Right around the corner from where I was working in Mexico I discovered a panaderia– a bakery–where almost every day I bought a sweet round pastry meant to look like a shell and thus called a concha. Every day I would try to walk by and resist that fresh-baked smell, but oh, the wilderness of a heart that knows what it wants even when reason says otherwise! I have been wooed by Mexican delicacies of varying levels of sophistication, sweet and savory alike, but these played upon my most basic of instincts with their lightly sweetened dough and a thin layer of sugar on top. And the smell! Such temptation. I’m not sure it gets much better than this. It really doesn’t. A strong, bitter, double espresso made just the match for these pillowy treats. And so every day I would repeat the challenge, never so happy to fail.
After the romance of an enchanted place like Mexico infuses your days, it’s hard not to feel a little sense of loss when you leave. This is where the kitchen comes to the rescue, at least for me, a person prone to emotional risk-taking and open to being moved. One rise of the dough, or a reduction of a sauce can evoke a landscape as broad as your imagination. The kitchen reminds me to look at things from the lens of gratitude rather than loss. It fosters creation and expansion through longing, even if the heart aches for something left behind. Making these conchas is my way of building a shell from flour, yeast and sugar. And a shell, a concha–no matter if it’s soft–represents a layer of protection, delicate, yet resilient. It’s a home that goes with you wherever the currents may push and grows with each experience.
Making these really only takes the patience of waiting for the dough to rise twice and not much else. The ingredients are baking staples (flour, water, yeast, sugar, an egg). Yet the reward that comes from engaging in the ancient tradition of bread baking is ten-fold. These will make your home smell like a bakery and a celebration. It’s the smell of a true home. The joy is in the anticipation as much as the consumption. I messed up a little on the shell design here, but see the directions so your design comes out better. Part of compassion is forgiveness and so I found the beauty in these anyway.
While Mexico is prone to suffering– from crime, poverty, corruption, drugs and ignorance from its neighbor in the north– its streets are filled with a largeness of spirit and abundant physical beauty. This is what these conchas capture. Bigger than they should be, sweet and freshly baked with a deep, rich history and engaging of all of the senses. This is the way to wake up every day. This is how to live. This is what to eat.
For the Conchas Dough:
- 1 1⁄2 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 1⁄4 cup warm water (105 degrees F to 115 degrees F or 40 to 46 celsius)
- 1⁄4cup lukewarm milk (scalded, then cooled)
- 1⁄6 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons butter, softened
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 egg
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
For the Flavored Topping Dough:
- 1⁄3 cup granulated sugar
- 1⁄4 cup butter
- 1⁄2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1⁄4 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the Regular Dough:
Dissolve yeast in warm water in large bowl. Stir in milk, sugar, butter, salt, egg and 1 cup of the flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to make dough easy to handle. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Place in a large greased bowl. Cover and let rise in a warm place until double, about 1 1/2 hours.
For the Flavored Topping Dough:
Beat sugar and margarine until light and fluffy. Stir in flour until mixture is the consistency of thick paste. Stir in cinnamon and vanilla extract. Divide into 8 pieces, one for each concha. Make them into 3-inch circles.
Assemble and Bake:
Punch dough down; divide into 8 equal pieces. Shape each piece into a ball; place on greased cookie sheet. Place 1 circle of Topping Dough on each ball of dough, shaping it down over the ball. Make 5 or 6 cuts across the topping, using a table knife, to form a shell pattern. (I sort of messed up this part because I was tentative about the covering and the sugar came apart when the bread expanded, but they were heavenly nonetheless. Don’t be shy here. Spread and decorate). Cover and let rise until double — about 40 minutes.
Heat oven to 375F (190 C). Bake buns until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Enjoy while warm. Buen provecho!