"This is cake ," exclaimed a puzzled taster. He'd been expecting a quesadilla--a tortilla filled with melted cheese. He did get a quesadilla, but the way it is made in El Salvador. Unlike the Mexican tortilla snack, this quesadilla is a sweet, golden-brown cake sprinkled with sesame seeds. The names are identical because both contain queso (cheese).
Fifteen years ago, the Salvadoran quesadilla was unknown in Los Angeles. Now it is as easy to get as bagels and doughnuts--if you shop in neighborhoods where Central Americans congregate.
Look for panaderias (bakeries) that advertise " pan Centro Americano ," Central American bread. They'll have quesadillas and also salpores , semitas , tortas , peperechas , relampagos , magdalenas , santanecas , viejitas and many other breads, cakes and pastries from El Salvador and Guatemala. Relatively new here, these delicacies came in the '80s with the waves of immigrants fleeing violence at home.
By 1990, according to the most recent census, the Salvadoran population of Los Angeles had grown to 184,514, more than twice the number of Guatemalans--86,078. Both outnumber by far inhabitants from other parts of Central America, and that is why their baked goods predominate.
The breads are sweet but different in style from Mexican pan dulce . Salvadoran salpores , for example, fall somewhere between a biscuit, scone and cookie. They come in three styles-- maiz (made with corn flour), arroz (rice flour) and almidon (cornstarch). The charming rice flour santaneca is much like a salpor but sits on a strip of cornhusk. It is named for the city of Santa Ana in El Salvador.
The quesadilla itself comes in a variety of shapes and sizes--large, small, square, round, scalloped, shaped into small loaves and cupcakes. Some taste strongly of tangy cheese. In others, the cheese is barely detectable. Some bakeries say they use cream cheese. Others say cotija , Parmesan or Petacones cheese imported from El Salvador. Some recipes call for rice flour, others for wheat flour, and home cooks may use pancake mix as a shortcut. Plain and not too sweet, the quesadilla is just right with a cup of coffee. Salvadorans eat it on any occasion, from breakfast to dinner.
Also from El Salvador, the semita de pin~a , is a flat brown pastry with a layer of pineapple filling and a top crust decorated with slim strips of dough. The semita alta (tall semita ) has the same decorative top crust and pineapple filling but is thick with yellow cake. All of the bakeries make semitas , and El Turco market on Vermont Avenue carries Lido-brand semita de pin~a from El Salvador. A sign at Liborio market a couple of blocks away advertises " La Tradicional Semita Salvadoren~a Cocida en Horno de Barro " (traditional Salvadoran semita baked in a clay oven).
The golden torta de yema is an egg bread baked in loaf form and often glazed with crusty sugar. Salvadorans use it for torrejas --French toast drenched with cinnamon-flavored syrup--and it makes fantastic bread pudding. Pan Supremo (Chito's) Bakery on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles sells two styles of torta . One is a deep-yellow, eggy loaf. A lighter loaf with fewer eggs is made for torrejas and budin (bread pudding). Most of the bakeries make budin . That's the way they use up leftover bread. Firm enough to cut into slices or wedges, budin usually includes raisins and cinnamon. Guanaquita Bakery in Hollywood tops its version with pineapple. In North Hollywood, Las Americas bakery turns some of its torta de yema into torrejas that are sold by the slice. The bread soaks in syrup until it is as soft as a pudding.
Guatemala's peperecha , which Salvadorans call enmielada , is a slim, flat bar filled with gooey brown sugar and sprinkled with brilliant pink sugar. The Guatemalan magdalena is a pretty tube cake without frosting. Relampago means lightning, but the pastry that goes by that name is an eclair with a crackly topping of melted sugar.
The only way to know which bread is from which country is to ask. However, Panaderia La Fiesta in the Rampart District makes the distinction easy. Breads from El Salvador are in one showcase; those from Guatemala are in another, placed at right angles on either side of the cash register.
Names can be confusing. Torta and semita , for example, seem to be generic. At La Fiesta, a glazed roll with a bit of decorative trim and sprinkle of sesame seeds is a torta . Big plain rolls at La Adelita in the Pico-Union area are also tortas , and a round loaf elaborately trimmed with pretty swirls and sugar paste is called torta de Guatemala at Las Americas.