June 21, 2016 – Once a month—usually the second Saturday of the month—Cesario Ruiz, the founder of My Mom’s Mole, opens the doors at the Commercial Kitchen Incubator in Watsonville and offers an afternoon cooking class about mole.
‘Mysteries of Mole Unlocked!’ runs from 2pm to 6pm with the first three-hour portion being hands-on and the final hour being dinner when the class participants taste and enjoy their mole creations. I had the opportunity to attend the class this past weekend with a friend. On our way up to Watsonville, I joked, “Maybe I’ll finally understand what mole is. Every recipe I read is different. It really is a mystery!”
Pronounced MOH-lay, the word derives from the Aztec language Nahuatl word for sauce, mōlli. Mole is a general designation for a variety of sauces used in Mexican cuisine. The types of mole are so diverse that one region in Mexico boasts more than a handful of different kinds—negro, colorado, amarillo, verde, chichilo, and coloradito. Each of the varieties has a unique flavor based on the traditional combinations of distinctive chilis, herbs, and spices. The best known of Oaxaca’s moles is the one Ruiz was teaching us: mole negro. Named for its inky hue, mole negro often includes chocolate in addition to chilis, nuts, seeds, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and more.
Ruiz likens mole to a Mexican curry, saying that every cook will have a different way of blending. “Every region, and really every cook, has its own version,” he explained. “It’s just a blend of chilis and different ingredients.” In fact, he asserted that the three different teams would create three distinct moles despite us all having the same ingredients with which to create.
And he was correct! As we dunked sample spoons into the three different batches, we discussed what made the sauces unique. “Ours is the most smoky,” noted my friend Jenn. Another team’s mole was the most sweet despite the fact that they didn’t use all of the dried apricots; and the third mole had the most heat even though we all used the same kind and same amount of peppers.
In addition to creating and building his own brand, My Mom’s Mole, Ruiz works as facility manager for the kitchen incubator operated by the El Pájaro Community Development Corporation—a non-profit organization based in Watsonville whose services include no-cost technical assistance to local entrepreneurs developing their own food products and brands. Ruiz believes that the best way to create a community is by forging stronger connections between people through sharing your expertise or passion.
Ruiz hails from Guanajuato, a region to the east of Jalisco. “It’s a hot area,” he said, “so hot peppers are important to my recipe.” Inspired by his mom’s recipe, he has added twists to make it his own and it’s more spicy than sweet.
For all its variations, all mole begins in the same way: with dried chili peppers. Some moles have as few as a handful of ingredients; Ruiz’s mole negro consists of over two dozen. “It’s the chilis that make mole unique.” Our mole began with ancho and chile negro peppers.
Before we arrived Ruiz had placed the measured ingredients at our stations. Dried peppers sat in a pile on stainless steel tables. Small containers with pecans, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, dried apricots, prunes, and raisins were lined up in a row, along with Mexican chocolate. And fresh tomatillos and tomatoes were crowded together with aromatic onions and garlic.
Because the peppers are the stars of the mole, we started with them. With gloved hands, we sliced them open, seeded them, and pulled off the dry veins. Then we headed to the industrial gas ranges and blistered the peppers over an open flame. At first, Ruiz said my peppers weren’t done enough. “Don’t be afraid of the fire,” he commanded. So, I returned to the stove and held the peppers almost directly in the flames this time, instead of just letting them hover over it. I watched, fascinated, at the peppers turned a lighter shade of brown as they bubbled and blistered. Then we let the peppers soak in a homemade chicken stock while we prepared the rest of the ingredients.
We toasted spices; we charred nuts and the seeds of the peppers; we fried plantains; and we soaked dried fruit in a generous amount of sherry. Making mole is an involved, lengthy process that requires patience. Again, Ruiz told me not to be timid as I charred the seeds from the peppers. “Keep it over the flame,” he instructed me. “It needs to turn black. Burnt!”
When we were finished with our moles, we carried our pots to a communal table where we feasted on our moles, rice, and chicken. The environment was relaxed and fun. We had time to play with the ingredients. “How do you think it would taste with coffee in it?” one of my classmates asked.
Ruiz wrinkled his nose slightly, but encouraged, “You can try it.” I wondered about toasting raw cacao nibs with the nuts.
Most importantly, we all walked away confident that we could go home and replicate the process. And we had containers of mole to take home and share. Mole is no longer an enigma to me, thanks to Ruiz. It’s an intriguing sauce that I look forward to making again soon.
The classes are usually the second Saturday of the month, but check for confirmed dates here.