Thursday, May 31, 2012

Panem et Conchasium: Mexican Sweet Bread

One thing I love about where I live is the diversity of my neighborhood. People from all over the world congregate to New York, many live in Queens. It seems though that so many people from all over the world come and make Elmhurst their home. According to “Elmhurst in Queens has the highest share of immigrants per total population. Seventy percent of its residents are immigrants. Other top neighborhoods in this category are all in Queens – Jackson Heights, Flushing, Corona and Woodside. In these neighborhoods, six out of 10 residents are born outside of the U.S, according to the same report.”

This means growing up around kids who, or their parents originally hailed from places such as Haiti, The Dominican Republic, China, Tibet, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, even some of the previous residents, Italians and Jews and other Europeans. In school, our forms came in six different languages, and kids were often asked over the PA system to help translate.

I feel very fortunate to live in a place like this, because it’s usually very hard for people to accept things that are different from what they know. I struggle with it too, because I grew up with certain things I knew to be “true” or “they way we do things.” It just is, it’s always been this way. People get very uncomfortable when their values, their “truths” are questioned. But it’s also very liberating to learn other ways of doing things, of being.

Growing up with an Italian mom, bread was important. It was my treat when my mom would clean the house. I’d sit in my high chair, watching Fraggle Rock, and dipping my hunk of Italian bread into melted butter. Hey, it was the mid-80’s, butter wasn’t bad back then. And, while it’s not “proper,” Italian bread is best enjoyed when ripped off in hunks or pieces, rather than cut. Your mom will be mad, but it’s so good.

Bread was also a great staple when my mom wanted something quick and simple to make for us. Italian bread was cheap, I think 3 or four loaves for a dollar, with some cheese and whatever toppings, popped into the oven, and done. With three kids, she could customize each of our breads (tomato and basil on mine, bacon bits or perhaps pepperoni for my siblings). We were all fed and happy. To me, bread is love.

So when I see how different cultures “do bread,” I get excited. I love bread, and it loves me more than I care to admit. On the other hand, I have this preconceived notion of what “bread” is to me. Bread is Italian bread, or we called it “hero bread.” I don’t think of bread and think of Asian bakery, or Indian naan or roti, or Colombian buñuelos although I think they are all delicious. Other breads have been elusive to me.

One bread that has mesmerized me that I never tried before was this Mexican bread. They look like large rolls, but have the prettiest colors and designs baked on top, similar to a pineapple bun. After doing some research I realized these were called conchas. As you can see there are a number of sweet breads, pan dulces, but I am most familiar with conchas where I live. I’ve walked past Vallecito (omg it smells like butter and sugar and LOVE!), I’ve passed Mira Cali, Broadway Bakery (although that’s more of a pizzeria and Western bakery).
Why have I never ventured in, to sample that which I admired from afar? The simple answer is that I didn’t know what I was ordering. Usually pointing and bracing myself for the surprise of what I bought doesn’t faze me. But sometimes it can be intimidating. Plus, adoring from afar creates this mystery, this fantasy, and sometimes that’s better than the real thing.

Sadly, in this case, the conchas fantasy prevailed. I went to a local supermarket that I don’t frequent all that often because it’s a little out of the way, and I swear they’ve renovated four times in a year. When you can’t find canned beans in a predominantly Hispanic supermarket, things are definitely out of order in that place!  I do like this market though because they have more choices than my closer markets. That, and this market just set up a bakery! I was able to buy what I needed to buy, and then sneak in some conchas! Not knowing what to expect (and at fifty cents a piece!), I had to try them all!

So pretty!

Well, they were prettier before they made the schlep 6 or 7 blocks back to my apartment. Some of the decoration fell off, but it remained in the bag. I found the decorative top was tasty, kind of like a sugar cookie in texture and taste. The brown had a hint of chocolate but I couldn’t make out a distinction between the white, pink and yellow. The bread itself was like a roll you’d get a sandwich on, texturally, but it was slightly sweet. It confused me because it wasn’t pastry sweet, it was just a little sweet. Maybe it would be good with some strong café, but I didn’t love it. Maybe that’s what I get for buying grocery store bread instead of bakery bread. Perhaps I will give this another try.

Up next, an announcement I wasn’t sure I wanted to make. I decided to go with it because I think it’s important to be honest, in my personal life, and on this. That, and perhaps to show that everything has a place, even Colombian hot dogs.

Until then, mangia!


  1. I can totally relate to the idea that "bread is love." My Italian mother also made bread a staple of our household. And you're right, seeing how other cultures do their bread is interesting, fun, and often delicious. As for these, those loaves look lovely! :)

  2. Yeah, for some, like The Fisherman, it's rice and noodles, for me its bread. Even more than pasta, it's bread. I love how passionate people are about their "staple" like I've heard various ways to make rice, depending on if you're Persian, Dominican or Chinese. Asian bakery bread is interesting on it's own, there, Slavic rich brown bread, Chinese mantau, a steamed bun, Italian breads, French baking, it's incredible what the world has done with flour.

    Conchas look beautiful, but I have to find a better source. There is a panaderia close to where I love, omigod I smells of butter and sugar and love from blocks away! I might hit that up next!