One aspect of Mexican cuisine that seems to be a little overlooked is that of bread-making. Although Mexico is not a country that has strong associations to bread as it is the case in many other places around the world, and although we are mostly associated to tortillas; there is actually quite a strong tradition of bread making that we inherited through European colonialism and which became firmly established during the years of Empire in the nineteenth century.
It is particularly during the short period in which Mexico became subject to the puppet emperor Maximilian, where traditions of European influence became adopted by the elites. This included the introduction of bread-making, particularly that of making sweet confections that included pastry, elaborate biscuits and a variety of other items made out of sweetened dough.
As it tends to happen in Mexico, these items were adapted to locality and they took their own shapes and names; so it can be an amusing and strange experience for a foreign person to go and buy ears, gendarmes (or policemen), banderillas (or a hurting device that gets stuck on the back of a bull during a bull fight), shells, bows, rhombs and of course the once yearly Bread of the Dead.
It is not difficult to recreate these confections and recently I made a batch of conchas or shells that we consumed with gusto whilst accompanied with my Mexican parents. They the big judges actually loved them.
The recipe is taken from Diana Kennedy’s El Arte de la Cocina Mexicana. I have done very small adaptations. Be aware, this recipe takes a long time to make, but if you have time and with a little preparation you can have a fun weekend of making bread with delicious results at the end of the day. Since the recipe is so long you might want to make a large batch and then freeze the bread. To enjoy from frozen, simply place in a warm oven to defrost and warm through and enjoy with a cup of steaming coffee or hot chocolate.
Makes about 16 conchas
Begin by making a first ferment or siembra for the bread, many Mexican breads begin by making a first ferment that is used for the confection of the various types of sweet bread including bread of the dead:
250 g strong bread flour
one sachet [8g] of dried yeast
2 Tbsp warm water
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
Put the flour in a bowl. In a small bowl, crumble the yeast and mix with the warm water, beat well to obtain a paste, add this paste to the flour and eggs, beat well using the dough hook attachment of a food mixer for a couple of minutes, the dough has to be soft and sticky. Add a tiny bit more flour so that the dough comes off the bowl, take out and place on a lightly floured surface, using your hands, fold it so that it looks like a round cushion and put on a baking tray that has been covered with some greaseproof paper, make three diagonal cuts across and leave to rise in a warm place for a couple of hours, until it doubles its size.
Use half of this ferment and freeze the rest, if you want you can use all the ferment, in which case it will be necessary to double up the quantities below.
Now you are ready to make the main dough:
Cut the ferment into large chunks, place in the mixing bowl and add the following:
500 g strong flour
180 g sugar
½ tsp salt
45 g soft butter
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
60 ml warm water
Beat the ferment and the ingredients using a dough hook for 8 minutes at a medium-high speed, the dough needs to be soft, sticky with a shiny gloss and it should stick together. Add a little flour so that the dough comes off the mixing bowl. Again place on a lightly floured surface and fold to make a round cushion shape. Butter a large bowl and place the dough in it. Sprinkle with a little flour and cover with cling film and a tea-towel, leave in a warm place for 2 hours or until it has doubled in size. After this period, place in the least cold part of the fridge and leave it to ferment for 8 hours or overnight.
Before finishing with this process, make the butter and sugar cover for the breads, for this you will need:
125 g plain flour
125 g icing sugar
60 g butter at room temperature
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 tablespoon cinnamon
Sieve the flour and icing sugar and add the butter, mix well using your fingers or whiz using the food processor, you are aiming to have a soft dough. Divide in two portions, add the cocoa to one and the cinnamon to the other one, incorporate well. Cover and set aside.
After the long fermentation period, put the dough on a lightly floured surface and turn it into a cushion without pushing too hard, you don’t want to lose the bubbles formed during the fermentation period, divide the dough in four and then in four again in order to obtain 16 pieces, it is wise to weigh the pieces, they should be about 60 g each:
Place some greaseproof paper on three baking trays. Make a dough ball rolling the pieces of dough and place on the trays, leaving a space of about 8 cm in between each piece. Divide the chocolate and cinnamon sugar mixtures in eight small pieces each and roll into rounds that you will flatten using the palms of your hands, press until you have a sheet that is slightly larger than the bread ball:
Place this over the bread ball and press firmly over the dough ball, flattening it a little and repeat with all the bread pieces. Once you have done this, proceed to make the cuts; using a sharp knife, cut into the sugar paste making diagonal incissions:
Leave to rest in a warm place for –yes you guessed another two hours, or until the bread rises once more from this:
Heat up the oven to 190C. Place the trays in the oven and bake for twelve minutes or until they puff up and turn golden brown:
Now they are ready to be eaten!
Although this process seems interminable, it actually works perfecty for a weekend at home, start on Saturday morning, carry on with your life and do the fermentations during the day, leave the dough in the fridge overnight and continue on Sunday am, you should have bread ready to dunk into hot chocolate sometime around brunch time!