Holy mole, sauce of the gods. The word comes from the Aztec mulli, meaning "sauce," and legend has it that the chocolate nectar came down from the temples through some nuns in Puebla who are credited with the current-day mole poblano version. The combination of candy and chiles creates a divine concoction that is often the crowning accomplishment of a traditional Mexican dinner. But that taste usually comes from paste.
Even in Mexico, says award-winning writer Carolynn Carreño in a recent Saveur article on her stepgrandmother's traditional cooking, the mole is from paste. "Because good quality pastes are easily found in markets," she writes, "and because, with up to 25 ingredients, they are very labor intensive, even women like Josefina -- for whom 'from scratch' is a way of life -- choose to start with a paste and doctor it to make it their own."
Sylvia Casares-Copeland of Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen in Houston seconds that sentiment. She says she used to make mole from scratch, but it was too time-consuming and her kitchen and staff were too small for the process. With 14 different sauces served at the restaurant, including a 12-hour chili gravy that's her biggest seller, something had to go. "I wanted to keep the enchiladas poblano on the menu, so we switched to paste. You just dazzle it with your little secrets."
While there are several brands of paste available at Fiesta supermarkets, including La Costeña and Rogelio Bueno, Casares-Copeland uses 50-year-old favorite Doña Maria. According to company lore, there really was a Doña Maria who made her mole at home and sold it door-to-door in her small Mexican village. Soon restaurants were buying her sauce, and the next thing you know she sold out to a company that today has 5,000 employees and produces 42 Mexican food products, which are distributed in the United States by Hormel, the folks who gave us Spam. Doña Maria sells four styles of mole paste: original (poblano style with chocolate), pipian (with pumpkin and sesame seeds), verde (with tomatillo and pumpkin seeds) and adobo (with chile and peanuts).
"I use the original," says Casares-Copeland. "It's really excellent, and it's in a jar, so there's no metal taste." The directions on the bottle call for thinning the sauce with water -- or more commonly, chicken broth -- and adding sugar and salt to taste. But recipes that use Doña Maria can call for such varied add-ins as cider vinegar, garlic and brown sugar. Casares-Copeland adds six different ingredients; the only one of which she'll divulge is more Mexican chocolate. It's no wonder that it's hard to tell which restaurants use the little glass bottle and which don't.
Tila Hidalgo, owner and chef of Tila's Restaurante and Bar, doesn't believe in the Doña Maria product. But, she says, "I won't lie to you. I do start with paste. I get fresh paste from a Mexican supplier and then add about 20 ingredients, including tomatoes and bread." Hidalgo's mole is less sweet than that found in many eateries around town, as she doesn't add extra chocolate to the paste.
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Of course, some restaurants are still making mole from scratch. And nowhere is the sauce taken more seriously and more ceremoniously than at Hugo's, where they make not just the mole but also the chocolate that goes into it.
"We get cocoa from Mexico and make our own chocolate," says owner and chef Hugo Ortega. "We pour it into little molds and it goes into our mole, our hot chocolate and ice cream." This is manna mole, made from Ortega's grandmother's recipe with handmade chocolate, cinnamon, oregano, three types of peppers, plantains, thyme and time.
"It takes two days to make the sauce," Ortega says reverently. "You don't want to rush it. In Mexico it is a celebratory dish we make every time someone gets married. Then it would take a week because people would come to the bride's house and each bring a different ingredient. By Sunday the cooking would be done for the wedding feast."
Ortega tells the story of one customer from Mexico who asked to taste the mole before he would make a reservation at the restaurant. "We got him a little bit to try, and he said, 'Okay, I'll eat here.' "