Soft and crumbly, mantecados and polvorones are the most popular Christmas cookies here in Spain. Learn how to make them at home with this recipe.
Since I have moved to Spain, I have to admit that the holidays just don’t feel like they did back home. Maybe it’s because I no longer have the snow around me to remind me that it’s Christmas time. On the other hand, I don’t have central heating, so my daily fire in the fireplace should be a constant reminder. (If you’re stuck making a fire each day too, you may want to check out my homemade recycled fire starters.) 😉
The holidays are also different here. Yes, we still celebrate Christmas and Christmas Eve, but there is also the second day of Christmas and Three Kings Day. Perhaps with so many days of celebration, Christmas itself doesn’t have the same focus and importance.
Maybe, though, it’s just because Christmas is celebrated in a different way. Instead of the “normal” Christmas cookies, eggnog, and cranberry treats that I was used to, I’m surrounded by turrón (both hard turrón de Alicante and soft turrón de Jijona), mantecados, and jamón serrano. While I do miss the typical Christmas treats that I was used to growing up, I have to admit that I do quite like a lot of the Spanish counterparts.
Mantecados and polvorones are an example of a Spanish Christmas treat that I just happen to love.
What are mantecados and polvorones?
Mantecados and polvorones are a type of crumbly cookie that is typically served at Christmas time in Spain. They find their origin in the Andalusian region of Spain, with the city of Estepa being famous for their elaboration. I’ve bought mantecados and polvorones several times directly in the city of Estepa when visiting my family in a nearby town.
What is the difference between mantecados and polvorones?
The mantecados name comes from the fat used to make these cookies. Mantecados are typically made with lard which is “manteca” in Spanish. Polvorones, on the other hand, get their name from the fact that they are sprinkled with powdered sugar. Powder is “polvo” in Spanish.
There are a few other differences. Polvorones tend to be served in an oval shape, while mantecados are typically round.
Other than that, I can’t really find much of a difference, and the main dough seems to be the same.
I think that polvorones are really just a type of mantecado that is dusted with powdered sugar and shaped differently. Polvorones also tend to be unflavored, which lets them showcase the toasted flour, almonds, and lard. Mantecados, on the other hand, come in other flavor varieties too. The main type of mantecado is pretty much identical to the polvorones, without the powdered sugar, but you can also find many other flavors of mantecados that use cocoa powder, lemon flavoring or even coconut. My favorite is the traditional one (but the coconut ones come a close second). I also love the ones that have been sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Making flavored mantecados
To make a chocolate mantecado, you can add some cocoa powder to part of the dough.
Other flavor varieties can be made using ground citrus peels and flavor extracts. I want to try making coconut mantecados by adding in finely shredded coconut, but I imagine that the strong coconut flavor of most commercially sold coconut mantecados comes from artificial flavor extracts.
Because I love the traditional one so much, I haven’t personally played around a lot with flavoring my mantecados, but I’d love to hear how it goes if you try it yourself!
The taste and texture
What I love most about mantecados and polvorones is their surprising texture that I could only describe as soft or even silky. The cookies are very crumbly and are sold wrapped in paper like a hard candy. The outside has a light crust from being baked in the oven, but the inside is soft and smooth.
Apart from the texture, the flavor is also unusual. They combine toasted flour, toasted ground almonds, cinnamon, and lard.
What type of lard or fat should be used?
As the lard accounts for much of the flavor, I would definitely use home rendered lard over any store bought variety. There is no need to use leaf lard here. I used fatback with the skin on it when I made the lardfor mine. Mantecados are meant to have a very subtle pork-like taste.
If a pork flavored cookie sounds unappealing, rest assured that the flavor isn’t obvious. It’s just enough to keep your favorite bacon lover happy, though.
On the other hand, if you are really opposed to using lard in the recipe because you have religious or other food issues with pork, yes, you can make “mantecados” without the manteca or lard.
Even here in Spain, you can now find mantecados made with extra virgin olive oil. They take on their unusual flavor from the olive oil rather than the lard.
How to achieve the right texture?
When mixing up your dough with whatever fat or oil you choose, you want to form a dough that is very crumbly to work with. If you add so much fat that you get an easy-to-work-with dough, you probably will end up with a crispy hard cookie rather than a smooth, silky crumbly one. (Don’t ask me how I know that!) 😉
Mix all of your ingredients together and try pressing the dough together in your hand. It should hold together, but also easily fall apart. Yes, it will be slightly tricky to work with to roll it out and cut it, but the effort definitely pays off.
If you still end up with a hard, crispy cookie, the other problem you may have had is baking the cookies for too long. When baking mantecados and polvorones, you only want to bake them for long enough to form a bit of a crust on the outside, yet stay soft and crumbly on the inside. This will help the cookies hold their shape, all while remaining true to form.
Why make them?
Well, if you are living outside of Spain, it probably is a bit tricky to buy them otherwise.
That said, ever since I’ve been making them at home, I find the ones sold in stores to be way too sweet. When you make them yourself, you can control the amount of sweetness and which type of oil or fat you want to use. You can also choose which sugar to use. (I make my own powdered organic demerara sugar these days!)
Can they be made grain-free?
I also have a recipe for grain free mantecados and polvorones up on the blog. They are, of course, gluten free, but can be made paleo by using powdered coconut sugar.
Love Spanish Christmas treats?
Me too- which is why I love making some of the traditional holiday foods each year. You can find my recipe for homemade turrón de Jijona (the soft turrón) and my recipe for homemade Turrón de Alicante (the hard turrón) here on the blog.
You can also read about Spanish holiday foods here.
Mantecados and Polvorones: Typical Spanish Christmas Cookies
- First you need to toast the flour in the oven. To do so, spread it out on a baking sheet, and bake under the broiler (250ºC/480ºF) until the top layer browns. Remove the flour from the oven, mix it up spread it out on the baking sheet again and bake until golden. Repeat the process 4-5 times until all of the flour is toasted and golden brown. Keep your eye on it so it doesn’t burn!
- Toast the ground almonds in some of the lard in a pan on the stove. Once they are a golden brown, remove them from the stove and let them cool.
- Once your ingredients have cooled, mix all of the ingredients together making sure to incorporate all of the lard. The “dough” should come together when you press on it, but should easily fall apart. You may need to add in a little more lard to achieve the right texture. (Don’t add in too much or you will end up with hard cookies rather than crumbly soft ones when you bake them.)
- Put the “dough” into the fridge for 15-20 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF.
- Working with small sections, roll out the dough with a rolling pin to around a half on an inch thick (or slightly thicker).
- Cut the dough with cookie cutters. These would be perfect. Mantecados are typically round, and polvorones are typically oval, but you are free to make them as you like. These cookies are delicate, though, so I don’t suggest any complicated shapes.
- If you want to decorate them with sesame seeds, lightly press some into the top of the cookies now.
- Bake in the oven for 12-15 minutes or until the edges turn a golden brown.
- You may leave them as is or sprinkle powdered sugar over top.
You can serve your mantecados or polvorones as is, or can wrap them for giving away as gifts. Mantecados and polvorones are typically sold wrapped in paper like a hard candy. I suggest using a thin paper, like a thin parchment paper or tissue paper, if you plan on wrapping yours.
Merry Christmas!! I hope you enjoy them!