Author Archives: joepastry

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.

At the time Mexico owed lots of money to France, Spain and Britain, money it had borrowed to fund that civil war I mentioned. When President Benito Juárez stopped payment on the debt in 1861 it gave Napoleon all the pretext he needed to invade. At first the Spaniards and Brits were happy to go along on the adventure. However once it became clear that Napoleon was conducting a war of conquest rather than a simple repo operation, they quickly packed up and went home.

The French fought on. It took them nearly a year and a half, but in time they succeeded in occupying most of the northeast of the country including the capital of Mexico City, which fell on June 7th, 1863. Napoleon’s puppet dictator, Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, an Austrian and a Habsburg, was installed as Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico on October 3rd of that year.

It’s fair to ask at this point: where was the United States in all this? Wouldn’t the installation of a Hapsburg monarch on our southern border have violated the — what do you call it — Monroe Doctrine? Which is to say, wasn’t it standing US policy not to allow European states to establish new footholds in North, Central or South America? Indeed it was, but as it happened there was a little something else going on in America in the early 1860′s that consumed all our energies and attention: the American Civil War (a fact that was not unknown to the French). Thus the US Government could only stand by and watch as the Napoleon took more and more territory. By 1865 most of what is now Mexico was under French control.

Fortunately for Mexican resistance forces our Civil War ended in 1865, which freed up money and supplies for the cause. Almost immediately American cash, rifles, cannons and ammo began flowing to Benito Juárez’ government in exile. Napoleon quickly realized that the U.S. Government’s next move would be to declare open war upon him. Not willing to risk a conflict on that scale he began to withdraw his troops in the spring of 1866. The new Emperor hung on nonetheless and tried to make a stand with the few forces he had left. However by 1867 republican troops managed to take back Mexico City. Maximilian was summarily executed by firing squad.

Which ended the Maximilian Affair. Still it’s important to remember that the French had managed to hold a good chunk of Mexico for nearly a full six years. Which was plenty of time for imperial bakers to show the locals how to laminate dough.

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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 make their mark on the place, notably during The Pastry War (yes, that was a real conflict) and the French occupation of Mexico which lasted from 1861 to 1867.

These episodes, combined with steady French immigration and a post-independence cultural rebellion against all things Spanish, gave Mexican baking a decidedly French flair. To this day it’s not just white loaves that are considered traditional in Mexico, but laminated pastries like croissants (bigotes) and vol-au-vent (bolovanes). Why? Because once breads this good become part of your culture you’d be crazy to give them up.

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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


3.5 ounces (1/2 cup) sugar
2.5 ounces (scant 1/3 cup) orange juice
1 tablespoon orange zest


In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, combine the flour, yeast, salt and anise seeds. Stir to combine. Next combine the milk, sugar and shortening in a medium saucepan and heat the mixture just until the fat melts. It should be warm, not hot. Remove the mixture from the heat and add the eggs, whisking to combine them. Add the mixture to the mixer bowl and stir until everything is moistened. Switch to the dough hook and knead for 5-7 minutes, adding more flour as needed to create a moderately firm dough. Remove the dough to a lightly greased bowl. Cover it and let the dough rise for about an hour.

You can shape this dough in any number of ways. You can make one or two larger loaves out of this dough, or many smaller ones. All can be decorated with bone, skull or tear-shaped pieces of dough and baked. Bake large loaves at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 30-40 minutes. Bake small ones at 375 for about 20 minutes. Whatever size you’re making you’ll want to check them and rotate them about half way through baking.

Meanwhile combine the glaze ingredients by brining the sugar and juice in a saucepan. When the mixture cools stir in the zest. When the loaves are finished baking allow them to cool slightly, then brush on the glaze. Loaves can allows be decorated with regular or colored sugars, or brightly colored icings.

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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.

As a young bassist in the 80′s I was scared to death by Jack Bruce, as his imagination and technique were so formidable. He seemed to play at both ends of the neck — and in the middle — at the same time. But for all that there was always a purpose and direction to his noodling, which made him probably the ultimate jam band bass player, right up there with John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin and John Wetton of Uriah Heep and King Crimson fame. Those three defined, at least for me, the busy, trippy 60′s (and 70′s) hard rock sound.

Because I couldn’t play like that I took the less-is more approach, drawing inspiration from bassists like Paul McCartney (needs no explanation), Tony Levin from Peter Gabriel’s band, and Colin Moulding of XTC. And while I loved to pontificate about how bass “was a rhythm, not lead instrument” I always secretly longed for those ferocious Jack Bruce chops. I never got them and to this day I always cringe a little inside when I hear a Cream track like Crossroads. Crap, that guy was just too good!

Mr. Bruce, you will be missed.

UPDATE: Reader Siggy wants to know if, as a former bassist, I have a favorite bass line. Indeed I do: on the song Philadelphia Freedom by Elton John. A flawless synthesis of driving rhythm and fluid, incidental melody. Dee Murray may have been rock’s most perfect bass player.

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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?


Start by assembling your ingredients. Sift together your flours, salt and leavening. Note you can use up 1 1/2 cups of cornstarch or yuca flour out of a total 2 cups.

Cream the sugar and butter together.

Add egg yolk, egg, lemon zest and cogac.

Beat that together then add the flour and stir…

…until a dough starts to come together.

Remove the dough to a lightly floured board and push it together. Wrap that in plastic and refrigerate it for 30 minutes to firm it.

Divide the dough in half (it’s easier to work with only half at a time) and roll it into a rough ball.

Roll the dough out to about 1/8 inch thick…thinner than you might think, but then there’s baking powder in the dough so you’ll get some expansion during baking.

Cut out your shapes, you can make them just about any size, from small to large. Here I’m using a roughly 2-inch cutter.

Lay them out on a sheet pan and let them rest for about 30 minutes to relax any gluten that may have developed during the rolling step. You don’t want them contracting into overly-thick little disks in the oven. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bake them ten minutes until they’re heated through but not browned. The biscuit tops should be quite blonde in appearance. Some may be a little wobbly on the top…just use those for the bottoms! Allow these to cool completely before filling them since you don’t want any residual heat melting the dulce de leche.

Speaking of which, the best way to apply it, I think, is with a pastry bag. I like a nice thick layer of filling so I’m using just the collar. You can use any tip you like. Here I should add that if you really want to blow your audience away make a home-made dulce de leche with 50% goat’s milk. To thicken it, add a slurry of 1 tablespoon cornstarch and 1 1/2 tablespoons water once it’s reduced down to about three cups. Whisk it in quickly, let it boil thirty seconds and take it off the heat. If it isn’t the consistency of peanut butter when it cools, you can always re-heat it and add more cornstarch. Anyway…

…I pipe on a swirl…

…put on the top and squeeze gently…

…and do my best to resist popping it into my mouth right then and there. Have fun!

Filed under:  Alfajores, Pastry | 17 Comments

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

Sift together the flour(s), leavening and salt. In a medium bowl or in a mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the powdered sugar and butter until it’s light in color. Add the egg, yolk, zest and brandy and beat until it’s all combined (it may be a little lumpy, which is OK). Stir in the flour-baking powder mixture and work the dough just until it comes together. Refrigerate the dough for half an hour.

Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. After the dough has rested, roll it out to about a 1/8 inch thickness and cut it into rounds with a cookie cutter. Place the rounds on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake them for 10 minutes until baked but still very blonde. Cool the cookies on a wire rack, then fill with dulce de leche.

Filed under:  Alfajores, Pastry | 4 Comments