Every culture has its own special crowd-pleasing baked sweets such as cookies, cakes, pastries, and breads. In Mexico, and to people worldwide with Mexican roots, these treats are collectively known as pan dulce (literally, sweet bread).
European-style baking with wheat flour was introduced by the Spanish and French occupiers who once ruled Mexico. But the products evolved as creative cooks across the vast nation folded in their own personalities and adopted locally iconic shapes and flavors.
Today, Mexico boasts as many as 2,000 versions of pan dulce, such as colorful variations on conchas, and cookies with tops scored to resemble shellfish. Others are shaped like pigs (puerquitos), or corn (elotes).
Panderias and pastelerias, Mexican-style bakeries that specialize in making various forms of pan dulce, can be found throughout Alabama. Some also are part of a market, restaurant, ice cream parlor, or a combination.
Several also are known for their cake-decorating artistry. You’ll also find familiar favorites like doughnuts, or the ubiquitous Mexican-restaurant dessert churros (fried breadsticks dusted in cinnamon sugar).
Cookies trend toward shortbreads, although in different shapes and colors than what you’ll find in traditional Southern bakeries. The smiley face decorations on Galletas Caritas cookies, however, are recognizable everywhere. For fruit-filled sweets, check out the triangle-shaped pastry empanada de fruta, or puff-pastry tubes called rollos hojaldrados de fruta. For volovanes, puff pastry cups get either sweet or savory fillings.
Some pastries are named for their shape, like orajes (ears) and wreath-like laureles. Pineapple upside-down fans will be drawn to the ring-topped pastries called volteados de pina. Of course, French-inspired loaves like telera and bolillo also are available for making sandwiches, like Mexico’s beloved meal-in-a-bun, the torta.
Here are a handful of places to satisfy your sweet tooth while discovering how food can be the tie that binds different cultures.
The smell of fresh bread wafts through the air as you enter La Conchita, a panderia and pasteleria that also sells frozen pops made from purees with fruit or milk (paletas), ice cream, and snow cones. The Hoover location is off Lorna Road at Rocky Ridge Road. The Montevallo store is on Main Street.
The market and bakery specializes in baked sweets from Veracruz, including filled puffed pastry shells (volovanes), wreath-shaped laureles, plus a variety of cookies and stuffed doughnuts. Breads include the elongated wide loaves known as donkey bread. Look for La Cordobesa on Patton Street.
Customers rave about the tres leches cakes and cheesecakes, as well as the home-style pastries and breads made at Mi Casita (My House) on Hargrove East Road. If there are, indeed, 2,000 versions of pan dulce, Mi Casita’s social media suggests the bakery has traveled well down that path. It also is known for its custom and traditional decorated cakes.
Nava’s is not only a bakery but also a market (tienda) and eatery with a steam table that offers a variety of Mexican stews. Tacos and tamales also are available. Nava’s showcases its baked goods in a dozen or so cases that line a wall. Special goodies emerge at the winter holidays, including Rosca de Reyes (Three Kings Cake) for the Epiphany.
Mi Pueblo’s international mega-market specializes in food from Mexico and Central America, including an extensive butcher counter, restaurant, and beverage stand. Mi Pueblo also houses a bakery that stocks more than a dozen display cabinets with baked sweets and breads; it also makes fresh corn and flour tortillas. The Homewood store is on Green Springs Highway and the Pelham location is on U.S. 31 (Pelham Parkway).
This all-purpose business on Pinson Valley Parkway has a restaurant and a bakery that makes pastries, breads, and cookies. It also sells frozen treats like palateas (Mexican-style popsicles) and ice cream (helado). Since the bread is baked in-house, the restaurant’s torta sandwich is a must-try. If you like Mexican food—from restaurants or markets—this stretch of Pinson Valley Road is a must-visit destination.