I grew up eating mole (pronounced mō-leh). It was part of Mom’s rotation of more special recipes that made an appearance every couple of months. She used a jar of premade mole paste from our local grocer and combined it with homemade chicken stock, peanut butter and sometimes a small triangle of Ibarra (Mexican drinking chocolate). She’d then cook the chicken in the mole until it was fall-off-the-bone tender.

My maternal grandmother would make her mole from scratch several times a year. Her mole featured sesame seeds, and she thickened it with masa harina (nixtamalized corn flour) or fresh tamale masa if she was making it for tamales. She used a combination of dried chiles that changed according to what she had on hand but relied most on guajillo (the dried version of a marisol pepper), California (the dried version of an Anaheim, sometimes also referred to as chile colorado), ancho (a poblano pepper that has just started to turn red before being picked and dried), New Mexico (hatch pepper left on the plant to ripen to red before drying), negro (sometimes labeled as a pasilla negro, it’s the dried version of a chilaca pepper) and mulato (a poblano pepper left on the plant to fully ripen and turn red before drying).With five to six different chiles, each with a unique flavor profile, sesame seeds, coriander seeds and the seeds from the chiles, Grandma’s mole was complex, slightly spicy and thick with a hint of smokiness.

I’ve been exploring the world of moles since I was in my 20s. I found similarities between all the mole varieties I’ve come across. Oaxaca claims seven distinct types, but the number is most likely much higher. That’s because seasonally available ingredients differ from state to state and even from community to community. When I started collecting reference material all those years ago, I discovered that most Mexican home cooks consider mole-making to be more like a set of guidelines and cooking techniques that can be expanded upon by the individual cook. So the actual number of moles across Mexico is impossible to pin down.

Isn’t mole just a chocolate sauce with chile?

In a word, no. Contrary to what most Americans think, most moles don’t contain any chocolate, and those that do usually only use a small amount of bitter chocolate.

Mole negro and mole poblano are probably the moles that most people associate with the word “mole.” Both contain a bit of chocolate. However, chocolate is only one ingredient of up to more than 30 in the typical recipe. When I make either of these two, I use chocolate containing 80 percent to 90 percent cacao. For this batch, I used a bar of organic dark chocolate with 88 percent cacao.

So what’s the difference between a salsa and a mole?

Salsa means sauce, so technically, since mole is a sauce, it can be called a salsa. The distinction comes from the ingredients. Typical table salsas contain tomatoes, fresh — and often dried — chiles, onions and a fresh herb like cilantro, and sometimes dried herbs like oregano.

For the most part, moles are chile-based (usually dried but in the case of mole verde, fresh) with tomatoes and/or tomatillos; onion, garlic and sometimes ginger; nuts and seeds; fresh or dried herbs like hojas santas (translates to “sacred leaves,” sometimes referred to in English as Mexican pepperleaf or root beer plant), epazote, Mexican oregano, thyme or marjoram; spices like cumin, allspice, peppercorns, cloves and canela (Mexican cinnamon); bread, crackers or day-old tortillas; fruit, both dried like prunes or raisins or fresh like plantains. Some have added sweetness from piloncillo (cone-shaped dried pure cane sugar juice with a brown sugar/molasses flavor), and some add bitter chocolate. Each component prepared separately employs various cooking techniques (charring, boiling, roasting, frying) for maximum flavor before being combined at the end into a harmonious sauce.

How do you serve mole once you have the paste made?

Typically, you’re going to want to dilute the mole paste in equal portions with stock, producing a gravylike consistency. But there might be times you want it thinner (to use in place of enchilada sauce) or thicker (if using it as stuffing in tamales).

My favorite way to serve mole is over chicken. Place four leg quarters into a large soup pot. Cover with water by 1 inch. Add half an onion, 2 fat cloves of garlic, 2 bay leaves and a tablespoon of kosher or coarse sea salt. Bring to a boil, then immediately lower to a gentle simmer. Cook for 30 minutes or until cooked through and the internal temp reads 175 degrees in the thickest part of a thigh.

Remove 1 ½ cups of the chicken broth to a medium saucepan. Add 1 cup of the mole paste and stir until well combined. Heat the mole for 15 minutes. To serve, mound some white rice on a plate, add a leg quarter and smother it with a ⅓ to ½ cup of mole (the point of anything with mole is the mole, with the protein just being the vehicle — so be generous with the sauce). Serve with a squeeze of lime and garnish with sesame seeds and chopped cilantro, if you like. Plenty of corn tortillas to sop up the sauce doesn’t hurt, either.

Other ways to enjoy your mole paste

  • In a small saucepan, dilute mole paste with an equal amount of chicken broth, or to taste, and heat until piping hot, careful not to scorch. Set aside. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in an 8-inch skillet. Once shimmering, add a corn tortilla to the hot oil, cooking on each side for about 1 minute. Remove to a paper-lined plate. In the same skillet, crack an egg into it and fry over-easy or sunny-side up. Place the tortilla on a clean plate. Top with the egg and smother with mole. Garnish with queso fresco and chopped white onion.
  • Dilute 1 part mole paste to 1 ½ parts stock and use in place of enchilada sauce in your favorite enchilada recipe.
  • Put together your favorite taco bowl. Drizzle with stock-diluted mole paste.
  • Stir fry mushrooms and sliced onions. Stir in a couple of tablespoons of the mole paste and add broth or water to taste to create a thick sauce. Use as a stuffing for tacos or a burrito.

Mole negro paste does take a little bit of a time commitment, and I know this recipe has a ton of ingredients, which can seem a little overwhelming. Please! Don’t let this deter you! Over the last year, you’ve probably already mastered making sourdough bread from scratch; why not tackle another bucket list recipe?

Now’s as good a time as any to spend a day working on a recipe that will pay you back in multiple meals. Mole paste is such a versatile base that you can portion out to use now, keep some in the fridge to use for enchiladas or to smother fried eggs in, and still have plenty to freeze for later use. It’s batch cooking at its best! Plus, tamales stuffed with shredded chicken in mole negro are also an unexpected alternative to traditional Easter ham.

The just-blended ingredients on the left and the darker, thicker mole on the right after simmering for two hours.

The longer the mole paste simmers, the darker and more complex it becomes. On the left, the just-blended ingredients resemble freshly ground peanut butter, while the right shows the same mole has become darker and thicker after simmering for two hours.

(Anita L.Arambula / Confessions of a Foodie)

Mole Negro

My version of mole negro uses 29 ingredients. If you want to use fewer, take away from the nuts first. I use four different ones for complexity, but you could get away using all peanuts or half peanuts and half almonds (or pecans). Next, negro and ancho are essential chiles here, so you could drop the mulato and morita (a less smoky version of a chipotle pepper), using 12 negro and eight anchos instead. Besides a hint of sweetness, the plantain adds starch that helps thicken the mole, but you could leave it out. All of the dried chiles are available locally at Northgate Market, Specialty Produce and MexGrocer.com (a local online company specializing in Mexican food and kitchen tools). Plantains are also available at Northgate Market and Specialty Produce and some major supermarkets like Walmart. Make this vegan by using a good quality vegetable stock instead of chicken. When ready to use, dilute with an equal amount of preferred stock. This recipe makes a paste that can be divided for use now and plenty left over to freeze or share with friends.

Makes about 2 quarts of paste

8 mulato chiles (about 2 ounces)
8 chiles negro (about 2 ounces)
4 ancho chiles (about 4 ounces)
1 morita chile (can substitute with chipotle)
Water
3 Roma tomatoes
3 small to medium tomatillos, husks removed and well rinsed
½ large onion, peeled
3 fat cloves garlic, leave skins on
1 ½ teaspoons whole dried thyme
1 teaspoon whole Mexican oregano
3 whole cloves
3 whole allspice berries
¼ teaspoon cumin seeds
¼ teaspoon coriander seeds
3 tablespoons reserved chile seeds
2-inch piece of canela (Mexican cinnamon; can substitute with one regular cinnamon stick)
½ cup sesame seeds
⅓ cup safflower or other neutral oil
⅓ cup raw peanuts
¼ cup whole raw almonds
¼ cup whole raw walnuts
¼ cup whole raw pecans
3 tablespoons black raisins
1 plantain (yellow, green or platano macho), peeled and sliced into ½-inch coins
1 bolillo or sandwich-size roll, sliced
4-6 cups chicken stock, or as needed
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (at least 72 percent cacao, but a higher percentage is better), chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
1 tablespoon packed brown sugar

Prep the chiles: Cut the tops off the chiles, then slit open one side to remove the veins and seeds. Discard the veins and the tops but reserve the seeds. Quickly rinse the chiles’ exterior under cold running water to remove dust and place them in a colander, shaking off excess water first. Fill a medium saucepan ¾ of the way with water and bring to a boil. Heat a griddle or large skillet over medium heat. Once hot and working in batches, toast the chiles for about 30 seconds on each side. When the chiles have blistered and blackened in spots (see endnote), transfer them to the pot of boiling water. Repeat the toasting until all the chiles are in the pot of boiling water. Cover the pot and turn off the heat. Allow the chiles to steep while you proceed.

Prep the aromatics: Place the tomatoes, tomatillos, onion and garlic on the hot griddle. Cook, turning and charring on all sides. The onions and garlic will blacken first; transfer them to a large mixing bowl, peeling the garlic before tossing it into the bowl. When the tomatoes and tomatillos are evenly charred and softened, quarter them before adding them to the ingredient bowl.

Toast the spices: Add the thyme, oregano, cloves, allspice, cumin, coriander, 3 tablespoons of the reserved chile seeds and the canela to the hot griddle, toasting for about 30 seconds or until fragrant, stirring continuously. Transfer to the ingredient bowl. Place the sesame seeds on the griddle and, working quickly, stir them until they start to change color, about 30 to 45 seconds. (They will pop and jump, but keeping them close together will help lower loss, or cover with a large skillet lid to contain them.) Transfer them to the ingredient bowl.

Fry the nuts, fruit and bread: Heat oil in an 8- or 10-inch heavy-bottomed skillet, such as cast iron. Once shimmering, add the peanuts. Cook, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes or until golden brown; transfer to the ingredient bowl. Repeat with the remaining nuts, frying each type of nut separately. Fry the raisins until plump, about 2 minutes; transfer to ingredient bowl. Fry the sliced plantain until golden, about 3 to 4 minutes per side; transfer to ingredient bowl. Fry the bread until golden, about 3-4 minutes per side; transfer to ingredient bowl.

Blend the ingredients: Drain the now hydrated chiles. Rough chop and add to the ingredient bowl. Give the bowl a good stir to mix the ingredients well. Working in batches, add the mixture to a blender, pour in ½ cup of stock and blend until smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides. If necessary, add up to ¼ cup more stock to keep everything moving while blending (use the minimum amount of liquid to keep the ingredients and blades moving). Transfer the blended mixture to a bowl or pitcher and repeat until all the ingredients are blended.

Cook the mole: Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a 5-quart Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot. Have the lid handy. Add the mole to the hot oil, being careful as it will splutter furiously. Quickly cover with the lid to minimize the mess. After 1 minute, lift the lid and stir in 1 ½ cups of chicken stock. Lower the heat to medium-low. Cook, continuously stirring for the first two minutes. Then, give a thorough stir once every minute for the next 15 minutes to ensure even contact with the pot’s hot surface. If possible, use a wooden or stiff rubber spatula to push the mole from side to side, scraping the pot’s bottom to keep it from sticking. After the first 15 minutes, add the chocolate, salt and sugar. Stir continuously until the chocolate has melted completely. At this time, start the cook time countdown — the minimal cooking time is 1 hour. Continue stirring well, scraping the entire bottom of the pot every 5 minutes for the remaining cook time. The mole will continue to thicken as more moisture evaporates and should darken by at least two shades. The longer you cook, the darker and thicker the mole will get. Some mole makers cook their paste for up to 8 hours. I usually stop after 2 hours.

Once the mole has cooled completely, portion it out into your preferred storage containers. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to a month and in the freezer virtually indefinitely.

To use the paste: Dilute with equal amounts of stock, or as needed according to usage.

Note: I don’t blacken the ingredients as much as some recipes call for because I don’t like to add a lot of sugar at the end to balance out the bitterness from burning the chiles and spices. Instead, I rely on the mole developing flavor by a long, slow simmer. The longer it cooks, the darker and richer the final mole.

Recipe is copyrighted by Anita L. Arambula and is reprinted by permission from Confessions of a Foodie.

Arambula is the food section art director and designer. She blogs at confessionsofafoodie.me, where the original version of this article published. Follow her on Instagram: @afotogirl. She can be reached at [email protected]

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