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Inside the Santa Clara Nunnery That Makes the Best Mexican Cookies

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Behold, the tortitas de Santa Clara.
Behold, the tortitas de Santa Clara. Photo by Julia Gartland

An easy two-hour drive from Mexico City, Puebla has all the charms of a quintessential colonial getaway: crayola-colored buildings, a lively main square, and amazing food traditions. (It’s the birthplace of mole poblano, after all.) But my love affair with the city officially began after discovering Calle de los Dulces. As the name suggests, it’s a street lined with sweet shops, all of which sell traditional treats—catnip for a dessert lover like me.

On my first visit last December, I sampled my way through camote, or candied sweet potato, and bars of milk and sugar that reminded me of dulce de leche in fudge form before landing on “the one”: the tortita de Santa Clara. This seemingly simple, shortbread-like cookie is crumbly and not too sweet—an ideal base for the thin layer of a somewhat grainy glaze made of pepitas, or pumpkin seeds, and sugar that sits on top. One bite was enough to inspire a return trip to learn their history and to see how they’re made.

As the legend goes, the tortita de Santa Clara was invented at the Santa Clara convent, which was founded in 1607 during the era of the Spanish conquest. It’s said that a nun was rushing to create a new dessert and her experimentation led to combining a cookie—which included ingredients brought over from Europe like sugar—with the convent’s own pepita-based candy.

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“It was a time when cooks were mixing recipes brought over from Spain with Mexican ingredients. And selling sweets like these was a way for nuns to survive,” says Claudia Soto, the third-generation owner of La Gran Fama, the oldest shop on Calle de los Dulces. It sells up to 300 tortitas de Santa Clara per day, made according to Soto’s Great-Aunt Victoria’s recipe.

While the original convent is now closed, others in Puebla’s historic center continue to make all manner of sweets—but the nuns are notoriously tight-lipped about their recipes. With the help of the tourism board, I visited the modern-day Convento de Santa Clara, marked by a small, faded sign that’s easy to miss. Though I wasn’t allowed in the kitchen, three sisters generously explained the somewhat arduous process. “One day we make the cookie and the next day the filling,” says Sister Mary del Dulce N. Torres Ortiz, who’s been at the convent for 48 years.

The nuns begin by removing both the green and thinner white skins from the pumpkin seeds, which leaves them white. As to why they go the extra step and take off two layers, Pati Jinich—a Mexican chef, cookbook author, and host of the James Beard Award–winning PBS TV series Pati’s Mexican Table—says it could be “for their spiritual beliefs, obsession with purity, or wanting to use the same technique as blanching and peeling the almonds for marzipan.”

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Throughout the process, everything is mixed in copper pots and done by hand, including the imprinted lines on the dough’s edge, which are made with their nails. For those who know to knock, the treats are available in a tiny shop off the convent’s main entry (or, with three days’ notice, they’ll bake a batch just for you). Ortiz admits that they don’t actually sell that many—but producing them is a part of their lives, and they plan to carry on the tradition as long as the convent remains open.

A few blocks away, Emilio Quintana Ramírez—“maestro Emilio,” as he is known—presides over Arte Mexicano El Colibrí. Of his 11 siblings, he’s the only one who went into the family business, passed down from his grandma to his mother. Eschewing any hint of secrecy, he welcomes me right into the bare-bones kitchen, where he hosts classes on making poblano sweets (as well as traditional Day of the Dead sugar skulls). I watch as his wife uses ash as an abrasive rub to clean the top green layer off of pepitas that had been soaking overnight in water. He leads me to the copper pot on the stove, where the glaze is just starting to bubble.

“We have to use copper because the sugar doesn’t stick and it holds its temperature,” he says. He teaches me how to use the pads of my thumb and pointer finger to test the stickiness—it’s done when there’s a slight glue-like pull—and, once off the flame, how to use a flat wooden paddle to rub it against the copper side until it thickens.

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The key to forming the cookie itself—a basic mix of flour, butter, milk, eggs, and sugar—is in the heavy, circular mold made of aluminum and stainless steel.

“It was my grandmother’s, and I only have one,” says Ramírez, as he coats it with flour and presses it down with the help of wooden mallet on a sheet of rolled-out dough.

After 20 minutes in the oven and a few more to cool, they’re ready for the topping. Using a tablespoon, he deftly pours the perfect amount into each tortita, all the while reflecting on the importance of sharing the process with the public and his hopes for the future.

“I want my children to follow in my footsteps,” he says, “but they may want to make more money.”

Santa Clara Cookies

Santa Clara Cookies

Pati Jinich Pati Jinich
Serves 24 cookies

Dough

  • One 4-ounce stick unsalted butter at room temperature, sliced
  • 1 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3 cups flour, plus more for rolling out the dough
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup lukewarm water

Glaze

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 3 cups hulled, unsalted pumpkin seeds OR blanched, slivered almonds, ground
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder or baking soda
Go to Recipe

What kind of cookie are you? Let us know in the comments below.

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Tags: Travel