How to make Mexican pan dulce

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:

To 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!

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Chocolate issues

This is a bit of old news, it appeared in July, however the whole context of this kind of information is not new.   For centuries greedy people want to keep hold of all the stocks of a certain commodity in order to push prices up and then become rich quickly or plainly to stay very rich.  According to the Financial Times, Armajaro a London based hedge fund, has bought 240 100 tonnes of cacao beans, which is about 88% of available stocks at Liffe-registered warehouses (Source: Financial Times 16/07/10).

It does not require a large brain to realise what will happen soon… our beloved chocolate, food of ancient Kings and loved by All, will become just that:  A very expensive commodity.

Who benefits from this? Armajaro, who describe themselves as a ‘progressive and successful commodities and financial services business‘ , claim to have ‘traceability and sustainability programs in Africa, that assist growers to improve their profitability and working conditions’. (Source http://www.armajaro.com 11/08/10)

It is interesting that they seem to provide plenty of support so that growers can ‘enhance the returns they receive for their crop’ (Source http://www.armajaro.com 11/08/10). Does this mean that if Armajaro gives support so that a grower can produce a lot of cacao; and if the market price for cacao will rise as a consequence of Armajaro’s buying most of the stock available, then the beneficiaries would include those who grow the cacao in the first place? Lets wait and see what happens… I don’t know but somehow it seems to me that the champagne will flow in the City of London and not in the Côte d’Ivoire… but maybe I am a cynic.

On the other side of the coin, there is Mr Mark Green, founder of the Grenada Chocolate Company , who started his company with the aim of making ‘high quality Organic dark chocolate in Grenada’ (Source http://www.grenadachocolate.com’).

This company is not concerned with buying large stocks of raw material to sell later on, in fact they have a cooperative of cocoa growing farms on an area of  over 150 acres of certified organic land.  The produce travels one mile to a small factory and it is there where they make chocolate bars:

As you can see, the solar powered small factory follows old-fashioned methods for producing chocolate, and the workers are local people who get paid a fair fee for their skills.

Somehow it seems to me that the direct beneficiaries are the growers and producers of the product, as well as the customer who is ensured a treat when buying and delecting from one of these bars of equisite delight!

According to the company:  ‘The original impetus and principle of our cooperative company is to revolutionize the cocoa-chocolate system that typically keeps cocoa production separate from chocolate-making and therefore takes advantage of cocoa farmers. We believe that the cocoa farmers should benefit as much as the chocolate-makers’. (Source http://www.grenadachocolate.com 11/08/09)

This is the mission behind the company in pictures:

In the end, this seems to be an issue of dependency, the Grenadan producers are more able to control their destinies through their work whilst the people who produce for Armajaro seem to be dependent on market forces that –remains to be seen; might benefit from the future high cost of cocoa beans… lets hope that Armajaro is progressive enough to think of those who grow their crops and that the inflated price of chocolate that we all are most likely to pay in the near future benefits the producers, as it happens for those who work at the Grenada Chocolate Company.   If this happens, then the word progressive will be rightly applied to the said hedge fund, if not then there is nothing new under the sun.

An expensive Easter egg

An expensive chocolate Easter egg