- The Nuestro Pan Dulce blog catalogs different pieces of Mexican sweet bread en español, and it's highly worth a visit to begin learning how to tell these breads apart.
- My favorite Mexican food experts, Yuri de Gortari and Edmundo Escamilla, made a great video that showcases a local Mexico City bakery and talks about the history of wheat in the country. (You can also hear the gas guy shouting "Gaaas!" in the background around the four-minute mark.)
- No mention of pan dulce would be complete without the story of my old encounter with the bike-riding pan dulce vendor (complete with audio!) in my former neighborhood.
conchas because I’m obsessed, but there are plenty others I like too: the campechanas topped with burnt sugar that remind me of the best, crispiest pie crust; the puerquitos that taste like piloncillo and molasses; the cocoles, lightly sweet and sprinkled with anise seeds, which taste just about perfect with a cup of coffee. Mexico’s history with breadmaking dates to the beginning of the Spanish Conquest, when, according to Spanish chroniclers, a freed slave named Juan Garrido -- one of the first black men in Mexico -- planted the first wheat seeds, which had been accidentally included in sacks of rice. The first wheat mill opened in Mexico in 1525. Over the course of a few centuries, bread consumption grew slowly, until eventually, in the 19th century, it became present on most tables next to tortillas. According to CANAINPA, Mexico's largest union group for bread makers, there are currently more than 700 types of bread registered in the country. Another article I've read places the number of unique Mexican sweet breads at 1,200 (!), with savory breads numbering 400. Interestingly, as CANAINPA's site notes, the modern panadería — a place where each customer grabs a set of tongs, and serves herself — did not exist until the 1950's. Before that, Mexican bakeries kept the bread behind glass display cases. If I’m being honest, most breads I’ve eaten at neighborhood bakeries in Mexico City look beautiful but don't taste like much. I've eaten the best bread in pueblos, or at nicer restaurants like El Cardenal that use good-quality ingredients. I think change is coming, though. More and more of Mexico's high-class food scene has embraced typical Mexican ingredients; surely recognizing traditional breads will not be far behind. Here are some of my favorite pan dulce photos from my archives. Feel free to share your favorite type of pan dulce with me in the comments! For more on Mexican pan dulce:I am pained when I walk by a bakery in Mexico and can’t go inside. It’s like going to a shoe store for me — I want to look at every single piece and wonder if maybe it’s my type. I usually stick to
The conchas at Mexico City's Rosetta bakery are quilted in dark, chocolate-sugar diamonds. The rolls are dense but somehow airy; yeasty, but not too chewy or sweet. On a recent visit, I gobbled almost en entire chocolate concha before my coffee had even arrived. The secret to these conchas is slow fermentation and a small amount of yeast, which creates a soft, airier crumb, says chef and owner Elena Reygadas, who was hanging out at the bakery recently and answered a few of my questions. “We don’t put a lot of butter,” Reygadas says. “We want to respect the Mexican village-style bread.” Mexico City is undergoing a bakery renaissance, and Rosetta -- a sister establishment to the Rosetta Italian restaurant a block away -- is among those leading the pack. The narrow, warm Colonia Roma cafe invites you to sit and stay awhile. Creamy subway tile covers the walls, and fresh-baked loaves stack neatly inside wooden crates. (One of those loaves is pan de pulque, which is a rare find in Mexico City.) Croissants and chocolatínes mingle in a glass display case near the entrance, along with bulbous popovers bursting out of their little accordion-shaped paper cups. The overall effect is sort of European. But due to the small, sausage-shaped size of the place -- the bakery was once the driveway and garage of a fancy Roma mansion -- it's also quirky, pleasantly chilango. Get there by 8 a.m. on a weekday to snag one of the spot's few coveted seats and to try the conchas. (At 10 a.m. one morning, they'd already disappeared.) The shop's vanilla conchas also contain real vanilla bean. Reygadas admitted it was a little expensive, but I'm hoping she continues to spoil her customers. Rosetta Bakery (the sign says simply "Panadería) Colima 178-A, at the corner of Orizaba Colonia Roma Read about my other Concha Taste Tests in Mexico City here.
Let me blow your mind for a second. In Mexico, there exists an item known as the whipped-cream filled concha. One concha. Two halves. Whipped center. It's a concha sandwich. With sweet sugared cream for the filling. I found these conchas at Pastelería Suiza, a bakery in Condesa known for its Rosca de Reyes cakes. The place is charming -- it opened in 1942 -- but I hadn't been a fan, due to a mediocre pan de muerto I bought there a few years ago. Recently, a local chef saw one of my business cards, which are printed with pictures of conchas. She mentioned that one of her staff members adored Pastelería Suiza's conchas. I tried twice, and failed, to arrive at Pastelería Suiza when the conchas were coming out of the oven. Finally today around 10:30 a.m., there they were: a tray of conchas lined up in a row, bellies bulging with cream. I bought one cream-filled and two plain, and waited while the cashier wrapped the package carefully in paper and twine. Taking it home, I felt a little bit like bursting into song. She even wrapped the conchas with strips of cardboard -- anti-smoosh protectors, if you will, ensuring that the rolls remained fluffy. These conchas got an A+ for presentation alone. And I really, really wanted to like them. However... the cream-filled conchas were too sweet. Mixing the whipped cream with sugar was overload -- I felt like I was eating a Hostess cupcake. Plain whipped cream would've allowed the bread and topping to shine. (And not make me feel like I need to brush my teeth afterward.) The plain conchas were the lightest I've tried in a long time. The roll sliced easily with my serrated knife, and it had just a whisper of orange blossoms, probably from the addition of orange-blossom water. Unfortunately the crumb was too dry. A bit more butter -- not Matisse amounts, but just a wee bit more -- would've been nice. I'm still conflicted about whether adding more butter is true to the concha's original history. I'd love to research early concha recipes, but I'm not sure they even exist. My copy of the Nuevo Cocinero Mexicano, originally printed in 1888, mentions conchas only in a savory context -- the word referred to oyster shells and various ways to fill them. Here's my final rating on Pastelería Suiza. I'd eat the plain ones again, but they wouldn't be my first pick. Appearance: 5. Taste: 3 Overall: 3 So where should I go next? Anyone have any ideas on where I can research panaderías in Mexico?
The last time I wrote about my concha taste test, some of you recommended Matisse as a good next stop. I hadn't known, but the Condesa cafe is reknowned for its conchas -- they're highlighted pretty much anytime anyone writes about Matisse, on TripAdvisor, Chilango, Twitter and Four Square. Last month I was finally able to go for breakfast. Matisse is a charming, cozy spot set in an art deco building on Amsterdam. Tables lie scattered about the house, tucked into nooks and small rooms. We dined on the patio next to several men in business suits. The waiter delivered the sweet bread on a simple white platter. The vanilla concha embarrassed all the other pieces with its girth, which is exactly how I like them. (You show that puny oreja, concha!) When I picked the concha up, though, it was heavy. Like fruit-cake heavy. Took a bite and it tasted almost as dense as it felt -- chewy, doughy. And it shouted of butter. I love butter, but I wanted something light and fluffy. This was the concha equivalent of a guajolota. I was planning to eat a real breakfast at Matisse, so I couldn't fill up on the concha roll. So I only ate half. And then I enjoyed my eggs with nopal and orange juice. Here’s my rating (on a scale of 1 to 5, the latter being the best): Appearance: 3 While big and plump, the roll didn't have a defined sugared crust. It looked like one smooth cap, instead of having pretty stripes, or even lumpy spots. Taste: 3 As I mentioned, too dense. Overall: 3 I loved Matisse's ambience, and I'd definitely go back for breakfast. Just not specifically for the conchas. To all the Matisse-lovers, I'm sorry I don't agree with you. I am willing to go back and try again... but later, after Rosca de Reyes season is over. Here's a quick wrap-up of the concha taste test so far: Leaders: Bondy, DaSilva and Cafe El Popular. Other conchas tried: Maque, Sak's, Snob Bistro, Pastelería Gran Via, Panadería Elizondo, Casa de Pan, Sanborn's, bike-riding pandulce guy, various other street conchas. Next on the list: Panadería at Centro Comercial Las Lilas, a recommendation from a woman I met recently. She was kind enough to tell her friends about my quest and they told her: "Before, the best conchas were at Bondy. Now they're at this place." You can see why I might be excited by this news. I'll also be trying out Pastelería Suiza in Condesa, which I hear has amazing conchas. I tried to go there once but missed my window -- the conchas weren't coming out of the oven for another hour. I'll also be trying all of the leaders again, just for calibration purposes.
Hey! Speaking of conchas, I have a post up about my concha obsession on The Eaten Path, an international-ish food blog that covers everything from barbecue to Thai food. Take a looksie if you've got a few minutes. The photo above is of my most recent favorite concha, from El Popular in the Centro Histórico.
I was itching to get out of the house last weekend, so on Sunday morning I told Crayton: "We're going to breakfast." Didn't feel like taking a cab anywhere, and I wasn't in the mood for Sanborns or Bisquets Obregón. So we settled on Snob Bistro, an upscale-ish breakfast and lunch place in the Zona Rosa, about a 10-minute walk from our house. The online menu sounded appetizing enough -- it had the typical Mexican chilaquiles and huevos, plus a yummy-sounding eggs with goat cheese in a pasilla chile sauce. Plus, it was just kind of funny to visit a place called Snob. The website proclaims, "Are you a snob? Us too!" (The Zona Rosa, incidentally, has quite a few of these oddly named shops. I've also noticed a lingerie boutique called "Mom.") At around 11 a.m., Snob was empty, except for one table of about six people. (Bad sign?) We ordered coffee, and I asked for a concha roll, which was presented in a small basket with a croissant and a cinnamon roll. Wasn't expecting much, since it was 11 a.m. and past the normal concha-baking hour. But the roll was surprisingly good. The breakdown: Crumb: Above average -- moist, but not so saturated with butter that it leaves an oil slick in your mouth. Sugary crust: Decent. Stayed on the roll nicely (no loose-sock effect), and tasted faintly of orange blossom water. It seemed like it was missing something, though. Maybe a touch of cinnamon. Or maybe I just prefer chocolate. Overall: Three stars out of four. I'd buy conchas here if I was organizing a brunch party, and needed to pick up something quick from the neighborhood. Still haven't tried the rolls from Sanborn's, though, which is technically closer to my house. On Snob's food: It was fine. I got the eggs with goat cheese, and they were tasty enough. Crayton got the huevos divorciados and liked them, too. I'm not sure I'd go back though -- the service was quite slow, even for Mexico standards, and the juice didn't taste fresh-squeezed. (I sound like a yuppie, but seriously: if you cannot get fresh-squeezed juice at a place that calls itself "Snob Bistro," then what kind of world are we living in?) The food also needed to be a bit more fabulous for the prices. The corn tortillas that came with my meal had the bitter taste of too much slaked lime. The goat-cheese eggs cost 70 pesos (~$5.50 USD), which is on the high side for one breakfast plate in Mexico. On the way there, we walked past a restaurant advertising an entire paquete -- juice or fruit, roll, plato fuerte and coffee -- for 54 pesos. Think we may try that place next time. Snob Bistro Londres 223 between Praga and Varsovia tel. 5207 8963 Other branches located in Polanco, Interlomas and elsewhere
Every morning at 7 a.m., we hear a loud, screechy bicycle horn honking right outside our window. It sounds like this: Originally, I had no idea what this horn meant. Then I checked the Internet and realized it was a neighborhood vendor selling pan dulce. Of course! Every service-provider has his own sound here -- the trash man with his bell; the gas guy who yells "Gaaaas!"; the camote guy whose little cart sounds like a teakettle that's about to explode. I've been wanting to run down and meet the bread guy for months, but I'm never awake and lucid by 7. Today, the stars finally aligned. Crayton had gotten up at 6:30 because he has the early shift this week. I'd been tossing since 5:30, thinking about India, my writing project, this blog, and whether I might be able to squeeze in a haircut today. At 6:30, I got up with Crayton and made some tea. I put on tennis shoes and a fleece, because it's freaking cold in my house. Then I walked to my desk and realized: Holy god, it's 6:45 a.m. and I am completely dressed and ready to meet the pan dulce guy! I excitedly Twittered about it. Then I put my camera, my tape recorder, and some change in my pockets. (The fleece happened to have pockets, another sign from God.) Then I waited. At about 7:02, I heard a faint honking sound. eee-eee. eeee-eeee. I flew out the door. By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs, though, the sound had disappeared. I stared out the window and thought, a little sadly: "Maybe he's not coming today." So I walked back up to my apartment and puttered around. Checked email. Sipped my tea. At about 7:08, the sound came again, but stronger this time. eee-EEEE eeee-EEEE eeee-EEEE I wasn't expecting to hear it. I ran out the door holding the waistband of my flannel PJs, which were loose and about to fall down. Immediately outside my door, and a little to the left, was the bread vendor: a young man of about 25, sitting on a bicycle outfitted with a large, gingham-lined basket. My flour-filled pretties sat inside. The man looked at me kind of funny, because I was the only person outside in pajamas. But he didn't say anything except "Buenos días." I tried to act professional and said, "Buenos días" back. But inside, I wanted to shout to everyone walking by, "I FOUND THE PAN DULCE GUY!" With a dumb grin on my face, I picked out a chocolate concha and a bisquet; a knobby, rounded piece of bread covered in sugar called an "español," and a muffin. (Normally I wouldn't have bought so much, but I was on a high.) He placed everything in a blue plastic grocery bag and handed it to me. "Este…." I said. Este is the Spanish word for "um." "Sí?" "Este…. le molesta si tomo un foto del pan?" Do you mind if I take a picture of the bread? He smiled and said he didn't mind. I pulled out my camera from my fleece… and promptly discovered that the battery was dead. Oh, crap. I could not miss this opportunity. This was the actual pan dulce guy, standing right here in front of me. I had to have visual evidence of our encounter. So I asked if he minded if I went up to my apartment real quick for my other camera. "Are you going to be long?" he asked. "Oh no," I said. "I live right here." I pointed. He nodded, and I took off running to my apartment, where I rushed up the stairs, holding my pants, and unlocked the door and grabbed my iPhone. Fifteen seconds later I was back downstairs, standing in front of the basket. I took a few photos and recorded his horn. He told me the bread comes from a bakery near Tacuba, one of the Metro stations in the Centro. "Anytime you need bread, I'm here," he said. Then he took off on his bicycle, honking his horn the whole way. As a postscript: The concha was very good. Not Bondy quality, but up there.
Two of my Mexican friends, Jesica and Martha, have been teasing me about my high concha roll standards. They can't understand how I didn't like Maque's conchas. "We're going give you a blind taste test!" they said. My response: Bring it. A teensy part of me was starting to lose faith, though. How could I have only found one great concha roll so far, after so much testing? The concha gods must have felt my pain, because yesterday, they redeemed my faith. I finally tried the conchas at El Cardenal, the famous restaurant in the Centro Historico. Mexico guidebooks tout the place as having the best breakfast in the city. And some of you also recommended the restaurant's conchas in the comments. I admit, I wondered whether the hype would be justified. In my experience in Mexico, people rave about a place, I go, and half the time it ends up being just okay. But this place was different. We waited 20 minutes for a table -- which my dining companion Ruth told me was typical for a weekday -- and were given menus full of amazing-sounding breakfast items: "apporeado con huevo," or scrambled eggs mixed with thin slices of beef in a guajillo chile sauce; "hacienda de Puebla," a concoction of sunny side-up eggs on tortillas with refried beans, cheese and strips of poblano peppers; "revueltos con chilorio," or eggs Sinaloa-style mixed with minced pork, tomatoes and dried chiles. We chose three plates and decided to share. First up were the gorditas hidalguenses, a dish from the state of Hidalgo comprising tortillas soaked in salsa verde, filled with shredded meat and topped with shredded cheese. They looked like they'd taste heavy, but they didn't. The dish was light but still comforting, and brightened up by a big dose of cilantro. Then came the huevos ahogados, two poached eggs that sat in a stew of warm black beans, onions, chiles and thick chunks of panela cheese, which is made at the restaurant's own dairy. The bean broth was so good, you just had to soak it up with a crusty piece of bread. We had a tortilla, or Spanish omelet, with escamoles (ant eggs) and diced nopal. It was the first time I'd tried ant eggs, and sadly, they didn't really taste like anything. In the photo below, the ant eggs are those little white-bean looking things. Before all of it, though, we had the concha. It arrived on at tray, carried by a black-and-white suited waiter. I pointed at it and he placed it on my plate. It was still warm. Fork in hand, I cut into it and it gave easily -- good sign. The last thing you want is a concha that's so tough, it requires a knife. This roll was still soft. Pliable. I took a bite and tasted warm butter and just a smidge of yeast. The topping crunched slightly, due to all the sugar granules. It was everything you'd want a concha roll to be: comforting, lightly sweet, moist but not too dense. And actually, I almost liked the topping better than Bondy's, which tends to smother the top of the bread. El Cardenal's concha topping looked more authentic, with thin stripes quilted over the roll's crown. The best way to experience this roll is with a cup of the restaurant's homemade hot chocolate. The waiter offers it as soon as you sit down. I'm not generally a big hot chocolate fan, but the experience of the two together was -- I'm going to say it, and I don't care if it sounds overstated -- luxurious. It's one of those things that leaves you shaking your head in awe. Or at least, it left me shaking my head in awe. Can't wait to go back. I only tried two pieces of sweet bread from the waiter's tray.
Malinalco is a small town about two hours southwest of here, and our friends Brendan and Joy have raved about it for months. Up until this past weekend, they'd gone three times already, staying at a rental house with a lush garden. We finally joined them this past weekend. And wow. The town was framed by these lumpy, odd-looking mountains, covered in trees. And everything, and I mean everything, was blooming. Wildflowers sprouted up over the sides of the road. Bougainvillea draped over the sidewalks. Dozens of potted succulents sat in people's front yards, spilling out of their pots and inching toward the ground. We spent Dia de los Muertos there, and while there wasn't a ton going on, we did walk to a 17th-century chapel in our neighborhood on Sunday night. The bells had clanged all day on Sunday (literally: ALL DAY), and we wondered what was going on. So we walked up into the churchyard around 9 p.m. and found the bell-ringer sitting at a table, a rope wrapped partially around his foot. He was ringing the bell that way: lifting his foot into the air, and pulling the rope with his arm. A different man, who wore a wide-brimmed straw hat, offered us atole and a "tamalito" from a basket. We took and ate and drank, and asked them about their traditions. (Meanwhile a drunk man in the background get yelling, "Preguntanles!" like he wanted to ask us a question. No one paid him any attention.) Turns out for Dia de los Muertos, church volunteers collect small donations of fruit, bread, or squash from the neighborhood. On the evening of Nov. 1 -- that very same night we were there -- they'd start ringing neighbors' bells around 11 p.m. We thanked them and left. Sure enough, around 11:30 p.m. that night, they rang our bell. We gave them oranges and some bread we'd bought at the market that day. It was a neat experience that could have been the highlight of the weekend. But then on Monday, the three women in our group decided to get spa treatments at a bohemian place on the outskirts of town. They had a labyrinth and a gift shop that sold yoga pants and incense. I had a 90-minute hot stone massage, where I pretty much melted into the table. Afterward, Joy asked me what it was like, and all I could say was, "Uhhmm... good." My brain was too mushy to do any real thinking. (The best part: the massage was on sale for less than $60.) You wouldn't necessarily think a town in the middle of nowhere would have good restaurants, but somehow, it's worked out that way. The day we arrived, Joy and Brendan took us to one of their favorite spots on the square, where we had some fabulous-looking panuchos (a Yucatecan dish where tortillas are stuffed with beans, and topped with spicy shredded pork); and almond-crusted trout in tamarind sauce, and Jamaica flower-stuffed chicken. I really didn't want to leave. Alas, all good times must come to an end, so here I am, back in DF. But since I somehow lead an extremely blessed life, I'm traveling again today: Off to Taxco for a night with some girlfriends.
Earlier this week, while pondering the ethereal concha roll (why is perfection so out of reach?), I suddenly had an epiphany. Why am I limiting myself? I could be searching for the best bakery, while I'm searching for the best concha. The best bisquet. The best cuernito. The best… pan de muerto. Yeah. The list might be longer than I thought. I'm gonna need a bigger pair of pants. Suddenly fueled up about having a purpose in life, I hit the streets on Tuesday with a taxi driver I like, Memo. We hit seven bakeries in three hours, and finished at my friend Julie's house for the final taste-test. Did anyone best Bondy, La Reina de la Concha? You'll have to find out. ...