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Tempting Sweet Breads : Pan de Dulce
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Lynn Cordova, Inez Caldwell, Victor Canchola and Florence Brame comps.
Transplanted Mexican-Americans who branch out to different parts of the U.S. complain of many food woes. Along with a scarcity of chile and decent tortillas is the problem of no Mexican bakeries where they can purchase pan de dulce (sweet bread). A request for sweet bread may yield animal glands!
An El Paso tradition for many families is to have a tall glass of milk and some kind of sweetened bread for a meal. For some families such a light dinner has been a necessity. In the Depression a nickel or dime could buy enough pan to feed many mouths. Even today you can buy a grocery bag full of pan de dulce for under $5.
Carlos and Alicia Cordova, both retired, grew up in the Second Ward and remember that for their First Holy Communion the big treat was to be served pan de dulce and chocolate by their teachers. Alicia says instead of bringing a gift to a birthday party, the guests would take a piece of sweet bread for the birthday child. There would be a big bowl at the entrance of the house for the guests to leave their gifts.
Probably the most famous bakery for those families who lived in the Second Ward, or Segundo Barrio, is still the Bowie Bakery. Generations of families have made the drive downtown to buy sweet bread once they have left the barrio. Today you normally have to stand in line in the bakery, and there is even a Bowie Bakery #2 on North Loop Drive.
The most interesting feature of the bakery is the variety of pastries and their unusual names. New favorites have evolved from holiday customs involving certain shapes and flavors of bread. It is plain, spiced, toasted, coated, sprinkled, twisted and filled. If you have a sweet tooth for pastries, you can die and go to heaven at the Bowie Bakery.
Almost all of the breads are prepared using the same ingredients of flour, water, yeast, salt and shortening. The basic dough is known as the alma, or soul, of the bread. The different types are made by the addition of sugar, eggs, shortening and spices.
Special holiday pan de dulce includes buñuelos usually made to celebrate the Christmas and New Year season. John O. West, local folklorist and author, describes the buñuelos as being plate-sized sweet flour tortillas, deep-fried and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Julia Olmos, a retired El Paso cook, says her grandmother identified the buñuelo as the type of bread eaten by Joseph and Mary on their journey to Bethlehem. Instead of sugar, their bread was topped with salt, since sugar was such a luxury in biblical times.
Cuernos (horns) a sweet crescent-shaped bread flavored with cinnamon, is a traditional bread for All Saints Day, November 1. The crispy cooked ends represent the horns of a bull, which symbolically prod the sinner. The custom associated with it requires the blessing of a smaller version of the bread by the priest to atone for venial sin. The recipient then carries the little rolls in a pocket or purse for good luck or a special blessing.
On Maundy Thursday, commemorating Jesus' Last Supper, a braided bread ring, the rosca, is taken to the church to be blessed by the priest. The bread is then kept at home in the belief that the family will never lack food in the coming year.
Special cookies are baked for weddings, anniversaries and Christmas. Biscochos are rich, bite-sized flour and shortening cookies mixed with port wine and topped with cinnamon and anise. The best ones melt in your mouth.
Empanadas are small piecrust pockets containing apple or pineapple pie filling. A variation is a spiced bread dough crust with pumpkin inside. Also available is a white sugar-dusted piecrust filled with vanilla pudding.
Another filled sweet bread is elote (corn). This bread is made of soft anise-flavored dough and filled with strawberry jelly. At the Bowie Bakery, cuernos are also filled with crema (vanilla pudding) or pineapple pie filling.
Marranitos (little pigs) are thick pig-shaped ginger cookies. Another type of cookie is a large pink one known as polvoron roja (pink powder). It is sweet and faintly cherry-flavored. Galleta de nuez is a vanilla-flavored bar cookie, laced with chopped pecans.
Pan de huevo (egg bread) refers to a number of different round flat breads with colored powdered sugar toppings and various flavorings. They are usually not very sweet except for the topping and taste great dunked in coffee. The powdered sugars form spiral and diamond shapes on the top of the bread, which is available in vanilla and chocolate.
A variation of pan de huevo is arracadas (earrings). They have a center, which looks like the regular pan de huevo, but another sweeter dough is wrapped around the outside and designed with ridges. Cabeza de Negro is shaped like other pan de huevo with little pinches of dough in a pattern similar to short braided hair. It is made from dough sweetened with cinnamon and anise and covered with granulated sugar.
There are three different types of "plain" bread. Semitas are similar in shape to pan de huevo but have no topping. They are honey-flavored and often have anise added. It is believed to be a traditional bread for the Semites, hence the name. Protestantes are oval, golden-brown with breads, for some reason associated with Protestants. Pan de suelo (floor bread) is round and not very sweet.
Other breads include magdalenas, which are round, flattened and sweetened with coconut and raisins. Calvos (baldies) are also known as novias (brides). They are the same shape as the magdalenas, but are ringed with coconut and iced with white confectioners' frosting. They resemble a bald man's head with a fringe of hair.
Two types of bread made with multi-layer pastry are almohadas (pillows) and campechanas. Campechanas (jovial persons) are flaky, round and golden-brown with a shiny sugar glaze. They are sometimes made in different shapes and filled with jelly or pie filling.
Some American bread are also available but have local names. Cinnamon rolls are Simones (slang for "yeah, man"). Jellyrolls are niños envueltos (children wrapped up). Round, pudding-filled doughnuts frosted with chocolate are sapos (frogs). The closest bread to Danish is called a casuela (casserole dish). It is doughnut-shaped and has fillings of pudding and cherry jelly. Tarts are little baskets, or canastillas, filled with pineapple.
Two very sweet creations are yoyos and marianas. Yoyos look just like their namesake. They are two soft cookies joined with thin glue of confectioners' icing. Then they are rolled in raspberry jelly and finally in coconut. Marianas look similar to the yoyos with the raspberry and coconut coating but are shaped like the small sponge cake Americans use for strawberry shortcake. They have confectioners' sugar icing piped around the top of the cake which contains cherry or pineapple filling. They are extremely rich!
These are not all of the different types of pan de dulce made in our border area. There are close to 300 different types of bread made in Mexico that have been documented, not to mention the local variations. However, this is a good start on the most common ones, so that the next time you are feeling adventurous or want to surprise the people who work at a Mexican bakery, you can go in and ask for your sweet bread by name.