si Nos Dejan” (“If They Leave Us Alone”), and we stood by the mariachis to sing. The sole gringo present, I struggled to recall the words. But the knowledge that a beautiful plate of chicken with mole awaited at the end of the song was consolation enough.
The version we cooked up once we returned to New York contained the same ingredients as Doña Esperanza’s, though we did opt for vegetable oil in place of the manteca (pork fat). To grind the ingredients into that intensely flavorful paste, we also used a food processor since our neighborhood is short on molineros. Though it took only an hour-and-a-half and not two full days to prepare, our chicken with mole seemed to us like cause for celebration in itself.
Chicken With Mole Sauce
Total Time: 1½ hours Serves: 6
When preparing the dried chilies for this recipe, you can leave some of the seeds in to make a hotter sauce.
- 3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
- ½ small onion, halved
- 3 large garlic cloves
- 3 cups water
- 1 corn tortilla
- 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds
- ¼ cup peanuts
- 1 teaspoon chopped walnuts
- 1 tablespoon sliced almonds
- ¼ cup raisins
- 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, plus more for garnish (optional)
- 1 (3-inch) piece baguette
- ½ ripe plantain with skin, stem removed
- 3 dried pasilla chilies, seeded
- 3 dried mulato chilies, seeded
- 2 dried ancho chilies, seeded
- 2 dried chipotle chilies, seeded
- ¼ teaspoon peppercorns
- 3 whole cloves
- ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 small cinnamon stick
- ½ star anise
- ¼ cup roughly chopped Mexican chocolate, such as Ibarra
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- Salt to taste
1. Place chicken, half of onions, 1 garlic clove and 3 cups water in a large pot over medium-high heat. Boil until chicken is cooked through, about 25 minutes. Reserve cooking liquid.
2. Make mole sauce: Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Once hot, fry tortilla until crisp, about 2 minutes. Remove tortilla and set aside. In same pan, sauté remaining onions and garlic until onion is translucent, 3 minutes. Remove onion and garlic and set aside.
3. In same pan over medium-high heat, toast pumpkin seeds until fragrant, about 1 minute. Set aside. Repeat with peanuts, walnuts, almonds and raisins, toasting each separately, and set aside. Wipe any remaining oil from pan and then return to heat. Toast sesame seeds until just browned, 1 minute, and set aside. Toast bread, turning, until browned on all sides, 5 minutes, and set aside. Cook plantain until browned on outside and soft inside, about 10 minutes, and set aside. Toast chilies until browned but not burned, 3 minutes, and let cool.
4. Once toasted ingredients have cooled, place them along with remaining ingredients in a food processor and pulse to a thick paste.
5. Transfer paste to a medium pot over low heat. Pour in 1½-2 cups reserved chicken cooking liquid and cook, stirring, to form a thick sauce, about 3 minutes.
6. Transfer chicken to a casserole dish and top with mole sauce, turning chicken to coat with sauce. Garnish with sesame seeds, if using. Serve with Mexican red rice.
Mexican Red Rice
Total Time: 20 minutes Serves: 6
- 2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
- 2 tablespoons chopped onion
- 3 cups long-grain rice, rinsed and drained
- 1 (16-oz) can tomato sauce
- 2½ cups water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup frozen or fresh peas
1. Heat oil in a lidded sauce pan over medium-high heat. Sauté onions until translucent, 5 minutes.
2. Add rice to pan, stirring to coat, and sauté 1 minute more.
3. Add tomato sauce, water, salt and peas to pan and bring to a boil. Decrease heat to low, cover and simmer until rice is tender, about 15 minutes.