My ode to pan dulce

When I first became vegan, I was concerned about missing two things.

One, sort of obvious, was cheese.  I mean, cheese is kind of magical.  I had an obsession with string cheese.  There were some days when my consumption would reach three sticks of cheese.  I would buy these huge 48 packs of string cheese at the store and go through them quickly.  String cheese was the perfect portable protein source (love alliteration!).  It fit in a pocket, a purse, or a lunch bag.  I also loved to eat queso Oaxaca, which is closely related to string cheese/mozzarella cheese, but slightly different.  I first was introduced to it in Mexico, and found that you can buy it at any Mexican market here in the desert.  Aside from those cheeses, I also occasionally enjoyed a nice creamy goat cheese.  I guess my cheese love wasn’t wide, but it was deep.  However, interestingly enough, I haven’t craved cheese at all since I stopped eating dairy.  I also have absolutely no desire to try any of the vegan cheeses out there.  Any cheese-like concoction that I can create at home is good enough for me, right now.

However, in addition to the cheese, I was very concerned about missing Mexican pan dulce.  Pan dulce is an all-encompassing name for a wide variety of sweet Mexican pastries.  While there are a lot of different kinds of pan dulce, they are all bread-based, and they are all sweet (hence the name; pan=bread, dulce=sweet).  In many cases, the name of the pan dulce describes its appearance.   My favorite varieties of pan dulce were always las conchas (shells), las orejas (ears), and las banderillas (a dart stuck into a bull).  There is a panadería (bread store, or, Mexican bakery) near my work that I used to stop at every other Friday, or so.  I would buy three or four pieces of pan dulce, and eat them with hot chocolate or coffee throughout the weekend.  Just walking through the door of the panadería reminded me of my time living in Mexico, and the many wonderful panaderías there, ubiquitous on every major corner in the city.  Unlike bakeries in the United States, in Mexico you enter the panadería, you take a large metal tray and a set of tongs, and walk through the bakery smelling the breads and using the tongs to select what you want.  The panaderías in the US work the same way.  I’ve been to US panaderías in Chicago, Omaha, Rural Iowa, and Phoenix.  No matter where you go, there are the ever-present dented metal trays, the metal tongs, and the trays and trays of fresh, delicious, sweet-smelling Mexican pan dulce.  Sometimes, it’s a mystery as to what you’re buying.  The label might say that an empanada is filled with piña (pineapple), but when you take a bite, you discover that it’s actually filled with crema (sweet custard-like creme).  Whatever you end up eating, the pan dulce experience is always a sweet one. (Ha ha.  Get it?)

So, this is to say, that while cheese may have seemed like my biggest “sacrifice” when going vegan, in all actuality, it was really pan dulce.  The only times in four months that I have contemplated eating anything non-vegan were the occasional Friday afternoon as I was driving past the turn off to go to the panadería, or Monday mornings when I would go make photocopies at work, and be offered sweet pan dulce by the parents who volunteer at the school.  Cheese, I have never craved.  Pan dulce though, I’ve dreamed about.

So, I went on a search for vegan pan dulce.  No matter how I googled it, only one recipe appeared: Vegan Explosion’s Conchas.  This recipe was posted way back in 2008, but both the recipe and the photographs looked great.  So, I decided to give it a try.

I was so excited to finally eat pan dulce, for the first time in six months, that I measured out the dry ingredients the night before, so I could get right to work with the mixing and rising and making and baking and eating the next morning.

Pan Dulce - Pre-measured dry ingredients.

The ingredients on the left are for the dough, the ingredients on the right are for the topping.

I made a few modifications*, but mostly followed the recipe as posted on Vegan Explosion:

Ingredients for the dough:

  • 1 Tablespoon yeast
  • 2/3 cup water, warmed
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup non-hydrogenated vegan spread (like Earth Balance)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 Tablespoon ground flaxseed + 3 Tablespoons water (since ground flaxseed goes bad so quickly, I always grind it myself in the Magic Bullet)
  • 2 1/2 cups AP flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1/2 cup lukewarm soymilk, warmed up and then cooled in the freezer for 3 minutes

To make the dough, I first dissolved the yeast in warm water, and mixed the ground flaxseed with water (these two mixings happen separately).  I allowed both to sit for a few minutes to do their thing.  (That is, the yeasties needed to wake up from their long slumber, and the flaxseed needed to get thick and gooey in the water.)  While the yeast and flax were busy at work, I warmed the soymilk on the stove.  Unfortunately, I got distracted and the soymilk burned and boiled over and made a mess.  I washed out the pot and tried again – the second time experiencing liquid-warming success.  As I put the soymilk in the freezer to cool, (I’m not sure what the reason for the warming and cooling are, but the recipe said to do this) I sifted together the flour, sugar, and salt, and poured in the Earth Balance, yeasty water, flaxseed mixture, and the now-cooled soymilk.  I mixed and kneaded everything until it was pretty smooth.  Then, I rolled it into a ball, put it on a piece of parchment paper, and covered it with an upside-down bowl.  I let it relax for about two hours.  (I would have done 1.5 hours, but my kitchen was pretty cold and I wanted to make sure it rose enough.)

The dough that took over Manhattan.

The dough that took over the city. (Or my kitchen. Or maybe just that piece of parchment paper.)

Then, I punched down the dough, kneaded it a tiny bit, and rolled it into 12 balls which I put on two parchment-lined baking sheets.

Next, I prepared the topping.

Ingredients for the topping:
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup non-hydrogenated vegan spread (like Earth Balance)
  • 1/2 cup AP flour
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/3 teaspoon orange extract

I put the sugar, Earth Balance, and flour together in a bowl and mixed until they were well combined.  Then, I divided this mixture into three separate balls.  With one ball, I kneaded in the cinnamon until it was well incorporated.  With the next ball I kneaded in the vanilla until it seemed mixed in.  With the last ball I kneaded in the orange extract until it was well mixed.  (In the original recipe, it said to add a drop of red food coloring in with the orange flavored topping, but I didn’t have any food coloring, so my orange topping, like my vanilla topping, is white.  The cinnamon topping is brown.)

I divided each of the balls of topping into four tinier balls.  The original recipe said to put each ball between two sheets of plastic wrap, roll them flat under the plastic wrap, and then drape them over the balls of dough.  I, being too lazy to get out the plastic wrap and rolling pin, chose to just flatten each ball as best I could without having too much of the topping stick to my hands, and then draped these sort-of circles over the dough.  It was messy, but it worked out okay.

Finally, it was time to transform these from just balls of dough into real conchas.  I carefully used a knife to cut a shell pattern into the topping.  There are different ways to do it, but I just made three or four cuts in one direction, and then three or four more crossing over in the other direction.  Really, you can make any design or pattern you want.

I then covered the trays of dough and let them rise for another 40 minutes.

Pan dulce - risen and ready to go in the oven.

Pan dulce - risen and ready to go in the oven.

Then, into the oven for 15-17 minutes (that’s what the recipe said to do, though I think I baked mine for more like 18-19 minutes).  During these loonnnggg 15-17 minutes, I sat in my kitchen and smelled the delicious aroma of baking bread, cinnamon, orange, and vanilla.  It’s almost as good as actually eating the conchas!  Then, to pass the time, I took out a small pot and warm up some soymilk.  In a mug, I mixed together a spoonful of unsweetened cocoa powder with an equal-sized spoonful of turbinado sugar and and the same amount of soymilk, to form a paste.  Once the soymilk on the stove was warm, I poured it into the mug containing the chocolate paste, and mixed again until everything was well combined.

By this time, the conchas were done.

Conchas!

Cinnamon, vanilla, and orange conchas.

First, before doing anything else, I just sat and admired them.  They’re beautiful.  And they smell wonderful.

Then, I took one off the pan, put it on a plate, and sat down with my mug of hot chocolate.

Concha with Hot Chocolate

Pan dulce con chocolate!

I took a bite.  I sighed.

It’s settled.

I can continue being a vegan.  As with everything else, these conchas are even more satisfying than the kind from a panadería, because I know exactly what went into them, and I did it all myself.  And, they’re delicious.

(*Some of the modifications I made may have contributed to a slight texture difference.  The recipe called for all AP flour, instead of the mixture with whole wheat pastry flour.  Also, the recipe said to use egg replacer, (like ener-g egg replacer) but I prefer to use the flaxseed mixture, which also may have contributed to a slightly less smooth texture than traditional pan dulce, as well as a slightly “healthy” taste.  The texture was surprising at first, but after I finished eating the first concha, it didn’t bother me at all, and I might even increase the whole wheat pastry flour next time I make these.)

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