A fresh, warm, yeasty smell drifts through the screen door of the panadería and out onto the sidewalk. As if under some magic spell, we find that we must follow the command of the sweet fragrance and allow ourselves to be pulled inside the small brick building. As we enter the bakery we stand, staring in amazement at all the beautiful pastries behind the glass display case doors that surround us. There are dozens of different kinds, each more exquisite and tasty-looking than the last. My mouth begins to water… Oh, how I long to sink my teeth into each and every one of them! Should I try something new this time? Or stick with trusted old favorites?
It is a Saturday night and the bakers in the panadería are hard at work, their conversations in their native Spanish washing over us like music. They are busy preparing for the following morning’s crowds. Everyone will come in after church tomorrow, dressed in their Sunday best… Women in brightly colored dresses, clustered together and resembling beautiful bouquets of brilliant flowers. Men in starched and ironed Western shirts, wearing straw cowboy hats and their highly polished boots, all reserved especially for Sundays. Abuelos and abuelas, shepherding their little grandchildren into the bakery where they will stand and stare in awe… their eyes big, their tiny hands pressed against the glass doors, mesmerized by the delectable pastries inside.
Although the churros, long spirals powdered with cinnamon and stuffed to perfection with sweet creamy custard filling, tempt us to choose them, the rest of the pastries all call out to us as well.
I look around. On one shelf I see empanadas de frutas. These are miniature fruit pies, small enough to fit in the palm of my hand… flaky dough wrapped around fillings of apple, pineapple, strawberry, mango, lemon or peach.
There are pan de huevos, egg breads, sometimes called conchas or seashells because that’s what their concentric rings make them look like. Small plump buns, very plain and somewhat dry, they are covered with a thin glaze of powdered-sugar icing tinted in shades of pink, yellow, tan, and white. For all their pretty colors they are still a bread instead of a pastry, and not really sweet enough for me.
I see reposterías, or cookies, of every description. Most are bigger than my hand. Some have frosting, others are dusted with sugar, still others are coated with multicolored sprinkles. Many of the cookies themselves are made from colored dough. Some are bright pink and others are a deep gold. The brown ones are chocolate. Payasos (clowns) are triangular-shaped cookies made with all three doughs, yellow, pink and brown. It’s so hard to choose!
There are my favorites! Cuernos de azucar, or sugar horns. They look a lot like a croissant, and like croissants some are plain while others are filled. The ones I like best are filled with rich yellow custard. All of them, even the plain ones, are coated with a thick layer of sugar on the outside. Un sabor pequeno del cielo! A little taste of heaven!
Unlike most other bakeries, panaderías are self-serve. I open the glass doors of the display case and, taking a pair of gigantic red tongs, use them to pluck the pastries of my choosing from the shelves. I place the pastries on a plastic tray which resembles the one my lunch comes on in the school cafeteria. As I use the tongs, I grab my cuerno too hard. Cream spurts out the sides and dribbles onto the tray. Oops… But what a great excuse to grab a second one! Mom doesn’t say no, she is too busy looking at all the other pastries, so I take another horn, handling this one much more carefully.
I like using the tongs, so I ask the rest of my family what they want. It turns out that what they want most are goodies that don’t have the fillings squeezed out of them, so they decide to use the tongs themselves to choose their own sweets. Dad picks out a marranito, or gingerbread pig, and a pineapple hojita, a fruit tart made from pan fino, or sweet bread and filled with piña, or pineapple. My sister picks out a pastel para los niños, a slice of a single-layer moist vanilla cake, covered in fluffy pink frosting and sprinkles. Pastel means cake, and para los niños means for the children. My sister doesn’t mind, even though she is eighteen and almost all grown up. She will normally argue fiercely that she is no longer a child, but hey, this is cake we’re talking about!
My mother is already at the counter, asking for a slice of pastel de tres leches or tres leches cake. This is the only treat kept in a refrigerated case. It is a very moist, sweet cake, soaked in a mixture of three milks, with whipped cream and a cherry on top. Luckily for us, Mom can never eat a whole piece, so she always shares. A forkful or two is enough for most of us because it is so rich. I always try to get the cherry. The shopkeeper rings up our order. All our pastries together cost less than three dollars! We walk outside, happy and content, clutching bags filled with our fresh warm pastries. We can hardly wait to get home and enjoy them. Dad says the best part about our trip to the panadería is that it’s like a ten-minute vacation to Mexico. I say the best part about our trip is eating the things we take home. Mexican pastries are the best!