The Man Who Would Be Emperor

Reader Goldie wants to know how and why the French came to occupy Mexico in the 1860′s. Goldie, I’d be happy to tell you.

The road from a Spanish territory to an independent nation was a rocky one for Mexico. Though the country gained independence from Spain in 1821, a series of political upheavals followed immediately afterward. It became the First Mexican Empire, then the United Mexican States, then several different independent nations, then the Second Mexican Empire before it finally settled, more or less, into the nation we now know. That was in 1876.

The period of French intervention in Mexico, known as “The Maximilian Affair”, began in 1861. That was the year that Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte and second Emperor of France) decided it would be a good idea to begin installing European monarchs in the New World. Mexico, being in disarray after a recent civil war, seemed like a good place to start.

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The Light and the Sweet

People who don’t have much experience with Mexican breads are often surprised when they enter a panaderia. They expect tortillas or some other types of rustic corn or wheat breads. What they get instead are lighter-than-air white breads, most of which are also quite sweet. Whoa, where did THESE come from? The answer is: the French.

Other than the indigenous peoples that thrived in Central America before Europeans showed up, it was the Spanish that had the biggest cultural impact on the region we now know as Mexico. Mexico was, after all, a key part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, a group of territories that included Cuba, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, the Phillipines, even Florida and the southwestern US at one time. Still the French managed to …

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Pan de Muerto Recipe

Under the hood, Pan de Muerto is very similar to pan dulce, the fluffy, slightly sweet white bread that Mexico is famous for. The main difference is that it’s flavored with anise seeds. The presentation is different as well, as it’s typically shaped into round loaves decorated with bone- and teardrop-shaped dough pieces, then glazed. Here’s the basic recipe:


16.25 ounces (3 cups) all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons anise seeds
2 teaspoons orange zest
8 ounces (1 cup) milk
1.75 ounces (1/4 cup) sugar
2 ounces (1/2 cup) shortening or lard
2 eggs
egg wash

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Dunkin’ Cronuts?

You knew it was coming. Sooner or later somebody was going to try a mass-market knock-off Dominique Ansel’s 2013 smash hit. Why did these things ever make international headlines in the first place? Who knows, I still can’t figure it out. Be that as it may, “croissant doughnuts” is what Dunkin’ Donuts is calling them and the good folks over at Vocativ have a review. Enjoy!…

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But First: Pan de Muerto

Bread of the dead. Reader Sunyana has been having trouble with hers, and seeing as how it’s just a couple of days until Día de Muertos, I’m going to take a quick detour to Mexico. Stand by!

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Next Up: Esterházy Torte

Reader Johan has an excellent idea here. This one has style, flavor AND history. Let’s do this thing!

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All things being equal, I’d rather be in Mexico.

Mrs. Pastry is living the good life down in Oaxaca this week, leaving me the sole ringmaster for the circus we have running here. It’s required my full attention the last few days, I haven’t even picked a new project yet. Any suggestions?

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White Room in the Sky

I noted with some sadness that legendary musician Jack Bruce died over the weekend at the age of 71. Bruce is best known as the lead singer and bassist for Cream, a psychedelic power trio whose songs you almost certainly know since they’ve been played pretty much continuously on the radio since the late 60′s. The other two members of Cream were guitarist Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker, so you could say they were something of a super group. …

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Making Alfajores

My first alfajor was a powdery-caramelly masterpiece with a layer of dulce de leche that I swear was an inch thick. That could just be how I remember it of course. But I was overwhelmed. Where had these been all my life? Happily it was’t long before a kind Peruvian lady clued me in to what they were and taught me how to pronounce them. Alfa-whuh?


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Alfajores Recipe

How can you tell these are New World cookies? By all the cornstarch (corn flour) of course. Some readers have written in to tell me they don’t like the taste and/or texture of cornstarch even when it’s baked. If that’s the case no worries, you can still make these with cake flour. Yuca flour is another alternative that’s used quite a bit in alfajores, assuming you can find it. Note that the proportion of the different flours can be changed to suit your taste. Some like a firmer alfajor, in which case you can use 100% wheat flour, all-purpose if you like. For those who prefer theirs ultra-tender, you can use up to 65% non-wheat flour and they’ll still hold together. Here’s what I did. These aren’t very sweet because the filling is extremely so.

5 ounces (1 cup) all-purpose flour
4 ounces (1 cup) cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 ounces (1/2 cup) powdered (confectioner’s) sugar
4 ounces (1 stick) butter
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons pisco (Peruvian brandy) or cognac
1-2 cups thick dulce de leche or about 1 cup jam for filling

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