On the one hand, I really like cookies, like the way they look, like the way the taste, like their size and variety. On the other hand, I am on the far side of 50, have a sedentary day job and would like to survive to enjoy 25 years or more of active retirement, so I am beginning to finally take food seriously. This Chrismukah season, I am trying not to overdo the fatty baked goods. In thinking about delectable cookie like objects that won’t harden my arteries, I remembered that I went to a party this summer where someone brought a commercially produced Mexican dessert I had never eaten before; Alegria. It was kind of like a Mayan popcorn ball or a sweetened brown rice cake, but denser and more seedy in texture and taste. I have always found rice cakes to be akin to eating styrofoam, so I was interested in this tastier version. I decided it could have a modest place on our Chrismukah table, right next to the egg nog, potato pancakes and butter cookies. Hopefully, I will actually eat it instead of them, kind of like a handful of almonds before dinner, or a quick spin around the block to keep myself from drinking a second glass of wine.
Alegria means “joy.” It is made from amaranth, a high-protein, gluten-free pseudograin (that is, the plant is not a grass but a dicot, for those who care about such things). Finding amaranth may be a challenge, depending on where you live. After looking for it in four different stores, I found it at the Honest Weight Food Coop, so I would suggest starting at a large health food store.
In order to make alegria, you have to pop the amaranth, which is where I think the joy comes in. It jumps in the pan like fleas in a circus, making a tiny pinging sound.
Alegria is normally made with piloncillo, which is a specially processed form of brown cane sugar that is not available locally, but that I remember from the markets in Oaxaca. Recipes I looked up on the web substituted honey or brown sugar or maple syrup. Since I have lots of home-made maple syrup, I used it to make my first batch. I made a second batch with some nearly-crystalized honey that was in my cabinet. The alegria stuck together better with maple syrup than with honey.
I tried cutting the second batch into rounds with a cookie cutter, so that it would look more like the alegria I ate at the party. My advice about the cookie cutter: don’t. The mixture tends to crumble. You would best be served by slightly compressing it, not cutting it into fragile circles.
The final consensus: maple syrup alegria is pretty good in a counter culture kind of way. The honey-based alegria was not nearly as good. I haven’t had a chance to try it on any children yet, but if you have kids who like carrots and home made yogurt, this may work.
So here is a simple recipe for Alegria:
1/2 cup amaranth
1/2 cup maple syrup (or 4 tablespoons honey heated up with a few drops of lemon or lime juice)
optional – 1/4 cup toasted seeds like pepitos, sunflower, black sesame, or small dried fruit pieces like cranberries or raisins
To pop the amaranth, heat a wok over high heat. When it is very hot, add a tablespoon of amaranth and stir lightly to keep it from burning. The amaranth should start popping after a few seconds. It takes about 30 seconds to pop the entire tablespoon full. When the popping subsides, put the amaranth in a bowl and pop the next tablespoon. Only pop one tablespoon of amaranth at a time; if you use more than one tablespoon, some of it burns or doesn’t get hot enough to pop. When all the amaranth is popped, mix in the toasted pepitas or other seeds.
In the meantime, bring the maple syrup to a full boil in a small pot. Boil for 7 minutes, to concentrate the syrup and make it stickier. When the syrup is ready, add it to the popped amaranth and mix well.
On a cutting board covered with non-stick aluminum foil or parchment paper, make a mound of the amaranth mixture. Using a rolling pin, gently shape it into a square or rectangle about the thickness of a granola bar. Let it sit for a few minutes then cut it with a sharp knife, dipped in cold water to keep it from sticking. Cut into cookie sized squares.