Mexicans love their pan dulce (sweet bread), usually washed down with a full glass of milk, coffee or hot chocolate. Morning, afternoon or evening, these pastries adorn nearly every table at every friendly gathering.
Some foreigners find Mexican pan dulce too dry, too heavy, too bland, too crumbly – complaints about them abound. But no matter how you feel, it’s hard to resist that marvelous smell of freshly baked dough luring you into your local panaderia (bakery). Before you know it, you find yourself loading up a tray full of pan you can’t hope to polish off; without the faintest idea of their contents or names.
Not knowing what to expect from your purchase can be half the fun of the adventure, but for those who are curious about how Mexican pastries got their start and their character, the following is a brief guide.
The Spanish brought the tradition of wheat-flour pastries with them to the new world. According to the “Diccionario Enciclopedico de Gastronomia Mexicana” by Ricardo Muñiz Zurita, it was clergymen and women who first started baking pastries in Mexico, teaching their techniques to indigenous bakers, who quickly turned them into popular artisanry, experimenting with shapes, textures, and flavors.
Pan dulce soon became integral to Mexican identity. Muñiz wrote, “Bread, for Mexicans, is not only nourishment, it is a fundamental part of the culture, and the sheer variety is proof of that.”
Many of the same colonial recipes and methods are employed for the bread you find on sale today. However, Muñiz says it wasn’t until the 1940s that daily trips to buy pastries at the corner panaderia became a widespread ritual. Over the years, pastries from around the world have influenced consumer demand, and it is quite common to find danishes and U.S.-style fruit pies amongst the more traditional conchas and bisquetes.
There are several types of masa (dough) used for sweet bread. Masa de bizcocho is heavy on flour and sugar and is used especially for orejas, donas (doughnuts), and campechanas. Masa de manteca is lard heavy, not very sweet, and is used for rock-like cookies such as marranitos and piedras. Masa de panque, used for molded, spongy breads, has more sugar, butter, and egg. Most filled pastries, like empandadas, use masa fiete, while masa de gendarme is used for most cookies.
Here’s a listing of the most common pan dulces:
Bandera: Light and flaky pastry baked in long strips. Sometimes sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Mantecada: Muffin-like spongy bread, heavy on the butter. Common flavor variations are vanilla and chocolate, often lightly sprinkled with nuts.
Concha: Perhaps the most iconic Mexican pastry, the crackled sugar coating resembles a seashell. Often dyed bright pink or yellow.
Cuerno: Named for their shape of a horn, often molded into neat little half-circles. The texture can range from buttery to dry, from light to heavy.
Empanada: Triangular or Half-moon shaped, traditionally filled with fruit preserves or pudding.
Oreja: Ear-shaped or heart-shaped, depending on how you look at it. Thin, flaky pastry, sometimes covered with a thin glaze.
Piedra: Heavy roll, often made with whole-wheat flour or oats, sometimes includes raisins and nuts.
Danes: Mexican version of the classic Danish pastry, lightly coated with butter and often includes a jelly center.
Bisquete: Biscuit, not usually very sweet, can range in texture from light to dense. Sometimes spruced up with chopped nuts or raisins.
Rol: If prepared correctly, should have spongy texture and a syrup made of honey or piloncillo wrapped in its coils. Sometimes it has cinnamon, and/or sugar glaze.