This small guide about Pan Dulce (Mexican sweet bread) will walk you through and show you why this type of bread is a staple in the Mexican cuisine. So, grab a cup of coffee and enjoy it. I am sure that by the end you will feel inspired to try some of our recipes for homemade pancito!
We have all enjoyed the aroma of freshly baked bread. Whether it is prepared at home or in our favorite neighborhood bakery, its warm, familiar scent is unmistakable. Wherever you are from, bread is unarguably one of the most popular foods in the world.
In almost all cultures, bread has been part of the gastronomy, however, not all bread is the same and the ways of preparing and consuming it vary from one culture to another.
Today we will talk about Pan Dulce – Mexican sweet bread – and how it differs from other types of bread.
What is pan dulce?
Pan dulce is a bread that, as its name indicates, it’s made with a sweetener. It can be sugar, brown sugar, honey, piloncillo, etc.
Its shapes and flavors are so varied that the National Chamber of the Mexican Bakery Industry (CANAINPA) has registered more than 1200 varieties of pan dulce! There is no doubt that in Mexico there is a lot of culinary creativity. Surely right now there is a Mexican baker “baking” a new idea for a “pan dulce”.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, wheat was not cultivated in Mexico. The preparation and consumption of bread originated after the arrival of Cortéz.
Once wheat arrived in Mexico, the country’s gastronomy was able to incorporate bread into its diet, becoming part of the culture. The first breads were salty and it took a few years before the “pan dulce” made its appearance in Mexican bakeries due to the influence of French, Italian and Spanish bakeries. Since then, numerous varieties have emerged.
When is it consumed?
Pan dulce is mostly consumed at breakfast or as an afternoon snack accompanied by a delicious atole, café de olla, or milk; is undoubtedly one of the most traditional ways that Mexicans consume this type of bread.
Also on certain special dates some types of “seasonal” breads are consumed, these breads are only prepared in certain months of the year for cultural purposes (more on that later, keep reading).
Where to buy it
- In USA you’ll find panaderías in those states with large Mexican communities, like California, Texas, and New Mexico; to name a few.
- In Europe there are many people that sells seasonal pan dulce through various Facebook Mexican communities or restaurants. And in Paris there’s a bakery that sells pan de muerto and conchas.
Types of pan dulce
There are certain types of pan dulce that cannot be missing in the mobile bread stalls or in the Mexican bakeries. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular.
Concha: This modest but tasty bread is covered with patterns that resemble a seashell (Concha means seashell in Spanish), these covers can be made of chocolate, strawberry or vanilla. Its fluffy texture is perfect for dipping into a cup of coffee or hot chocolate on a cold morning.
Cocol: The name of this bread comes from the Nahuatl cocolli, which means “the twisted one”1. This flattened but soft-textured bread is one of the oldest and most traditional in Mexico. Sometimes it is covered with sesame seeds and its filling varies depending on the region.
Polvorones: A cookie-like pan dulce made in various shapes covered with sugar. The name comes from the word “polvo” (dust) because the texture is so crumbly that reminds of dust. The recipe is a variation of a Spanish cookie made with almond flour.
Rebanada: Made with a thick slice of white loaf bread, and a spread on butter on a side.
Besos: The top and bottom of this bread seem to be kissing (beso) and it is the jam that produces this effect. The besos can be filled with apricot or strawberry jam and the bread is covered with sugar.
Puerquito: Its “pig” shape is what gives it its name, it is one of the breads that have existed since colonial times. Its consistency is similar to a soft cookie and is prepared with piloncillo (cane sugar) and cinnamon. It has a chewy texture, perfect to be accompanied by a hot drink.
Galletas de grageas: A thick cookie covered with sprinkles, its shape can vary, from round to square or even rhomboid. Even being a cookie, this type of “bread” is always present at any Mexican bakery.
Seasonal Mexican Sweet Bread
And of course, seasonal pan dulce cannot be overlooked. Here are some most popular:
Pan de muerto – bread of the dead: this famous bread is only baked on the occasion of the Day of the Dead. It’s history is quite unique:
Originally, in pre-Hispanic times a type of “bread” called papalotlaxcalli was offered. This “bread” was made of corn and was offered to the goddess Cihuapipiltin, to calm the spirits of women who had died giving birth. This tradition would be one of the antecedents to the current pan de muerto2.
Today the bread of the dead is made up of a circle that symbolizes a skull and some strips that simulate bones. It is baked in the months of October and November and it is placed on the altars of the dead to remember loved ones who have already passed away.
Rosca de reyes: The rosca de reyes is a tradition that originated in France. Later it arrived in Spain which spread it in Latin America. It is eaten in the month of January.
The bread is circular, like a ring, and it symbolizes the infinite love of God. Inside it there are small plastic dolls that symbolize the baby Jesus.
In Mexico, when you cut a slice and you get a “doll” it means that on February 2 (Candlemas day) you buy tamales and you share them with family and friends, or anyone with whom you have previously shared the bread.
Pan de Feria – Bread fair: These are various types of breads that are bought at “seasonal” fairs, usually when a patronal feast is being celebrated in some region. They are usually larger than the pan dulce found in bakeries, they can measure from 4 to 12- inch (10-30 cm) long.
Among the different types of pan de feria you can usually find breads made with cream, decorated with sesame, walnuts, “ate” (a typical Mexican jam) or raisins.
And last but by no means the least, we must make mention of the teleras, bolillos, and birote. Although they are more “salty” than sweet, these types of bread are never missing in the Mexican bakeries.
The only difference between the telera and the bolillo is that the first one has a circular shape and the bolillo is oval. While birote is also oval but more salty as well.
Both breads are commonly used to accompany the food, like any regular bread from around the world. They are also perfect for making traditional Mexican sandwiches tortas like this torta cubana, and the traditional dessert for Lent season, capirotada.
After this sweet tour, there is nothing better than grabbing some atole, a cup of coffee or a glass of milk and relax while savoring our favorite “pan dulce”. So, here are a selection of Mexican sweet bread recipes that you can make at home. Enjoy!