This is the Pastry Basket, a Breakfast Week series in which Eater profiles noteworthy breakfast pastries. Next up: the bizcocho.
Hold the eggs, bacon, and pancakes, because for a tiny country in South America, breakfast is filled with small pastries called "bizcochos." The pastries are a staple in every Uruguayan's morning, whether they're still living in their homeland or have ventured abroad. Bizcochos can best be described as a pastry, available in different shapes and sizes, made with a variety of sweet or savory ingredients. They are most commonly consumed for breakfast, but are also often eaten as a snack or accompanying the traditional Uruguayan tea-like beverage known as mate.
As a breakfast food, bizcochos are comparable to the doughnut in the United States. Much like Americans may bring a dozen doughnuts to breakfast at a friend's house or to a morning meeting, Uruguayans often show up with a bag full of bizcochos. However, that is where the comparisons stop. In Uruguay, bizcochos — which are typically baked, not fried like doughnuts — are eaten with much more frequency than doughnuts in the U.S., and are more embedded into the cultural fabric of the country than the doughnut could ever be stateside.
Recipes brought to Uruguay from France, Spain, and Germany were transformed through the years into bizcocho.
How the bizcocho made its way to the second-smallest country in South America is a question that leaves most Uruguayans perplexed. The most logical guess is that they derived from European pastries — like the French croissant — that were introduced into the area by European settlers. While the dough of the Uruguayan croissant (which is not as airy) is very different from that of the French, it does go by the same name and has a similar shape — although the Uruguayan version is much smaller. The main difference, other than size, is that the French croissant in made with butter, while in Uruguay it's typically made with grease — a tradition started by early settlers that found butter more difficult to come by than grease from animal fat.
Well-known Uruguayan author Isidoro de María Gómez (1815-1906) wrote in his book Montevideo Antiguo: Tradiciones y Recuerdos that the bizcocho came from a blend of French and Spanish pastries and that the original "bizcocheria" — a Uruguayan bakery that specializes in making bizcochos — was opened by migrants or the children of migrants from France and Spain.
There are several other writings — like those of genealogists Juan Alejandro Apolant y Ricardo Goldaracena — that agree with the theory that recipes brought to Uruguay by French, Spanish, and German settlers were transformed throughout the years to create the bizcocho. Some suggest that they came from German immigrants who brought over the "krapfen" — similar to a sweet fritter — that very much resembles a type of bizcocho called a "borla de fraile." When the two are compared side by side, their resemblance is undeniable, from the round shape of the dough to the sugar sprinkled on the outside. They both also come plain or stuffed with different varieties of fillings like cream, caramel, or chocolate.
Antonio Mogordoy, owner of what is arguably the best bakery in all of Uruguay, Baipa Atlántida, is a local authority on the bizcocho and its integral place in Uruguayan culture. Mogordoy has been working at Baipa — open since 1956 and known throughout the country for having the tastiest bizcochos — since he was 16 years old. He worked his way up from being a young teenager in charge of wiping down the trays to being in charge of frying the bakery's famous "borlas de fraile" and eventually being entrusted to make the dough and form the bizcochos. Mogordoy says it was always his dream to own the bakery one day. It was a dream 22 years in the making, at times seemingly unattainable. But, nine years ago, he was able to purchase the bakery from his 87-year-old mentor.
Mogordoy works hard to maintain the bakery's stellar reputation in producing the most perfect bizcochos in Uruguay — and if the fact that they have been voted the best bizcochos in the country three years running is any indication, he seems to be doing his job. Like at most bakeries in Uruguay, the treats are sold by weight instead of per piece: Baipa's are 300 pesos (roughly $10) per kilogram, and the bakery sells anywhere from 500 to 1,000 kilos on busy days.
Baipa's small, hand-crafted bizcochos are always at the perfect temperature — not piping hot, but warm enough so that the dough melts on your tongue. To compare their taste to that of a doughnut would be an injustice. While some bakeries use heat lamps to keep their bizcochos warm, Baipa never uses this method. Mogordoy says it would compromise the dough, irrevocably changing the flavor and texture of the bizcocho.
When asked how the bizcochos are always warm, Mogordoy laughs. "We really have our clientele to thank for keeping the bizcochos warm," he says. "They buy so many that we are always able to keep putting out new ones." At Baipa, the shop has three employees dedicated entirely to ensuring the trays of bizcochos are always full. Once they see one getting low, they immediately take a fresh batch from the fridge and throw it into the wood-burning oven. Eight minutes later they are ready to fill their designated tray with freshly-baked treats. Mogordoy goes on to say, "People ask me, 'How long does a bizcocho last?' Well, to be honest, it lasts about 10 minutes. That is the perfect time to eat one, within 10 minutes. When it comes out of the oven hot and then begins to slowly cool, but is still warm, that's when it's perfect." In fact, the bizcochos are so fresh that the bag they are traditionally sold in almost immediately becomes dotted with streaks of grease coming from the warm bizcochos inside.
While there are several types of bizcochos, they are always divided into two categories: "salados" and "dulces," meaning savory and sweet, respectively. While many choose to mix their sweet and savory choices into the same bag, others ask for separate bags so that the sugar dusting doesn't sweeten the savory bizcochos. Each category has endless varieties, but there are a few that are the most authentic and have been around the longest:
The simplest and most traditional is the cruasán (above). This type of bizcocho is truly unique to Uruguay and is perhaps the closest relative to the French croissant. It comes in both savory and sweet varieties.
Mogordoy explains that in the past 20 years or so, it has become popular to stuff the cruasáns with a variety of fillings. "The customer deserves the credit for their creation. It's their demand and ideas that inspires us to keep creating new fillings." Savory ones are stuffed with cheese or a combination of ham and cheese, while sweet ones can be filled with anything from dulce de leche to a heavenly cheese and quince marmalade combination. The options seem endless.
Another popular sweet bizcocho is the margarita. It's comprised of a flaky dough dusted with sugar and baked with a dollop of "crema pastelera" — best described as a custard cream — in the center. The dough is the same as that of the cruasán and the cream in the center can be replaced with dulce de leche or quince marmalade. It's the most popular bizcocho sold at Baipa and definitely one of the most well-known of the sweet variety, second only to the cruasán dulce.
Also sweet, another traditional type of bizcocho is the galleta dulce — which translates to "sweet cookie." It has a hardened outer crust and is made of thick layers that break apart to reveal a soft dough. The galleta is topped with a layer of caramelized sugar and is dusted with more sugar after being taken out of the oven. They vary in size from small ones the size of a traditional cookie to larger ones that are the size of a biscuit.
A savory bizcocho that is known by two names is the cuernito (meaning "horn"), also known as pan con grasa (translated to "bread with grease"). The name cuernito comes from its horned shape and pan con grasa indicates the key ingredient, which gives the dough its buttery texture. They also vary in size, sometimes only a couple of inches big and other times as large as a softball.
Although bizcochos may prove difficult to find in the U.S., they are very common in Uruguayan communities. In many New Jersey towns, they can be found at several Uruguayan bakeries, like La Casona (Orange, NJ), La Nueva ROU Bakery (Elizabeth, NJ), and Del Uruguay Bakery (Hillside, NJ). They are also popular in certain parts of Queens, New York, where there is a large Uruguayan population. Whether you prefer them salty or sweet, filled or plain, one or a kilo, these small breakfast pastries with European roots are as much a part of Uruguayan life as asado, mate, and soccer.