This is the Pastry Basket, a Breakfast Week series in which Eater profiles noteworthy breakfast pastries. Next up: conchas.
On Saturday mornings, the chaos inside Pastelería Ideal — one of Mexico City's biggest and most famous bakeries — mimics that of Grand Central Terminal during rush hour. One of the few differences is the aroma: The pastry shop lures guests in with the smells of sugar, butter, and dusty, toasted bread flour. Over 500 different types of sweet pastries, breads, desserts, cookies, flans, cakes, and candies beckon from every corner, stand at attention on towering tables in the center of the large atrium, line glass cases along the perimeter of the space, and dangle from shelves high and low. And though the bakery staff swears there isn't really a best-seller, it's the conchas — a type of sweet roll topped with a cookie crust shaped for its namesake, a seashell — that almost always sell out first.
There are up to 2,000 varieties of pan dulces, but the quintessential one is the concha.
In Mexico City, bakeries are more plentiful than gas stations and grocery stores. An element of daily life, they service customers for breakfast, a mid-day bite known as la merienda, post-lunch coffee breaks, and pre-dinner snacks. Savory loaves of bread are found at these bakeries, but more common and more plentiful are the pan dulces. Literally translated as "sweet breads," it's a category of sweetened breakfast pastry that includes, by some estimates, up to 2,000 unique varieties. And though most bakeries do not produce a menu as broad as Mexico City's Pastelería Ideal, every Mexican bakery, all over the world, makes conchas. They are the quintessential Mexican pan dulce.
The history of Mexican conchas can be traced all the way back to pre-colonial times.
Elementary school students throughout the Americas learn that until the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s, Aztecs (and all native indigenous populations that lived in North America at that time) subsisted on corn, squash, and beans. After conquering the ancient and thriving Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, on what is now the Mexican plateau, the Spanish established Mexico City and designed it in the model of a little Spain. European architecture — primarily Catholic, gothic-style churches — rose on the ruins of once-holy ancient pyramids. And though nixtamalized corn and tortillas were plentiful, Mexico City's growing European population wanted a grain they knew from the Old World: wheat.
Wheat was important to early Spanish settlers not only because wheat-based breads were a chief part of the European diet, but because of God — and really because of Catholicism. The ritual of the Eucharist involves the passing and consumption of a wafer, and this wafer is, and always has been, made from wheat.
How did bread, an imported staple to Mexico, come to be as beloved as tortillas?
Initially, the wheat the Spanish brought over would not grow in the arid central Mexican climate. Eventually, as the Spanish continued their conquest North, they discovered cooler climates more appropriate for growing Northern European wheat. According to historian Sonia Iglesias y Cabrera (author of El pan nuestro de cada día sus orígenes, historia, y desarrollo en México), Juan Garrido, a freed African slave, was the first to plant wheat seeds in Mexico after finding them in imported sacks of rice. Mexico's first wheat mill opened in 1525.
Several sources, including the Oxford History of Mexico, note that the indigenous population probably didn't care for the taste of wheat, but was forced to eat it — just as they were forced into slave labor. Additionally, wheat and wheat flour was sometimes used as payment in lieu of actual currency.
This all explains the early introduction of bread as an adopted staple, but it doesn't explain why bread came to be as beloved as tortillas. According to Celebrating Latino Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Cultural Traditions, probably sometime in the mid-1500s a viceroy dipped his bread in the local, sweetened hot chocolate in front of a crowd of people. It was like giving candy to a baby: The dry, spongy bread soaked up the flavor and sweetness of the beverage, and for those watching, an addictive habit was born. Europeans and people across Latin America still dip their bread into sweetened coffee or chocolate. Still other sources suggest that the conquered native population began to enjoy bread only after Spanish bakers thought to sweeten European-style breads with piloncillo, a natural, native brown sugar still in wide use today.
As demand rose, so did innovation. It was only a matter of time before the aristocratic classes brought over skilled bakers. By the 17th century, French bakers began migrating to Mexico and opening bakeries. This signaled the advent of pan frances, or crusty baguette-like rolls which are still served throughout Mexico today.
It's likely that French pastry chefs brought over their recipes for brioche, a sweetened and enriched dough made from wheat flour, yeast, salt, sugar, milk or water, eggs, and butter. Brioche-like doughs exist all over Europe, and this bread base is the most likely origin of Mexican conchas. Eventually bakers began to experiment with indigenous ingredients. Mexican pan dulce recipes today often contain a mixture of corn flour and wheat flour. Even more often, lard is used instead of butter.
By the end of the 19th century, wheat bread was found on Mexican tables just as often as corn tortillas, and hundreds of pastry shops (pastelerias) and bakeries (panaderias) lined the streets of what is now Mexico City's historic center.
Naturally, the migration of Mexican pastries follows the migration patterns of its population. With few exceptions, pastries from the U.S. or South American countries like Brazil have not spread throughout the Americas with as much success as Mexican pan dulces. Today, Mexican sweet breads, including conchas, are found throughout Central, South, and North America.
What Are Conchas?
Conchas consist of two parts: A sweet, enriched bread roll, and a crumbly cookie dough that acts as its topping. The dough is made of (ingredients ordered from most plentiful to least): wheat flour, water or milk, sugar, butter (or lard or shortening), eggs (though not always), yeast, and salt. The cookie dough top is generally composed of flour, sugar, and butter, shortening, or margarine.
To make the roll, the yeasted dough is mixed, briefly kneaded, and then allowed to rise for several hours or overnight. After this first rise, it is cut and shaped into individual rolls. These vary in size, but are usually between four and six inches in diameter, and are almost always round. After shaping, the unbaked dough rolls are left to rise again. Meanwhile, the streusel-like cookie dough topping is prepared, chilled, and rolled out into thin sheets or disks. Once the unbaked rolls have risen, they are carefully topped with a round of the pre-prepared cookie dough. This cookie dough sheet is then scored in a gradient or spiral to mimic the ridges of a seashell, concha in Spanish. With its cookie dough cap on, the sweet rolls are baked, and, ideally, served warm.
All conchas are made from an enriched, yeasted dough similar to brioche or challah.
Traditionally, the bread roll itself is not flavored, but the cookie dough topping is classically flavored either with vanilla or chocolate. The cookie dough can be colored or flavored with anything. While the topping can be scored or decorated in many different ways, the cookie dough cover is an essential element. Often the vanilla cookie dough is tinted with food coloring, and the shaping of the topping varies: Ojos de buey (literally ox eyes) are shaped so they look like they have an eye's iris in the center. For novias (girlfriends), the cookie dough topping is shaped into lines or a spiral atop the sweet bun. Sometimes brown piloncillo sugar, white granulated sugar, or even colorful sprinkles are dusted atop the cookie dough topping. Conchas are sometimes even filled. In Mexico City and other parts of the country it's common to split concha rolls in half horizontally and fill them with anything from whipped cream to custard to refried beans.
Mexican-American bakeries have been experimenting with concha flavors in the past few years. At La Monarca in Los Angeles, bakers have introduced flavors as varied as cinnamon, Mexican wedding cookie, walnut, and agave nectar with golden raisins. Chef Andrew Pingul heads up kitchen operations at Chicago's Cantina 1910 and says the bakery's pecan flavor, which is filled with whipped flan, is one of its most popular. Pingul is currently at work on a sesame tahini variation. "The key to conchas is to serve them fresh, so we bake ours every few hours," Pingul says.
Though its precise origin is not known, all conchas are made from an enriched, yeasted dough similar to brioche or challah. What gets murky, historically, is the point at which a baker decided to cover a small round of sweet dough with a thin layer of cookie dough and then bake it.
The reasons for the marriage of the unbaked, yeasted bread roll and sugary-cookie topping are unknown. Can this be traced back to colonial days when European bakers tried to make their breads more palatable to the indigenous population by adding sugar? Was it not enough to sweeten the bread itself? Is it the result of a practical necessity in which the cookie dough cap served as some sort of protection for the sweet and soft bread dough beneath when, in the colonial period, ovens were crude clay, or brick vessels? French bakers learned a lot from German bakers who used streusel — a type of cookie dough — liberally atop cakes and breads. Did a French-German baker have extra streusel and extra bread dough left over after a long day of baking? Or is it a more recent invention? No one seems to know for certain.
What gets murky is the point at which a baker decided to cover the sweet bread with a thin layer of cookie dough.
What is interesting is that this particular type of sweet bread it is found in one other region in the world: Asia. Japan's sweet, yeasted bread roll topped with a cookie-like crust is known as melonpan. The "pan" part of the word is said to come from the Portuguese for bread. The "melon" from the English word, which references the shape of the finished breads; they are traditionally scored in a crosshatch to look like melons verses in a gradient curve like the Mexican concha.
It is possible that the cross pollination of this type of sweetened, yeasted bread topped with a crumbly cookie crust started in Mexico and then spread to Asia. According to bread historian Steven L. Kaplan and culinary historian Linda Civitello, it is perhaps more likely that the two creations originated on different continents independently of one another. Civitello posits it's as a result of "Iberian peninsula diaspora... when the Portuguese sailed east, the Spanish sailed west." While the Spanish invaded the Americas in the early 1500s, the Portuguese invaded Japan. The neighboring European countries made use of the same sorts of bread-baking techniques and were likely using a variety of recipes to convince their respective colonies to embrace wheat breads, despite a distaste for wheat among the conquered population and a preference for rice (Japan) and corn (Mexico).
The mystery persists even as hundreds of thousands of conchas are made across the Americas today. Unfortunately, most conchas in Mexico (and in many Mexican bakeries in the U.S.) are terrible, mass-produced, artificially-flavored and artificially-colored dry bread buns topped with a flavorless cookie crumble crust. Finding a good one feels like winning the pastry lottery. End up with a dud? Consider dipping it in hot chocolate.