Get a taste of the sweet life with Pan Dulce
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Tucked back on a dusty, diagonal side street in Kings Beach, La Mexicana is the kind of unassuming storefront that you might never notice. For nearly nine years this little market, at once a carniceria, taqueria and panaderia, has stayed just under the radar, a locals-only kind of favorite. But ask anyone who’s ever stepped inside about the carne asada burritos and you’re sure to see their eyes alight with the memory of a flour tortilla bursting at the seams with savory, seasoned beef, rice and beans and the sweet, refreshing glass of horchata that washes it all down.
But the real treat at La Mexicana is concealed in the market’s center aisle: the little glass cases stuffed with the sweetest treats your inner child could ever love, Pan Dulce. There are lots of different kinds of these Mexican sweet breads. Some are more familiar than others, like the crusty, oval-shaped bolillos used for tortas or to replace tortillas with savory foods. There are muffins and cinnamon rolls and galletas, sugar cookies covered with multi-colored sprinkles.
“Have you ever tasted ears?” asks Jose Pena, La Mexicana’s panadero (baker).
He’s referring to the flaky, buttery orejas. The rabbit ear shapes are not unlike French palmiers, their crunch is irresistible and they melt in your mouth.
Pan dulce is the adaptation of traditional Spanish postres (desserts), brought to Mexico with the Spanish missionaries along with European baking techniques. Now made in innumerable shapes and sizes, pan dulce is an integral part of Mexican culture. There are special breads like pan de muertos for Day of the Dead; popular summer treats like pan de canela, a bread pudding like dessert; and everyday pan dulce like conchas, Pena’s favorite, which are shell-shaped and cakey rolls perfect for dipping in milk or coffee.
Pena makes 5,000 to 6,000 pieces of pan dulce every week for La Mexicana and the store has just ordered new, bigger cases, so he’s likely to be baking even more. A third generation baker, Jose was taught by his father, Dionisio, who learned from his father. Jose’s been baking for 22 years and is now teaching his 14-year old son Ricardo. He smiles when he says this, cheeks plump like proofed dough. He calls pan dulce “comida de securidad” (comfort food), and the description seems accurate.
“It reminds me of growing up in the Mission,” says Diana Cristales-David, proprietor of the new Latina T-shirt company Dulce Designs. Her art reflects the influence ” from sprinkle cookies, to the name Dulce, to the pink bakery boxes she uses to package her shirts.
For many more, pan dulce is a connection to a more distant home. Like other immigrants throughout the centuries, food remains the easiest way to maintain some of what’s been left behind ” think dim sum in Chinatown or even the fervor with which a New Yorker will tell you about their favorite slice of pizza. There is something basic in that cultural attachment to our home’s food, it’s the thread that connects the past and the present.
This becomes even more apparent late in the afternoon and on the weekends, when throngs of people line up to get pan dulce at La Mexicana. Armed with trays and tongs, families pick out their favorites: yo-yos, cake-like balls with a layer of strawberry filling rolled in flaked coconut and canastas, a basket-shaped, cross between a muffin and cupcake with pineapple, apple or strawberry fruit fillings.
La Mexicana sells the most pan dulce after church on Sundays, says one of the store’s owners, Jesus Rodriguez, for many it’s a family tradition. Plus, pan dulce at La Mexicana doesn’t have all of the preservatives and artificial flavors of store bought American pastries, explains Rodriguez. Donuts and Danishes are a bit too sweet.
Pan dulce dough also has a different consistency since many bakers opt for margarine or shortening instead of butter. It also frequently has cinnamon in it, adding a faint aromatic spice when baked. But even if you crave a Krispy Creme, once you try the pan dulce at La Mexicana you’ll likely become a convert.
Pena comes in and bakes every morning, so everything is always fresh. Still, whatever you pile on your tray in the center aisle, save room for the cinnamon-sugar coated churros at the front counter. Unlike many churros, these donut-like confections aren’t dry or chewy, but delicate and filled with Bavarian creme, caramel or strawberry. They’re kept warm and are best dipped in a steaming cup of chocolate. They’re even better savored with your eyes closed.
8515 Brook Avenue
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