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La Vida Dulce

Mexican bakeries offer a taste of the sweet life

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If you've not yet visited one of the growing number of Mexican bakeries in town, you have a treat in store. "Most of my customers are Mexican and I see them on a regular basis," said Augustine Cervantes, owner of Odalys Panaderia y Pasteleria, who opened his third bakery two years ago. "But about 20 percent of weekend customers are American."

A daily trip to the panaderia, or bakery, is part of the Mexican lifestyle. At Odalys, one side of the bakery is filled with cases of cookies and sweet breads, the other has large baskets filled with hot bread and rolls, while the front counter displays flans, colorfully decorated tres leches cakes, and other desserts. The storefront window showcases an extremely large, multi-tiered pink and white wedding cake with a price tag of $550.

Mexican bakeries do not possess the same distinction as European bakeries in the US, although Mexican baked goods are closely linked to European colonization. Wheat flour was first introduced by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s. The Spanish insisted the indigenous people plant wheat, a necessary ingredient for the Eucharist, the communion wafer. However, European white bread did not gain in popularity until someone discovered dunking bread into a morning cup of hot chocolate tasted good.

But it was the Napoleonic French, who were later initially defeated in the celebrated Cinco de Mayo battle of 1862, who brought pastries to Mexico. However, the delicacy and richness of French pastry disappeared when Mexican bakers substituted pork lard and vegetable shortening for the more expensive butter. Today, most bakeries don't use lard, but margarine. For the past 150 years bakers in Mexican panaderias have developed uniquely Mexican and colorful sweets by combining pastry dough with local ingredients such as vanilla, pineapple, guava, coconut, and camote, a kind of sweet potato.

If you're used to pastry shops or bakeries with someone behind the counter to help you, you may feel lost. Mexican bakeries traditionally are self-serve and the items in the glass cases are not labeled nor priced. Prices are per piece, rather than by weight. In most bakeries, breads are all one price, and cookies and sweets are another. So pick up a large stainless platter, some tongs, and help yourself. Prices at Odalys range from $.60 for a loaf of bread to $1.50 for a dessert.

At the heart of a Mexican bakery is the bolillo, a French roll with a soft interior and a crisp, golden crust. Bolillos need to be bought fresh and eaten that day, or the next, since they contain no preservatives. Traditionally this bread is served with stews or is stuffed with cold cuts, nopales, cheeses, or other fillings. Molletes, for example, are bean-stuffed bolillos. For this sandwich the interior, or migajon, of the bread is removed (and saved for bread pudding). The hollowed roll is filled with refried beans and a medium sharp cheddar cheese and heated in an oven until the cheese melts.

Pan de Pulque is large, round bread dotted with sesame seeds and traditionally leavened with cactus beer. This bread is used to make a cemita, a sandwich of pork or chicken.

In the glass cases you will find polvorones, Mexican sugar cookies, which range in color from pink to plain with rainbow sprinkles. These cookies are too large to dunk in milk, which wouldn't be a good idea anyway since they readily crumble. The most appealing cookie in the case is the cochinito, a molasses cookie shaped like a plump, albeit flat, piglet with red eyes. Children of any culture would love these cookies.

The soft, dome-shaped, sweetened egg-based breads (pan dulce) with a patterned paste on top are conchas. These gently flavored breads are great for dunking in morning hot chocolate or a cafe con leche. Empanadas are Mexican Danishes: pastry dough turnovers filled with apple, cherry, pineapple, apricot, or pumpkin.

Baked goods are often shaped into and thus named after (a la Italian pasta) different items: corbatas (bow ties); volcanes (volcanoes); cuerno (bull horns); pollos (chicks), novias (brides), orejas (ears), bigotes (mustaches), and besos (kisses). Those who like palmiers, or elephant ears, will like orejas, although they're made with shortening, not butter.

At holidays, special treats are made. Rosca de Reyes is a ring-shaped Three Kings Day sweet bread filled with candied fruit, similar to a New Orleans King Cake. This bread, too, has a small doll baked into the bread representing Christ being hidden from Herod's army.

In addition to breads, cookies, and pastries, inexpensive desserts are offered. Pastel de tres leches is a rich sponge cake soaked in condensed, evaporated, and whole milk, frosted with whipped cream, and decorated with fresh fruit. The ever-present flan and gelatin with whipped cream are also available.

EATERS' DIGEST The Culinary portion of Charlotte Shout will be held from Thursday, September 25, through Saturday, September 27. Events include a daily "Ready, Set, Cook" contest, based on the cooking show that challenges two chefs to produce a delicious dish with a surprise ingredient in 20 minutes. This event will be held on the Piedmont Natural Gas Culinary Arts Stage in the Gateway Village. Thursday's contest will pit Johnson & Wales' chef Shane Pearson against the Compass Group chef Bill Chodan at 9:30pm. Kathleen Purvis, Food Editor of the Charlotte Observer, and I will also be on hand. In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that producing a 20-minute dinner featuring a surprise item sounds a lot like the typical weekday dinner in my house.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. To contact Tricia via email: TLChild@bellsouth.net.

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