Throughout the bustling core of Centro, Oaxaca, the alluring scent of fresh-baked goods wafts from small shops along the streets. The words pasteleria, reposteria, and panaderia adorn windows and signs. As the Spanish words indicate, these shops are ripe with sweets, cakes, desserts, and the famous pan dulce.
One need only scratch the surface of Mexico’s cultural history to find the diverse legacy of pre-Hispanic rituals colored by the lasting effects of colonization. When it comes to food, the Spanish made most of the obvious additions, including cheese, pork, and wheat. But when it comes to dessert, it was the French who introduced the techniques that paved the way for the myriad pastry shops in Oaxaca and beyond.
In the early 1830s, one of these shops became the catalyst for what is known as the Pastry War. Although the pastries themselves had little to do with the conflict, the war began with a complaint from a French baker, Monsieur Remontel, who had settled himself and his shop outside of Mexico City. Remontel was one of many French colonists whose businesses had been destroyed and looted in the wake of ongoing riots in Mexico’s unstable post-revolutionary state.
Remontel’s demand to be repaid for the damages finally spurred the French government to pressure Mexico for a hefty sum. Mexico agreed to pay France and the expatriates, but the country’s ultimate failure to do so led to a long succession of violence, power struggles, and capital takeovers. In the midst of the fighting, a monarch named Maximilian was appointed by Napoleon III and the French influence began to take shape as Maximilian attempted to create a new monarchy (he failed; French armies withdrew from Mexico in 1866, five years after the initial Franco-Mexican War invasion).
After Mexico took back its independence, one of its early leaders was Porfirio Díaz, a controversial figure who would eventually serve seven terms as president. Díaz, a well-known Francophile, commissioned French-style architecture and collected French artwork. Díaz ruled for almost 30 years, during which time French customs, including baked goods and desserts, continued to travel throughout Mexico.
Here now, a look at the desserts that reveal the role French baking has played in Mexican cuisine.
Pan de yema
Egg bread is found in its various forms all over the world (everywhere from Korea to Israel to Russia to Greece) and in the state of Oaxaca, it’s referred to as pan de yema. It is dairy-laden, and closely resembles brioche. Throughout the reign of Porfirio Díaz, the country’s typical morning spread consisted of pan de yema with drinking chocolate. Eventually, coffee replaced the drinking chocolate, but the morning egg bread remains a popular breakfast order.
These pastries replicate ears (that’s what they’re named for), but in France, they are more commonly known as palmiers, or “palm trees.” Both palmiers and orejas are made from flour, butter, sugar, water, and salt (and sometimes yeast). With a pleasurable mix of textures between a slight crunch and a soft, buttery center, Mexican orenas often come dusted with cinnamon or with a chocolate ribbon baked in.
First things first: Capirotada is not a French dessert. Its history extends back to when Spaniards first arrived in Mexico and used indigenous ingredients to make bread pudding. Contemporary versions of the dessert do have a French influence, however, in that they use bolillo (also known, aptly, as pan Francés). Bolillo is Mexico’s most famous white bread, a shorter and fatter version of a classic French baguette. Today, capirotada is typically served soaked in a syrup of cinnamon, clove, and piloncillo (cane sugar) and studded with dried fruits, nuts, and aged cheese.
Cuerno is the Spanish word for “horn,” and this pastry is generally believed to take its name from the two shapes you may find a cuerno in: a musical horn or the double horns of a bull. This light-as-air treat boasts layer on flaky layer of dough — a combination of butter and flour that actually makes it a croissant. In Mexico, there are traditional plain versions and some filled with vanilla cream, chocolate, or caramel.
Crepas con cajeta
This iteration of France’s most famous flat pancake doesn’t need much of a history lesson. Sweet versions can be found anywhere from ice cream stores to dessert menus across Mexico. The fillings are endless, but the popular cajeta filling gives this dessert its most primal Mexican identity. A sweet syrup made from goat’s milk, cajeta (and its perhaps more famous cousin, dulce de leche) relies on caramelization, a process made famous by none other than the French.
Speaking of caramel, flan is known to most visitors as a Spanish or Mexican dessert, but the name itself actually comes from the Old French “flaon,” as does its main components. Europeans introduced custard to the culinary lexicon, and the French had their own version: creme caramel. The French baked custard into a caramel mold, its name stuck, and its derivatives made it to Mexico — where it now looks significantly different as it’s baked without a pastry shell.