Cookie topped conchas. Sweet empanadas. Flaky orejas. Latin America’s pan dulces (sweet breads) are a delicious, doughy blend of colonial and indigenous baking methods and ingredients that rise together to form today’s pan cultura (bread culture).
Pan dulce dates back to the 18th-century colonial era. French, Spanish, and Italian bakers established themselves in Mexico, then called New Spain. They brought wheat, and they brought their recipes for breads like brioche and baguettes.
Panaderías (bakeries) can be found on street corners all throughout Latin America. Each produces a wide range of pan dulce, with some regional differences. For example: A swirled streusel-topped brioche bread known as conchas in Mexico is referred to as a semita in Honduras. And what is known as a fluffy semita in Honduras is completely different from the Salvadoran semita, a flat jam-filled layered pastry dough with a lattice top.
This is all to say that there is a delicious array of pan dulces. You can also find pan dulces in the United States at markets and groceries that cater to Latin American shoppers, or in neighborhoods with a lot of Latin Americans. The following list represent just a few of these treats.
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These flat, fried disks of wheat-based dough are covered in cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar and sometimes drizzled in honey or made with anise. They are thought to originate in Spain. Most Latin American countries have some variation of buñuelos according to region. Buñuelos are popular around Christmas and New Year’s Day, which are thought to bring good luck. Mexico is known for flat and sweet buñuelos. Cuba’s buñuelos are looped and made with cassava dough while the Colombian version is completely different: It’s spherical, round, and savory, made with cassava flour and filled with cheese.
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Perhaps one of the better known pan dulces outside of Latin America, tube-like and deep-fried churros are originally from Spain ... or Portugal (we will get to this). They are made from choux pastry dough and covered in sugar in Mexico. Sometimes they are served with a chocolate dipping sauce, as in Spain. Due to Spanish colonialism and influence, churros are also found in the Philippines. The churro has a curious origin story: Supposedly Portuguese sailors came across a Chinese cruller, youtiao, which looks much like the modern churro. Apparently, the Portuguese brought the Chinese youtiao recipe to Portugal, which then spread to Spain and arrived in the New World with the conquistadors.
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If you know what a croissant is, the concha is on its way to similar global recognition. Mexico’s national sweet bread are conchas, which means "shells" in Spanish—the swirled streusel top that looks like a seashell. These yeasted bread rolls are made from an eggy, enriched dough. They come in flavors like vanilla or chocolate and a rainbow variety of colors like magenta, blue, yellow and more.
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Also called moño, a corbata (tie or bowtie in Spanish) is a looped pastry that looks like its namesake. It is similar in texture to a brioche concha, but the corbata is first cut into a rectangle then twisted and covered with granulated sugar.Continue to 5 of 11 below.
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Somewhat like it’s name, this flaky Danish-style pastry comes in a variety of shapes and is filled with fruit jam, jelly or pastry cream (crema pastelera), a creamy, custardy filling.
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While many know empanadas to be savory, they also come in sweet, fruit-filled forms. These half-moon hand pies can either be baked or fried and finished with a sprinkle of sugar or egg wash for a shiny finish. They can be filled with sweetened pumpkin, apples, anything you can think of.
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Galletas or polvorones con chochitos
Also known as Mexican wedding cookies, these powdered sugar-dusted cookies delightfully crumble and melt in your mouth. It’s a shortbread-based dough with powdered sugar and nuts. Polvorones ("polvo" means dust in Spanish) may have received their colloquial name because they are commonly served at country weddings in Mexico.
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Marranitos, puerquitos, or cochinitos
Yes, this is a pig-shaped cookie. This cute pan dulce is made with cinnamon and piloncillo, unrefined whole cane sugar that has an earthy, caramel taste. Egg wash gives these cookies a shiny finish.Continue to 9 of 11 below.
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Palmeras or orejas
Flaky orejas (elephant ears) or palmeras (from the French palmier) is a puff pastry cookie of sugar and cinnamon. These are very common in panaderías in Mexico. They are light and buttery. They can look like palm leaves or ears as their name implies.
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Rosca de reyes
Another seasonal specialty, Roscas de Reyes means “King’s Wreath,” and is decorated with multicolored candied fruit peels eaten. It's eaten on Kings Day, also known as Epiphany Day in the Catholic calendar, January 6. Rosca de Reyes comes in all sizes. It has a hole in the middle and the bread itself is chock full of dried and preserved fruits. Hidden in the bread is a tiny doll, representing the infant Jesus, whom the Three Kings came to worship. Generally, the bread is shared amongst many, and whoever finds the infant Jesus in their slice of Rosca must invite the other guests to tamales and atole on February 2, Candlemas Day (Día de la Candelaria).