The first time I packed grated piloncillo into a cup measurement I understood why it is commonly referred to as “Mexican brown sugar.” Known in Mexico as piloncillo, the raw unrefined cane sugar has many names depending on the country. It’s known as panela and rapadura in Central and Latin America, while in Chile and Peru it is called chancaca. Typically piloncillo is sold in a cone-shaped block that does resemble hardened brown sugar. But brown sugar it is not. Its wonderful earthy, slightly bitter, warm caramel flavor sets it apart from other sweeteners and gives it a versatility that enhances sweet and savory dishes alike.
I don’t recall my Mexican grandparents keeping cones of piloncillo in their kitchen growing up—although, my grandpa’s notorious sweet tooth makes me think they must have. I hadn’t used it much until this year when I started developing the pan dulce menu for my panaderia. In Mexican dishes piloncillo is used to sweeten drinks like cafe de olla and champurrado, as well as for pouring over buñuelos, a kind of fritter. In my panaderia, piloncillo can be found in almost everything, from replacing the brown sugar in canela (cinnamon) rolls, to being used in tandem with granulated sugar in the crunchy shell topping for what is one of the most well-known pan dulce, the concha.
Recently I melted down an 8-ounce cone of piloncillo with a little water and orange zest to replace the molasses in a ginger cake. In a cake, the melted piloncillo works the same way molasses does. That same dark amber of the sweetener gave the batter a warm honeyed color, while melting the piloncillo provided moistness to the crumb. Because I was most familiar with using piloncillo in the Mexican cookies marranitos (or puerquitos, as it is also known), the spiced pig-shaped cookie that uses melted piloncillo, I wanted to play around with it in another cookie recipe.
Piloncillo has a higher price point than other sweeteners, specifically brown sugar. I’ve seen it sold online between $13.59 for a pack of three, to $4.95 for two 8 ounce cones. I highly suggest you check out your local mercado, if you’re lucky enough to have one nearby, as they will most likely sell piloncillo for a lower dollar amount.
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The first test was a snickerdoodle-type cookie using only grated piloncillo and some granulated sugar as the sweeteners. As I was grating almost an entire 8-ounce cone of piloncillo and stopping to rest my arm for what felt like every two minutes, I wondered if I was asking too much for a cookie recipe. I decided the second test would have to include some melted piloncillo as well. Because this was a cookie featuring piloncillo, we simply have to grate at least some of it.
For this recipe I opted for equal parts granulated sugar and grated piloncillo, about ½ cup of each. Piloncillo can also be (very carefully) hacked away at with a (very) sharp serrated knife. I don’t like treating the piloncillo this way simply because I don’t trust that I wouldn’t injure myself with one accidental slip of my hand. Should you decide to go this route, it is a bit easier to cut into the piloncillo by softening it in the microwave for about 20 seconds. You might have a small amount of leftover piloncillo syrup, which I highly recommend for pouring over ice cream or simply adding to your morning coffee.
Once the 1 cup of packed piloncillo is grated or chopped, set it aside while you brown the butter. I like browning the butter for this cookie because the nuttiness pairs well with the caramel-ness of the piloncillo. It’s an added bonus that browned butter makes the dough a one-bowl situation, although you can of course use a stand mixer if you’d rather let the machine do all the work (understandable).
When the butter is cooling slightly, measure or weigh out the dry ingredients in a separate bowl. I love sweet and savory desserts, and I love spicy desserts all the more, so I used a teaspoon of chipotle powder here. (If spicy isn’t your thing, you can swap the chipotle for another spice like ground ginger or nutmeg, or just reduce the chipotle to ½ teaspoon.) Ground cinnamon is there to accompany the chipotle, ever so gently nudging the spiciness a bit sweeter, while the orange zest brightens everything up.
Rolling the cookie dough balls in a mixture of chipotle and orange cinnamon granulated and demerara sugar reinforces the flavors in the cookie and adds a bit of sparkle, making this a solid contender for your holiday cookie list.
Chipotle Orange Piloncillo Cookies
Modified from King Arthur Baking Company’s Gingersnaps recipe
Yield: about 20 cookies
Prep time: about 28 minutes (about 5 minutes to grate the piloncillo, 15 to melt the additional piloncillo and around 7-8 for the butter to brown + measuring or weighing out ingredients)
Bake time: 10-12 minutes
- 1 (8-ounce) cone of piloncillo, divided
- 6 ounces (¾ cup or 12 tablespoons) unsalted butter
- 99 grams (½ cup) granulated sugar
- 1 large egg, straight from the fridge
- zest from 2 large oranges, divided
- 280 grams (2 ½ cups) all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
- ¾-1 teaspoon chipotle powder
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Chipotle Orange Cinnamon Sugar:
- ¼ cup Demerara sugar
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- ½ teaspoon chipotle powder
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- zest from the remaining orange
- Line one large baking sheet with parchment paper; line a large dinner plate with plastic wrap. Set both to the side.
- Combine ingredients for Chipotle Orange Cinnamon Sugar in a small bowl and stir together.
- Grate the piloncillo until you have filled a ½ cup measurement or 50 grams in weight and set aside.
- Melt the piloncillo: In a saucepan set over medium heat, add the remaining cone of piloncillo and ¼ cup of hot tap water. Move the piloncillo around frequently using a rubber spatula until it has melted completely into a syrup. Once the syrup begins to foam, lower heat to medium-low. The whole process will take about 15 minutes over medium-low heat. The piloncillo will continue to foam and rise a bit as it is melting, so don’t walk away from the saucepan for very long or you run the risk of the syrup bubbling over. Once the piloncillo has melted completely and you have a syrup, turn off the heat but let the saucepan remain on the warm burner while you continue on with the recipe. (If the syrup still seems a bit runny once the piloncillo has melted completely, don’t worry—it will continue to thicken into a syrupy consistency as it cools in the saucepan.)
- Brown the butter in a saucepan set over medium heat. Once butter has browned and gives off a nutty aroma, about 7-8 minutes, immediately remove saucepan from the heat and transfer butter to a large mixing bowl. Let butter cool slightly while you measure or weigh out the dry ingredients.
- Measure or weigh out the dry ingredients, then whisk together in a separate mixing bowl.
- To the slightly cooled browned butter, add both sugars and whisk together.
- Add the egg and zest from 1 orange, ⅓ cup or 113 grams of the piloncillo syrup (which should be almost all of it), and whisk everything together again. The mixture should be slightly thick.
- Add the dry ingredients to the wet; Switch to a rubber spatula now and stir until everything comes together into a thick, slightly greasy dough.
- Using a ½ tablespoon measurement or a spoon, form the dough into balls that weigh 35 grams each. Roll the dough between both hands to shape them, then toss each dough ball in the Chipotle Orange Cinnamon Sugar. Set each dough ball on the prepared dinner plate and place dough balls into your fridge for 20 minutes to chill.
- Once 20 minutes are up, set the dough balls on the prepared baking sheet, about 1 ½ inches apart (cookies will spread so it’s a good idea to give them enough space to do so).
- Bake cookies for 10 minutes if you prefer a softer center, and 11-12 minutes if you like a crispier cookie reminiscent of a gingersnap. The dough balls should have spread into about 3 inch cookies and have a crackled look. After baking, sprinkle additional Chipotle Orange Cinnamon Sugar on each cookie, if desired.
- Let cookies cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. Repeat with the rest of the chilled dough balls. (Side note: This cookie dough freezes easily, just wrap it tightly with plastic wrap before storing it in a freezer bag.)
- Cookies will keep, covered, for up to four days.