Focus on Mexican desserts
Authentic Mexican street sweets and celebrational classics are drawing fans
April 13, 2023 By Karen Barr
Historically, Mexico has always been a country with a love of sweets. The Spanish introduced pan dulce, or sweet bread. Later between 1864 and 1867, the French introduced pastries and chocolates. The Mexican people took these influences and developed their own products and traditions.
La Catrina Churros, Ottawa
La Catrina Churros, owned by Diane and Ulises Ortega, opened in Ottawa in 2013. First, the couple purchased a custom-made churro cart. Showing up at various city locations, the business was branded as Mr. Churrito. Then, in 2017 they opened La Catrina Churros, a cozy Mexican café in the city’s downtown core.
“At La Catrina we specialize in authentic Mexican churros and have an espresso bar, a dessert display, drinks and Mexican sandwiches,” Ulises says. He explains that while Spanish churros are served plain, the traditional Mexican churros are rolled in cinnamon and sugar while still warm.
Customers can order churros with thick dipping sauces. These include chocolate, vanilla, creamy caramel dulce de leche, Nutella and condensed milk. Key lime or strawberry are vegan sauces. Customers also can buy filled churros.
“The dulce de leche is by far the most popular sauce,” Ulises explains. “Next is the dark chocolate sauce. The third is the condensed milk sauce. It is easy to make, with just condensed milk with sugar.”
Yoyos are a literal twist on the churro. The churro batter is piped into a circular round using a smaller star tip. Two fried discs are sandwiched together with hazelnut spread.
“Tres Leches Cake is a very popular cake in Mexico,” Ulises says. “The sponge cake is soaked with condensed, regular and evaporated milk. Then we use cream cheese icing. Occasionally, we use meringue for people who do not like cream cheese.”
The churros cake is a traditional Tres Leches Cake, edged and surrounded in dulce de leche-filled churros, or any other filling from the list. “The ribbon around the cake, besides being decorative, helps to keep the churros in place.”
La Bonita, Ottawa
La Bonita restaurants, owned by Mexican-born Araceli Ortega, has two locations in Ottawa. “It would be unfair for me to take credit for the baking at the restaurants,” Araceli says. Head chef Sandy Jn Baptiste has the dual role of designing the dessert menu.
“La Bonita always had flan on the menu, but I worked on other desserts, first testing in my home kitchen, before making the desserts at La Bonita,” Sandy says.
La Bonita restaurants open for lunch in the east end location and mid-afternoon in the west end location. Then, both stay continually open until late in the evening. This has encouraged the just dessert trend, with tea, coffee, and maybe a cocktail. Sometimes these items cross over.
The El Borracho is a plated alcohol-infused triple dessert, using shot glasses shaped like skulls. One contains strawberry tequila. Another holds an equal mixture of Bailey’s with horchata, a creamy rice milk. The third holds an equal mix of mezcal and melted chocolate.
Churros are very popular, but Sandy creates them with a twist. “I put coloured sugar inside the churro batter to make pink and green churros. Some I leave plain.” All are rolled in cinnamon sugar and then served with the choice of chocolate, caramel or condensed milk dipping sauces.
“The Carlotas de Limon is sweet and tart with a side of fruit,” Sandy explains. Fresh lime juice, evaporated milk, condensed milk and 35 per cent cream are blitzed in a blender. Glass serving dishes are set out. A small amount of the mixture is poured in. Next, is a layer of Maria cookies, a rich, specialty tea biscuit that is popular in Mexico. Layering is repeated.
The dessert is placed in the freezer for an hour and a half. To serve it is given a dollop of whipped cream, with a side of cookies and sliced fruits. Sandy also makes up some gluten free varieties using the same recipes minus the cookies.
When servers reported to Sandy that customers were continually asking for chocolate cake, she created the Choco-Flan. “First, I make the flan and put it in a ramekin. It has four basic ingredients, which are eggs, evaporated milk, condensed milk and vanilla. I bake it for a while until it begins to set. Then, I pour the chocolate cake batter on top and continue baking it.”
The Tres Leches Cake is extraordinarily popular. Sandy’s secret is adding a bit of coconut milk for a light tropical taste. “It just gives it a better flavour,” she confides. Individual three-inch round or oval cakes arrive at the table, impressing customers who are expecting simple slices. “We also make large cakes for birthday parties. It is quite popular.”
Currently, Sandy is working on developing a traditionally made Mexican rice pudding, complete with fragrant cinnamon.
Pancho’s Bakery, Toronto
“Eighty per cent of our business is churros,” says Adalberto Aguilar, owner at Pancho’s Bakery, in Toronto. The business has expanded since 2009. “We have multiple churro trucks and three brick-and-mortar locations.”
While the bakery offers classic Mexican desserts, innovation is also part of the company’s success story. “In 2016, the summer was really hot, and I was looking for a new way to sell churros,” Adalberto remembers. “I came up with a churro ice cream cone, after lots of trial and error. At first, the cone was just too heavy. Then we found a way to make it lighter. It is piped around a paper cone. Then, the cone is removed, and the churro is deep-fried. Once cooled it is filled with ice cream.”
Adalberto posted a photo of his churro-crafted ice cream cone on his new Instagram account, offering one free to the first 100 customers who visited the shop on June 5 at 12 noon. “We had 1.6 million views of the posting. The lineup that day was huge! The first customers who came in said, ‘We don’t want anything for free, we are just here to support you.’ Everyone was so nice!”
While churros in all their forms dominate the sales, from classics to cheesecakes wrapped in churros, it is important for Adalberto to keep Mexican baking traditions alive. Different sweet treats align with the Mexican holidays, while honouring his family, who started their first bakery in Mexico in 1927.
“On January, there is a winter gathering to celebrate the Epiphany. In Mexico this is also called Day of the Holy Kings. We bake the Rosca de Reyes,” Adalberto says. “It’s the traditional wreath-shaped bread for the holiday. Inside is a plastic baby Jesus. Whoever finds it buys tamales for everyone on Feb 2.”
Pan de Muerto, or Day of the Dead Bread, is made for the colourful Nov. 1 Mexican holiday. What makes the sweet bread especially delicious is the orange peel worked into the dough. It’s brushed with butter while warm and then sprinkled with sugar or a sesame seed topping.
From street sweets to special Mexican holiday products, Mexican desserts are both trendy and traditional. Mexican bakeries and restaurants continue to offer a variety that keeps customers coming back for more.
Karen Barr writes about arts, culture and cuisine. She is a graduate of George Brown College and a Red Seal pastry chef.
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