Pan Dulce is a staple in our Mexican culture—not necessarily because it is an indigenous food, but more so because of how we have turned something that started off as simple bread, to what it is now. A pastry that is complex in flavor and familiar to the flavors of Mexico.
It began when the Spanish introduced wheat in Mexico, during the time of the Conquest. The grain was not only a Spanish staple food but it was also a religious necessity – the only grain that the Catholic Church recognized suitable for the making of Eucharist wafer. The indigenous population at first did not desire wheat—many believed it tasted bland. It was not until an inventive viceroy dipped his bread in hot chocolate, a custom that quickly caught on as it tasted better than simple bread. The people of Mexico never looked back.
In Mexico, the tradition of eating sweet pastries for breakfast or mid-afternoon snack, known as merienda, goes back to the 16th century. Pan dulce is considered to be a Mexican cuisine even though its origins are European. The desire for sweetness in bread was put into practice and fulfilled when French influence took hold in Mexico in the 19th century. The French were defeated in 1862 but left behind a taste and appreciation for rich pastries, as well as their art of bread making. It eventually helped to establish the Mexican baking tradition that has become one of the most inventive in the world. As a result, many Mexican panaderías sprouted up throughout Mexico as panaderos (bakers) went on adopting a variety of French techniques in making dough – and though much of pan dulce resembles French pastries, their flavor and texture are often different. This is because they added Mexican ingredients such as corn flour, piloncillo (raw sugar cane), chocolate and vanilla as well as native fruits (pineapple, guava) and native vegetables (sweet potato, pumpkin) to some. It is estimated that today there are between 500-2,000 types of breads currently produced in Mexico. The Mexican panaderos (bakers) took these techniques and tastes they had come to love and began creating new bread designs in playful shapes with names that were associated with their appearance. Some of these include: marranitos (piglets), conchas (seashells), moños (bowties), and more! With the invention of pan dulce in Mexico, other culturally significant breads were created in order to celebrate occasions and traditions, such as pan de muerto, buñuelos and rosca de reyes – only sold in panaderías a few days prior to, and during, these occasions. These special breads are part of the traditional customs that have been around for many centuries. The stories behind these breads derive from religious beliefs, predominantly from Roman Catholic Church, though pan de muerto may show some links to the Aztecs tradition.
For the Mexican American, pan dulce is a tradition and a part of our culture that we get to experience often. Whether enjoying it over a cup of coffee with family, or doing it as a merienda (mid-afternoon snack), this is something we hold dear to our hearts at De Alba Bakery. We are glad we can keep this alive for so many that visit our bakery, daily.
Flores, Joseluis, Dulce: Desserts in the Latin American Tradition (Rizzoli, 2010)
Palmerin, Stephanie in Maria Herrera-Sobek (ed), Encyclopedia of Latino Folklore, ABC-CLIO, 2012, pp. 869–870