As a boy growing up in Northwest Missouri, there were few things more delightful than returning home after school and opening the back door of our home to the aroma of something fresh from the kitchen oven prepared by my mom or grandma. Those days are now decades past, but the delight of that aroma still thrills me when I pass my favorite bakery in Ajijic, Mexico.
When we arrived at Lake Chapala in 2007, there were the expected store front bakeries and commercial outlets along the north shore of Lake Chapala that offered bread, cookies, doughnuts, cakes and a variety of breakfast pastries arranged in cardboard boxes or cellophane wrapped or in decorative plastic containers. They were delicious but not all that different from supermarket and commercial bakeries in the United States. Though attractive, the homemade aroma was missing.
Not long after settling in Ajijic, I heard from acquaintances of a small family operated bakery not far from our neighborhood. A block north of the main east-west carretera (highway) at Calle Juarez and up a brick alleyway to the west. Although not a main street operation and discreetly hidden from the public eye, I was challenged to check it out. As I reached the entrance, that aroma brought back my childhood memories of mom and grandma in the kitchen. I was at Panaderia Rojas with men in aprons, but the same sensation of seeing mom or grandma in their aprons, and the pans of baked goods still warm and fresh after emerging from an oven. They beckoned me to pull up a chair, pour a glass of milk and do as I did after school, enjoy a treat that wouldn’t spoil my dinner appetite.
Despite the virus pandemic that challenged many local mom and pop businesses at Lakeside, Panaderia Rojas has not only continued to operate, but in 2021 moved a few blocks farther north on the Upper Ajijic mountainside. An annex to the family home at Calle Emiliano Zapata #6 – just steps west of the main north-south corridor of Calle Colon and four blocks north of Ajijic Plaza – this family business continues its tradition of quality products and service, and prospers by also supplying many of the local corner grocery stores
The aroma initially tantalizes, but because you enter the working bakery itself and not a sterile store front, it is a marvelous sensory experience.
Jose, Moy, Javier and their associates create these wonderful baked goods with skills developed over many years. If you arrive around noon, Jose will be using a very large wooden paddle to move the pans in and out of a Mexican-style brick wall oven. All along the side wall are wooden cooling shelves that hold pans of fresh-from-the-oven baked goods that are soon brushed with a glaze or rolled in a sheet pan of sugar by Moy or Pauline.
The variety offered at the bakery represent traditional Mexican table requests. For Catherine and me, one of our favorites is the loaf of multi-grain unsliced bread with light brown texture and oat flakes on top, or maybe large flaky crescent rolls with a buttery-golden texture. The empanadas (turnovers) remind me of the pie shells my mom and grandmother would hand role. Rojas offers empanadas with a choice of vanilla cream, pineapple or strawberry fillings. The large raisin-cinnamon rolls are a daily feature and on occasion, come with the addition of nut chips.
If a simple pyramid-cone-shaped sugar roll attracts your attention, they have what they call a “novia.” If you want to fill a cookie jar at home, there are few better cookies than the cinnamon-spice, but the cookie jar neck needs to be a wide opening because their cookies are giant size. Panaderia Rojas operates fresh daily, Monday-Saturday. You should know that this is an overview of what to select when you visit the panaderia and you are in the heart of the bakery kitchen, not a showcase display. Paulina lines my pastry box with white paper and then custom fills my order and encases the box in a plastic bag that fogs-up from steam from the warm pastry that is fresh from an oven.
At this holiday season, the 12th Day of Christmas, called Dia de Tres Reyes (Three Kings Day celebrated each January 6th), offers a special pastry, the Rosca de Tres Reyes, a wreath-shaped buttery bread dough laden with candied fruit. Hidden within the dough is a plastic infant image that represents the hiding of Jesus from the wrath of King Harod. Family and friends gather on Dia de Tres Reyes to cut and share the rosca, and the person who finds the infant in their piece hosts a tamale party or similar meal on February 2 that officially closes the Christmas season.
You can buy a rosca at the supermarket or a commercial bakery, but years of experience living here in Ajijic has taught us the best is found at Panaderia Rojas. We order a “grande” to be picked up still warm from the oven. It is part of our good life celebrating the holiday season at Lake Chapala.