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A new world of panaderias

Pan dulce has gone pan-Latin. Here's where to find the best around town.

April 13, 2005|Barbara Hansen | Times Staff Writer

ALTHOUGH I've stopped into this bakery on a whim, the sweet breads and pastries at Panaderia Antequera in Santa Monica are so appealing I can't buy just one or two but leave with a sackful. Then, on my way to the car, the aromas of yeast, cinnamon and anise wafting from the sugar-topped sweet rolls, flaky puff pastries and golden brown fruit-filled empanadas overwhelm me. I can't wait till I get home: I bite into one before I even get the car door open.

I admit it. I'm hooked on pan dulce (sweet bread and pastry) -- so much so that years ago I'd bring it back all the way from Mexico, stockpiling what I couldn't find here. That's long been unnecessary -- we've been blessed with great Mexican bakeries for some time.

But lately, L.A.'s panaderias have gone pan-Latin. Scattered throughout the city, there's an exuberant, ever-changing mix of Mexican and Central American pan dulce. Tiny, crowded Antequera is one of the best panaderias in a city that's seeing an upswing in inventiveness among Latino bakers, who come from an already freewheeling tradition.

Pan dulce is what panaderias are all about. This general term encompasses sweet yeasted breads large and small, puff-pastry creations and not-too-sweet cake-like renditions, as well as turnovers, tarts and cookies in amazing variety.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 13, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Pan dulce price -- A chart in today's Food section with an article about Latino bakeries gave an incorrect price. The panadero at El Rinconcito del Mar bakery in Los Angeles is three for $1, not three for $14.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 20, 2005 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Pan dulce price -- A chart in last week's Food section with an article about Latino bakeries gave an incorrect price. The panadero at El Rinconcito del Mar bakery in Los Angeles is three for $1, not three for $14.

Panaderia displays are irresistible, featuring all manner of pan dulce. How could anyone refuse a pink, yellow or white concha (shell), light and fragrant, decorated with a stenciled sugar-paste to resemble a seashell? Or a rosa (rose), a flower-shaped swirl of sweet roll sparkling with pink sugar? Or a campechana, with thin layers of golden-glazed pastry so crackly it collapses in a shower of crumbs at first bite?

When the Spaniards conquered Mexico in the 16th century, they introduced wheat and the concept of breads made with wheat flour. The idea was that bakers would supply them with bread to accompany coffee and an intriguing New World drink, hot chocolate. Delighted with the new medium, bakers gave full vent to their artistic skills, modeling breads on everything in their environment -- birds, flowers, animals, indigenous foods, tools, household equipment, human anatomy, geographical features, clothing -- anything was fuel for inspiration. This tradition of fanciful shapes continues today with pan dulce varieties such as tortuga (turtle), volcan (volcano) and gusanos (worms).

Some pan dulce is less like bread and more like cake in texture, others are crisp. The breads may be filled with cheese or fruit, decorated with sugar that is sometimes tinted a bright color, sprinkled with sesame seeds or chocolate. Raisins might be mixed into the dough or flecks of ground cinnamon stick or anise seeds.

In Mexico, it's typical to eat pan dulce and hot chocolate as a light supper after consuming an elaborate meal in the afternoon. But pan dulce shows up at breakfast too. Some restaurants place a basket on the table, then charge for the number eaten.

The great joy of pan dulce, one that keeps me always on the alert for a panaderia I haven't tried, is its infinite variety. Each panaderia has its specialties and its unique styles of popular varieties. You never know when you'll find a new shape or flavor, and the often-whimsical names change from place to place. In some bakeries, the campechana is called an espejo (mirror) because it is so shiny. The long, flat, crisp pastry known as a tostada at one place may be a huarache (sandal) somewhere else.

Some of the distinctions are regional. Panaderia Antequera -- Antequera is an old name for Oaxaca -- is jam-packed with intriguing breads and groceries, all from Oaxaca. People crowd in to buy the breads they remember from home. I stop in whenever I'm in the neighborhood because it's one of the few places where I can buy pan de cazuela (casserole bread), a medium-sized oval loaf shaped with a twist over the top; it's delicious, with raisins and an intriguing trace of chocolate inside. This bread is not baked in an earthenware casserole dish but in, of all things, a large sardine can, according to baker Juan Gutierrez.

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Signature creations

I also love Gutierrez's pan de yema, a delicate sesame-sprinkled egg bread that Oaxacans dip in hot chocolate. Gutierrez bakes his al estilo casero (home style), using fresh butter and eggs, and the puff of golden dough is lighter than brioche.

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