While there’s always the question of how much is too much, I think it’s safe to say we all like something sweet now and then. So, when you’re looking for something special to nibble on in Mexico, pan dulce is sugar and spice and everything nice.
Surprisingly, that’s been one of the biggest food challenges for me since moving to Mexico 17 years ago. Many of the desserts, cookies and sweets here are just way too sweet for my taste. And as much as I like to (and know how to) bake, sometimes I just want an easier option than making it myself.
The most readily available treat in Mexico is pan dulce, a name that encompasses a tantalizing array of sweet pastries. Each has its own characteristics, texture and level of sweetness. Some of these are universally found throughout the country—conchas and ninos en vueltos, for example—although size and shape may differ slightly; others are regional specialties, beloved in certain areas and eaten as exotic specialties elsewhere.
How did these elegant pastries become such an integral part of Mexican cuisine and culture? For that we need to look at a little history. In the early 1500s, Roman Catholic monks brought wheat seeds with them from Spain in order to make communion wafers and other unleavened sacramental breads. Most likely they came with the conquistadores. The earliest record of wheat was in what’s now Mexico City, in 1523.
Those ancient wheat strains are valued now for their genetic heritage, and “wheat historians and pathologists” (yes, that’s a thing) have tracked down hundreds of varieties throughout Mexico, spread by, for example, Dominican monks in Oaxaca state and Franciscan friars in Michoacán. That’s why you still see sheaves of wheat used in church decorations and celebrations in some rural areas. Because of the isolation of these old missions, the wheat varieties being found have never mixed with more modern strains and have retained their individual traits as well as natural disease and pest resistance. (Jump to the present day and northern Mexico is the country’s largest producer of wheat—specifically durum wheat, used primarily in making pasta and couscous—although most of the Mexican crop is, sadly, sold as animal feed due to a lack of demand.)
From this introduction it was a small and easy step for local people to embrace the new grain and incorporate it into their diet, both for its apparent sacred nature, but also for its versatility and flavor. Flour tortillas were a logical thing to make, but pan dulce?
Again, some history: Food historians trace this culinary innovation to the mid-1800s when the French occupied Mexico. True to form, the gastronomic landscape was one of the many changes brought by this occupation. Beginning in 1876 and all during the controversial 30-year reign of President/dictator Porfirio Diaz—a time called “Porfiriato”—war against the French occupation raged on and off, with Diaz at the head. Eventually, after being forced to resign from office in disgrace, he fled to exile in Spain and later settled in Paris, where he died and is buried. Despite so many political differences and years of war with France, Porfirio was a dedicated Francophile who loved—wait for it—elegant French pastries. Thus, pan dulce was incorporated into the palate of the Mexican people.
Since then, creative bakers across Mexico have come up with innumerable shapes, flavors and names for these sweet, pretty breads, traditionally enjoyed in late afternoon with hot chocolate or coffee. It’s estimated that Mexico is home to many hundreds (some say 2,000) of kinds of pan dulce. Sprinkles and icings in a rainbow of colors, unusual intricate shapes, flaky, airy, dense or fluffy doughs; each is different and worth experiencing.
Where to find pan dulce? Perhaps the question should be, where can’t you find them! Restaurants offer trays of them with breakfast; grocery stores have shelves and shelves of them. And while those are viable options, I want to encourage you to look a little deeper, closer to the source. Pan dulce are baked without any preservatives so their shelf-life is short. (Unless they’re packaged, which don’t count as the real thing in my book and shouldn’t in yours either.) Once you’ve tried a fresh-baked, feathery-soft conchita you’ll understand what I mean.
Often you can find someone selling just-baked, still-warm pan dulce from the back of their car outside a government building or in a busy section of town toward the end of the workday, say about 4 pm, or a home baker with a bicycle cart peddling through the neighborhood at about the same time. Alternately, go to a bakery early in the morning or in late afternoon when the pan dulce are fresh and just out of the oven.
Here’s a list of some of the most common pan dulce; who knows what you’ll find where you are!
Conchitas. Fluffy round pastry pillows topped with a thick striped crust of sugar and cinnamon. Sometimes colored pink or blue.
Ciudadela. Crispy-sweet pastry drizzled with sugar syrup, in various shapes, including Napoleons, shaped like the emperor’s hat.
Mantecada. A rich yeasted vanilla cupcake, traditionally baked in red cupcake paper.
Elote. A cookie, made with corn flour, baked in the shape of an ear of corn. Not the same as…
Pan de Elote. Mexican-style cornbread, moister and more pudding-like than we’re used to.
Polverones. Round or triangular vanilla sugar cookie, traditionally served at weddings. (These are the traditional Mexican wedding cookies.) Often colored in pastel or a rainbow of colors. Crunchy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside.
Nino en vuelto. Jam-filled sponge cake, like a jelly roll.
Novia. Domed, rolled cinnamon-sugar pastry.
Canas. Open-ended, fruit-filled rolled pastry.
Coliflur. Vanilla cupcake with a “bumpy” top (like the vegetable).
Picón. Round cake with a bubbly mass of cooked sugar on top.
Empanadas. Small baked turnovers filled with cajeta (goat milk caramel), pineapple, guayaba or other fruit filling.
Ojos de Buey. Bright red balls of vanilla cake covered with shredded coconut.
Churros. Not technically pan dulce, churros are a basic choux pastry dough squeezed through an extruder, deep-fried and rolled in cinnamon sugar. Sometimes they are filled with chocolate or cajeta. Originally from Spain.
Buen provecho everyone!