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Thursday, January 26, 2023

We ate all this pastry to write the ultimate guide to pan dulce in Yucatán

Not every sweet baked good is in this particular food group, but to clear up the confusion, here's what's in the sweet-bread family

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
Assortment of pan dulce purcahsed in Mérida. And yes, I did eat them all. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

People in Yucatán — and across Mexico for that matter — love pan dulce.

You would be hard-pressed to find someone in Yucatán who does not enjoy starting its day off with a nice fresh concha or hojaldra, at least once in a while. Dipping pan dulce into coffee, milk or hot chocolate is something of a ritual in Yucatán and is known as hacer chuc.

Haciendo chuc with a pan de coco. This is serious business. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Pan dulce is an umbrella term meaning sweet bread. But not all sweetbreads or pastries are pan dulce, nor is all pan dulce necessarily sweet. For instance, donuts are popular in Mexico and are often sold alongside pan dulce, but most people in Yucatán would not think of them as such. And it’s not necessarily because they are considered foreign. After all, despite its French origin and buttery flavor, the croissant — known locally as cuernito — is considered a pan dulce staple.

Confusing right? Well, perhaps that’s part of the magic.

Is this pan dulce? Surely not! Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Pan dulce purchased at local bakeries tends to be quite inexpensive, with most varieties ringing somewhere between 6 and 15 pesos. Packed versions sold in convenience and grocery stores tend to be more expensive and usually come in packages of four. But in all honesty, given all the great bakeries across Yucatán, why would you buy pan dulce from a convenience store?

In many neighborhoods, it is common for people to buy pan dulce from tricycle vendors who toot a little horn or sound a jingle to let you know that they are around. They will often pedal around the same block two or three times to give you time to find your money and get out the door to catch them. 

Panadero circles my block in Fraccionamiento Las Américas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The variety of pan dulce that you can find in Yucatán is immense. Although some have fairly standardized names, others vary widely depending on the bakery and region.

You would need an entire tome of an encyclopedia to describe all of the pan dulce in Yucatán along with its many variations, but here is a list of some of our favorites.

Flaky and delicious oreja, which is “ear” in English. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Orejas are made of puff pastry and get their name because they resemble a human ear. They are almost always generously sprinkled with sugar and come apart when you bite into them. An average oreja fits in the palm of your hand, but many bakeries also make miniature versions. 

The noble concha, a personal favorite. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Conchas are perhaps the most quintessential pan dulce out there. They get their name from their round shape and their striped, seashell-like appearance. They are a  fluffy bread roll topped with a sweet and crunchy topping made of sugar, butter, and flour. Their distinctive pattern is made by pressing a bread stamp over the topping while the dough is proofing. They come in a variety of flavors including vanilla, chocolate, coffee, and strawberry. 

Mantecada in a brown wrapper with raisins on top. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Mantecadas are a type of cupcake likely based on the Italian panettone, though much smaller. Mantecadas have an extremely sweet and buttery flavor and are often accompanied by jam, raisins, sprinkles, or chocolate chips. Bakers sometimes add a little lemon or orange rind to the dough to achieve a citrusy flavor. A common variation on the mantecada is estrellas, which are basically just a star-shaped version of the original.

Cuellitos are glazed with sugar, and unlike orejas, tend to be quite dense and filling. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Cuellitos are a puff pastry molded into a round shape. They are glazed with sugar, and unlike orejas, tend to be quite dense and filling. As just about all puff pastries they leave crumbs everywhere, so avoid eating them in bed unless you want to get invaded by ants. Trust me, I speak from experience. 

Chocolate filled polvoron. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

A polvorón (From polvo, the Spanish word for powder, or dust) is a type of heavy, soft, and very crumbly shortbread made of flour, sugar, milk, and nuts. They come in a variety of shapes, colors, and flavors. As their name suggests, they are very crumbly. They also go extremely well with a nice tall glass of milk.  

Ojaldras de Jamón y queso make for a great on-the-go snack. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Hojaldras de jamón y queso are a puff pastry stuffed with ham and cheese. They are also topped with sugar and are sometimes sold in a shape that resembles an empanada. They are sometimes also filled with ground meat, jalapeños, or pate. Nowadays they are usually sold in pizza-like triangles to eat on the go. 

When you buy pan de coco, make sure to spot little coconut flakes on the top, to verify that the bakery is using natural ingredients. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Pan de coco, meaning coconut bread, are dense bread rolls made with grated coconut. They are less sweet than many of the other options on this list and are sometimes filled with coconut cream. They come in a variety of sizes and go great with a horchata. 

Adding jam or honey to something already so sweet really feels like overkill. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Hojaldras dulces are similar to their more savory counterparts but really knock up the sweetness up to 11. They are covered in sugar — either white or brown — and despite their already sweet taste are often enjoyed with honey or jam. They are extremely crumbly, and often enjoyed at breakfast.

Mini rosca de reyes from earlier this year. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Rosca de reyes, or king’s cake, is a seasonal pan dulce associated with the Three Kings who traditionally bring gifts to children in Mexico on Jan. 6. Inside the pastry are two or three small plastic figures depicting baby Jesus. Finding the plastic figure in the pastry obliges one to offer up tamales on the day of Candlemas (Fiesta de la Candelaria) a Catholic festivity held Feb. 2. The pastry itself is not overly sweet when compared to most other items on this list, but is topped with red, green, and yellow candied fruit. They are usually quite large, but in recent years bakeries have begun to sell them by the slice, or produce miniaturized versions.

Now run out for some pan dulce, put on some coffee and get your “chuc” on. Buen apetito. 

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