Andreja Brulc's Blog

MEXICO Project: Mexican cuisine: Pan dulce (‘Sweet bread’)

Posted in MEXICO by andrejabrulc on 31/10/2013

panaderia_columba_tlacalulaFor a Central European with a sweet tooth, bakeries are one of the first ‘sights’ on the list to be checked out when exploring new things while visiting a foreign country. No matter how rustic or urban, Mexican panaderías (‘bakeries’) are just that – they score 10 out of 10 on my list. The sweet aroma of pan dulce coming out on the street can tempt even those with no sweet tooth into entering their premises! Mexican panaderías are one of the most innovative in the world and a pride of Mexican cuisine.

During my stay in Oaxaca, I was fortunate that my Spanish teacher José Antonio González introduced me to his family of Zapotec origin from Tlacolula in the Oaxaca Valley and particularly to his brother, who runs the panadería Columba with his wife there, baking pan dulce in a traditional adobe oven.panaderia_columba_adobo oven It took him six months to construct his adobe oven, using ancient techniques and materials of clay, straw and earth that keeps the oven warm all the time even if not used. panaderia_columba_demonstrationThis article on pan dulce is dedicated to José in the memory of our many discussions about Oaxacan food tradition as well as Oaxacan culture and history in general in my Spanish class, and, needless to say, to his brother’s passion for the bread making and his love for keeping the tradition alive for posterity!

Pan dulce

Pan dulce (‘sweet bread’), known as Mexican pastry, is a (not too) sweet yeast bread or pastry, baked in many varieties, of different sizes, colours, and flavours. Most of them are topped with the traditional sugar crust pastry (pasta) made from white flour, sugar and margarine (butter). Being extremely cheap even in local terms, pan dulce is a staple food in Mexico and other Latin American countries. It is also popular with Mexican Americans in the United States. It is eaten with coffee, milk or hot chocolate. Pan dulce is typically enjoyed dipped in Mexican hot chocolate, which is darker and not as sweet as regular hot chocolate one finds at home. In Mexico, the tradition of eating sweet pastries for breakfast or mid-afternoon snack, known as merienda, goes back to the 16th century. Pan dulce is considered to be a Mexican cuisine even though its origins are European.

Photo Ana Gilbert

Photo Ana Gilbert

The history of bread in Mexico

The Spanish colonial influence

Wheat was one of the first non-native foods that the Spanish colonialists introduced to Mexico. The grain was not only a Spanish staple food, but it was also a religious necessity – the only grain that the Catholic Church recognised suitable for the making of Eucharist wafer. The first wheat bread produced in Mexico was uninspiring as it came out as a tasteless lump. The indigenous population did not care for it at first, but since they worked on wheat farms that provided bread for the Spaniards, they gradually got used to it, especially since wheat was part of their pay [Palmerin 2012: 3: 869].

According to the story of eating sweet pastries says, an inventive viceroy started a practice that would change how indigenous people perceived bread. He dipped his bread into hot chocolate, a custom that quickly caught on as it tasted better than simple white bread, and people never looked back.

The French influence

A desire for something more delicious was further fulfilled thanks to the French influence that took hold of Mexico at the end of the Viceroyalty of New Spain in 1821. And, when the French bakers started to arrive in Mexico and influenced the art of bread making with their introduction of pan francés (‘French bread’), the taste of bread – crispy rolls, baguettes and sweet pastries ­– finally began to appeal to the Mexicans. By then, Mexico had already been flooded by French bakeries.

It is ironic without saying, however, that the 1st French military intervention in Mexico is called The Pastry War (Guerra de los pasteles) (27 Nov 1838–9 March 1839). In the years following Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, civil disobedience seems to have been the norm in the early days of the new Mexican Republic, as different fractions were competing for control of the country. The properties of many foreign immigrants, including those owned by the French, were looted continuously by bandits and even Mexican soldiers, but their appeals to the Mexican government for compensation fell on deaf ears. According to Christopher Klein, in 1832 a French pastry cook, called Remontel, claimed that Mexican soldiers of the then President Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794–1876) had damaged his establishment in the Tacubaya district of Mexico City. As he was refused compensation, he appealed to the French King Louise-Philippe I (1773–1850; reign: 9 Aug 1830–24 Feb 1848) for assistance. The French government was already on bad terms with Mexico over unpaid Mexican debts that had been incurred during the Texas Revolution of 1836. Also, as we know, the French take their pastry very seriously indeed, so in 1838 the French Prime Minister Louis-Mathieu Molé (in office: 6 Sep 1836–31 Mar 1839) demanded 600 000 pesos in total for all the damage done to the shops owned by the French nationals, including 60 000 pesos for Romontel’s shop, which had been valued at less than 1 000 pesos. [Klein, in History] The amount was extremely high, as, when compared to, an average workman’s pay per day at the time, the wage was only one peso [Wikipedia]! As Mexico, under the President of Anastasio Bustamante (1780–1853), refused to pay the sum, in the spring of 1838 the French navy began a blockade of vital seaports along the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatán peninsula to the Rio Grande. The stalemate dragged on until 27 Nov, when the French fook over the island fortress of San Juan de Ullúa that guarded the port city of Veracruz [Klein, in History]. Consequently, the surreal cause for war as pastry led to three months-long conflict between Mexico and France! As the French nearly took the entire Mexican navy, the Mexican government turned to the former president and ruthless ex-military general, López de Santa Anna, who eventually managed to drive the French forces from Veracruz and back to their fleet. As he chased the invaders, one of his legs was severely wounded by the cannon and had to be eventually amputated [Klein, in History]. British diplomats acted as a mediator in a peace treaty, and as Mexico promised the payment, the French withdrew from Mexico on 9 March 1839. However, the amount was never paid, and that was later used as one of the justifications for the 2nd French intervention in Mexico of 1861. [Aguilar Casas, in INRHRM]

Benito_JuarezThe 2nd French intervention in Mexico under the army of the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian (1832–1867), or better known as Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico (10 June 1864–19 June 1867), lasted for a short time (1861–1867). The cause for this war, also known as Maximilian Affair or Maximilian Adventure, was again of monetary nature – the suspension of interest payments to foreign countries (Spain, France and Britain) on 17 July 1861 by the President Benito Juárez (18-6–1872; in office five times: 1858–61, 1861–65, 1865–67, 1867–71, 1871–72). Benito Juárez was not only the first indigenous president of Mexico (of Zapotec origin), but is also perceived as the hero of Oaxaca (he was born in San Pablo Guelatao, a small town in the Sierra Norte north of the Oaxaca valley, but was later educated in Oaxaca where he started his political career as a governor of the State of Oaxaca). The French were defeated on 5 May 1862 at the battle of Cinco de Mayo (also known as the Battle of Puebla) but continued fighting in Mexico until 1867. On 19 June Maximilian, I was executed by the forces loyal to Benito Juárez in Querétaro. The execution was famously depicted by Eduard Manet (1868–69, Kunsthalle Mannheim, below; fragments of the earlier but larger painting are at the National Gallery, London; and a third unfinished version at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

Edouard_Manet_execution_Maximilian I

However brief the actual control of Mexico by France was, it was enough to leave behind a strong French influence that peaked in the early 1900s during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz – a big sympathiser of anything that was French in origin. He even sought to modernise his country by replacing traditional local dishes with French cuisine!

The formation of unique Mexican pan dulce

The French bakeries certainly left behind their legacy in the art of bread making in Mexico – as it eventually helped to establish the Mexican baking tradition that has become one of the most inventive in the world.

piloncillo_raw sugar caneAs a result, many Mexican panaderías sprouted up throughout Mexico, as skilled panaderos (‘bakers’) went on adopting a variety of French techniques in making the dough. Although much of pan dulce resembles French pastries, their flavour and texture are often different because they contain margarine or lard instead of butter [Palmerin 2012: 869]. However, butter is now more popular than margarine with some recipes at least in home cooking! Mexican panaderos then added Mexican ingredients, such as corn flour, piloncillo (‘raw sugar cane’), chocolate and vanilla as well as native fruits (pineapple, guava) and native vegetables (sweet potato, pumpkin).

The Mexican panaderos created new bread designs in playful shapes and in a variety of dough and textures, bearing colourful names usually associated with their appearance – e.g. marranitos (‘piglets’), conchas (‘seashells’), moños or corbatas (‘bowties’ or ‘neckties’), ojo de buey (‘ox eye’), bigotes (‘moustaches’), canastas (‘baskets’), chinos (‘Chinese’), polvorones (‘shortbread’) or espejos (‘mirrors’).

La Virgen de Guadalupe_Teotitlan del Valle

Pan dulce is not only sold daily at panaderías or at bread stalls on local markets, but stalls are also set up for all sorts of events, festivals and celebrations – e.g. above at the celebration of the La Virgin de Guadalupe (12 Dec) in Teotitlán del Valle in the Oaxaca Valley.

Different types of pan dulce

It is estimated that there are between 500 and 2000 types of bread and pastries being produced in Mexico. The most commonly found varieties of pan dulce are the following (for pictures of each type identified by names see Willamette Week or La concha bakery or The Bread Factory):

besosBesos (‘kisses’) – A beso is made of two round domes ‘kissing’ each other through a thin layer of jam (strawberry or pineapple) sandwiched in between and coated in granulated sugar. Besos are popular on holidays such as Valentine’s Day, but they are also eaten, like other pan dulce, at breakfast or as an afternoon snack. Recipe.

churrosChurro (‘fritter’, ‘doughnut’) – A churro is a deep-fried dough pastry, introduced to Mexico by the Spanish but became very popular there, with its local variations of being filled with dulce de leche (‘milk caramel’), in Mexico called cajeta (a confection of thickened syrup made of sweetened caramelised goat’s milk), but also with chocolate (churro con chocolate) and vanilla custard (churro con lechecilla). They also appear as plain (churro naturales), just rolled in sugar and cinnamon. They are best to eat hot, dipped into chocolate. The pastry is piped into hot oil from a churrera, a syringe with a star-shaped nozzle, to make long sticks. My article on churros here. Recipe.

Conchas (‘seashells’) – Conchas are one of the most widely recognised Mexican pan dulces, whose name is taken after its shape of a shell. The concha is a slightly sweet roll with a shell-patterned topping made from the traditional sugar crust pastry (pasta) – a mixture of white flour, sugar and butter (sometimes added with cinnamon or chocolate). Recipe.

La Virgen de Guadalupe_Teotitlan del Valle_cono de nieve_whiteLa Virgen de Guadalupe_Teotitlan del Valle_cono de nieve_yellow Cono de Nieve (‘ice cream cone’) – In my opinion, a translation used by La Concha Bakery should be ‘snow cone’ as the word nieve means ‘snow’, while ‘ice-cream’ is helado in Spanish. As Pera Chapita explains, the cones are a kind of cupcakes, with cake-mix, decorated like ice-cream. But the recipe is not the real thing, as the cone ought to be more like a crispy croissant dough rolled in the shape of a cone and filled, if I believe La Concha Bakery, with Bavarian cream. I was not able to find any further information on this type of pan dulce, nor a ‘real’ recipe. But it seems that cono de nieve is very similar to what is known as Cream Horn – as in the recipe from Natasha’s Kitchen that shows a beautiful demonstration of the cones being made with a flaky or puff pastry filled with whipped cream. The horn shape is made by winding overlapping pastry strips around a conical mould. The pastry can also be moistened and sprinkled with sugar before baking for a sweeter and crisper finish. My Spanish teacher tells me that this type of pastry is known in Oaxaca as barquillo (‘wafer’) – the first photo shows Barquillos con turrón, while the second Barquillos con lechecilla – though the pastry undeniably resembles the process from Natasha’s Kitchen. But not to confuse, there are two types of Spanish turrón, the harder one (better known) and the softer one (meringue) – for this pan dulce, the softer version is used. I tried both from the pan dulce stall at the celebration of the La Virgin de Guadalupe (12 Dec) in Teotitlán del Valle and were extremely delicious. Recipe for pastry from Natasha’s Kitchen; for a custard filling either lechecilla or Bavarian cream; and for a white filling Meringue Buttercream de turrón or if difficult to find the ingredients, any recipe for soft meringue or even munchmallow.

panaderia_columba_cuernosCuernos (‘horns’) – Cuernos are made from a rolled pastry in the shape of a bull’s horn, similar to a French croissant, but cuernos are not as rich. They are also topped with the traditional sugar crust pastry (pasta) – a mixture of white flour, sugar and margarine (butter). In some regions, like in Oaxaca, cuernos are also called Cuernitos dulces con pasta as in the picture from the panadería Columba. Cuernos have a rich tasting dough with elements of vanilla and cinnamon for flavour. Recipe.

Cuernitos (‘little horns’) – They are also known as Mexican wedding cookies. In Oaxaca, these biscuits are presented in fringed white tissue paper and given as favours to wedding guests. In the States, they are often called ‘snowballs’ as they appear in the shape of a ball. The recipe is similar to the Austrian version called kipfel (with walnuts or hazelnuts) or that of the Greek version called kourambiethes (with almonds). Traditionally, the Mexican version uses pecans, but also other nuts (including walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and pistachios) are used. The biscuits in all versions are heavily powdered in icing sugar. Recipe.

Elote or elotito (‘corn’) – It is a popular pan dulce, which gets its name from the word ‘corn’ because it looks like an ear of corn. It is made of cinnamon-flavoured dough, filled with chocolate or other flavours, and covered with a generous sprinkling of sugar. Recipe.

Empanadas (‘turnovers’) – An empanada is a soft stuffed pastry pocket that typically comes with a variety of fillings depending on the region and season – most common fillings are apple, pineapple, coconut, guava, pumpkin, vanilla custard (lechecilla) and chocolate cream but there are other varieties with other fillings. In Oaxaca, these are also called Empanadas de Corpus Christi, as they are a speciality of the Catholic holiday of Corpus Christi on 7 June, prepared with fillings of lechecilla, pineapple and coconut. Recipes for sweet pastry dough, with chocolate and dulce de leche or apple cinnamon or lechecilla fillings. Recipe for a savoury version with pumpkin, Empanadas de Calabaza, from Mexico in my Kitchen.

Galletas (‘biscuits’) – Panaderías generally make several types of galletas depending on the region, some in bright pink or covered with sprinkles. They are firm and crumbly and very popular indeed.

Molletes (‘cheeks’) – A mollete is a round roll that was originally made in Spain before it came to Mexico. In Mexico, it got transformed into a bolillo, a kind of baguette but shorter in length, which is then opened up to make different types of sandwiches or tortas. A bolillo is the most popular of all traditional Mexican bread. Both are in principle savoury bread, but the sweet mollete is made by spreading butter over the bolillo and then sprinkled with sugar or honey and grilled until crisp. Recipe for bolillo and mollete.

Orejas (‘ears’) – A sweet, crispy and puffy pastry in the shape of an ear, very similar to the French palmiers. As the saying goes: ‘Lend him (or her) your brittle, buttery ear of bread, and you’ll hear whispers of sweet nothings on this special day.’ Oreja de Elephante (‘elephants ears’) is the same puff pastry as the oreja but with added cinnamon and pecans. Recipe.

Piedras (‘rocks’ or ‘stones’) – A pastry made of old bread and is known to be hard as a rock. It is eaten with very hot drinks. Recipe.

Puerquito or cochinito or marranito (‘little pig’ or ‘piggy’) – A cute little biscuit in the shape of a little pig is the basis of any panaderías. Its taste can be compared to gingerbread though neither ginger nor cinnamon is used to make the pastry. The traditional marranitos get their spicy-brown flavour from molasses or treacle (a by-product of the refined brown sugarcane). There are two types of puerquitos: the traditional crunchy type (recipe) and the modern soft type (recipe from Mexico in my Kitchen).

Yoyos (‘yo-yos’) – A pastry named after the yoyo toy and is shaped exactly like it but does not have the string. It has a filling, usually a raspberry jam. Recipe.

Unique breads in Mexico

With the invention of pan dulce in Mexico, other culturally significant sweat bread was created to celebrate occasions and traditions, such as pan de muerto, buñuelos and rosca de reyes – only sold in panaderías a few days before, and during, these occasions. These particular kinds of sweat bread are part of the traditional customs that have been around for many centuries. The stories behind them derive from religious beliefs, predominantly from Roman Catholic Church, though pan de meurto may show some links to the Aztecs tradition.

pan_de_meurto Pan de muerto (‘bread of the dead’) – A pan de muerto is a celebratory bread that is offered (ofrenda) and consumed, either at home or at the graveyard, as part of Día de los muertos celebration (1–2 Nov). It is a sweet egg bread decorated variously either with a cross of bones or skeletons or little figures representing the departed soul (difunctos or difunctas). The latter (as shown in the picture) is very popular in Oaxaca where it is called pan de yema oaxaqueño. The history of the pan de muerto is a complex one. On the one hand, it goes back the conquest years when the Spanish added the bread into the ofrenda as a replacement for the Aztecs rituals of human sacrifice, while, on the other hand, it brings forth the Aztecs tradition of making figurines out of a paste called tzoalli (amaranth mixed with tamale dough). These moulded figures of specific deities, some of which were linked to death, were used in celebrations and ceremonies. Also, the tradition of placing food as offerings on the tombs of the deceased goes back to the Aztecs rituals. More on the history of the pan de muerto soon. Recipes for the pan de muerto from Allrecipes or Mexico in my Kitchen and for pan de yema.

Buñuelo – A buñuelo is a wheat-based yeast dough, a kind of large flat tortilla or fritter. It is thinly rolled, cut into individual pieces and shaped into disks, then deep-fried in order to become crispy and light. In Mexico and other Latin American countries, buñuelo is often sprinkled with icing sugar, or with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar or honey or most famously dipped into hot sugarcane syrup (piloncillo). It is sold at fairs, carnivals, and Christmas events such as Las Posadas. In Oaxaca, it is a tradition that you break the clay plate making a wish after you finish eating the buñuelo. This tradition is said to spring from a pre-Hispanic festivity in which all the dishes were broken at the end of a calendar cycle. Recipe with piloncillo from Mexico in my Kitchen or with cinnamon and sugar from FoodNetwork.

DSC_0401 Rosca de reyes (‘kings’ cake’) – A rosca de reyes is a celebratory bread, which is symbolic in many ways. Its round shape signifies the crown of the Reyes Magos (‘The Three Kings’) as the bread is eaten on the Three Kings Day (6 Jan), twelve days after the birth of Jesus Christ. On the story of rosca de reyes and how it is shared among your family and friends see my article in which I shared my rosca de reyes with José’s family while in Oaxaca. Recipe from Mexico in my Kitchen.

My list of the pan dulce will certainly grow as I ‘waggle through’ my two books on desserts I have proudly acquired while researching this article.

===

Sources

Aguilar Casas, Elsa. 2013. “Los pasteles más caros de la historia.” Instituto Nacional de Estudios Históricos de las Revoluciones de México (INEHRM). Article [Accessed 23 Aug 2019].

Flores, Joseluis. 2010. Dulce: Desserts in the Latin-American Tradition. New York: Rizzoli.

Kennedy, Diana. 2010. Oaxaca al gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Klein, Christopher. 2013. “The Pastry War, 175 Years Ago.” History. 27 Nov. Article [Accessed 23 Aug 2019].

La Monarca Bakery. Los Angeles. USA. Website [Accessed 20 Oct 2013].

Palmerin, Stephanie. 2012. “Pan dulce.” In Maria Herrera-Sobek (ed.). Encyclopedia of Latin Folklore (3 volumes). VolABC-CLIO. Source. 3: 868–870 [Accessed 20 Oct 2013].

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8 Responses

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  1. Mely Mtz said, on 07/11/2013 at 4:18 pm

    Excellent post, great research! Now I want a concha.

    • andrejabrulc said, on 08/11/2013 at 8:06 pm

      Thanks Mely! Your blog is awesome – with many recipes to try out.

  2. John said, on 14/02/2014 at 7:04 am

    Thank you for posting this. I live near a Panaderia and I visit it often since they sell besides pan dulce y pan blanco, Posole/pozole and menudo/pancita there. I will go tomorrow since it will be Valentine’s Day here and I will see if they have besos.

  3. […] delicious series of typographic cookies and sweets made by Andreja Brulc and inspired by the ‘besos’ pan dulce eaten in Mexico on Valentine’s Day. “I made ‘love and kisses in five languages: […]

  4. […] series of typographic cookies was inspired by my research on Mexican pan dulce – the idea is based on a particular variety of pan dulce ['sweet bread'] called besos ['kisses'], […]

  5. […] has come to know and love this neighborhood gem. Get ready to explore the amazing world of pan dulce (sweet breads). The sweet Mexican pastries/breads come in a variety of forms and shapes including […]

  6. Semi said, on 14/05/2016 at 4:41 pm

    I grew up eating pan dulce. I now live in Colorado and have tried the pan dulce from panaderias here. The texture and taste of there pan dulce is not as good as the Sonoran pan I grew up with.

    I make it a point the buy a lot of pan dulce when I visit my home town and bring it back to share with my family. It is the best. I wish I could find a recipe to match.

  7. […] Project‘, which proved to be extremely well-visited from all over the world [see the article]. The idea was based on a particular variety of pan dulce, called besos (‘kisses’), […]


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