If you ever stop by the shop and I'm there, you'll probably hear me talking about Piloncillo. It's one of my favourite Mexican ingredients and since it's so unknown in Ireland, I'm always going on about it. A lot of people look at it in its package and ask what that is and if they give me 5 minutes of their attention and are not afraid to taste a bit, they go home with a pack of it totally converted.
I spent a lot of time in a small town in the Northeastern state of Tamaulipas, which is famous for its sugarcane industry; the town had one of the biggest sugar refineries in Mexico and practically everybody in the surrounding villages was a sugarcane farmer. I grew up with the rythms and seasons of sugarcane: the planting, the burning, the harvesting, the sugar making and with that, a side industry of sugarcane juice and its many wonders.
Piloncillo is basically a type of raw sugar. It is made of pure sugarcane juice that has been gently heated until thickened and poured into conic moulds to cool down, which gives it its iconic shape. It is one of the most popular and widely used sugars in Mexico. It is ridiculously delicious, very complexed in flavour and hence, a little goes a long, long way. It's like molases only without the love-it-or-hate-it bit!
Its texture can trick you a little, it's quite hard in the exterior, but once you break through it and put a piece of it in your mouth, it melts like butter! And then, this amazing bitter sweetness hits your tastebuds, full of layers of intriguingly rich sweetness: nuts, caramel, molases... it's like a party in your mouth!
We love it shaved into coffee and it is sensational in this chipotle, peanut and tequila salsa. Most of the traditional Mexican sweets are made with Piloncillo and in many parts of Mexico, it is also used to soak very spicy dry chilies in it to soften the chili and minimise the heat factor a little.
Around Christmas and New Year time, a 'honey' or syrup is made with it to drizzle over buñuelos and other desserts. I also use this honey to drizzle over ice-cream and poached fruit. To make it a bit more interesting, I decided to spike it a little, so I added a shot of Mezcal to it. As it cools down, it thickens quite a bit and it acquires a honey-like consistency.
This syrup is amazing with vanilla ice-cream and if you stay tuned, I'll be posting a Piloncillo and Pecan home-made ice-cream recipe (I left you with only a picture here) that will seriously blow your mind and convert you altogether to the joys of this wonderful and humble Mexican ingredient.
Roughly chop the piloncillo with a sharp knife. This is probably the hardest part of the recipe. Be patient as piloncillo can be very hard, but once you break through, it becomes soft. A serrated knife might help too.
Put the water and chopped piloncillo in a heavy bottom pot and turn the heat to medium. Cook gently stirring occassionally with a wooden spoon until all the piloncillo has melted and you have a dark liquid in the pot. This might take about 5 minutes depending on the pot and heat.
Crank up the heat a little and stir in the Mezcal. Let it boil a minute and lower the heat to simmer the boozy mixture gently until it starts thickening a little. You will need to stir constantly with a wooden spoon to avoid the syrup from burning or boiling over.
When you notice the mixture thickening to a maple syrup consistency, take it off the heat and pour it into a clean jug or bottle and let it cool down before using it. As it cools, the mixture will thicken more and it will get to a pour-able honey consistency.
This syrup is so tasty, perfect for French Toast or Pancakes too! It can be stored covered in the fridge for up to 2 months, but it never lasts that long at home.