Our very last cooking class during our stay was with Angela Esparza and her husband Mark (originally from Scotland, if I remember correctly), who own a nieves shop in the San Felipe neighborhood. Nieves is a frozen churned dessert like ice cream, except made from milk instead of cream. It’s a much lighter alternative and is the perfect treat to have while walking around the streets when the sun is high in the sky. In Oaxaca, a traditional combination is tuna, or prickly pear paired with leche quemada, which is literally burnt milk. Oaxacans sure like smoky flavors. I found it to be quite interesting and had it more than once while I was there. Others don’t enjoy it and decisively choose to not have it more than once.
But before I went to the pastry class, one of Luceros’ assistants’ (from the ICO) boyfriends’ family owned and worked at a bakery and invited us to come over for a tour at 7am. Due to the limited amount of time left of our stay in Oaxaca, Chef only brought as many people as could fit in a single taxi. That ended up being just me, another student, Lucero and himself. I think we were invited because I have a specific interest in bakeries, and the other student was in the night lab section and had not gotten the chance to work with bread.
The building for the bakery was unmarked and quite nondescript. We had to ask a person exiting one of the other shops in the alleyway if there was a bakery down there. I don’t know that I would ever have walked down that small alley thinking there would be a bakery. But there was! I would estimate the baking area as just under 2000 sq ft. There were just five bakers, but man were they cranking out the goods! You’d never be able to guess which hand was their dominant one as they did everything two at a time, using both hands, whether it was shaping little balls of dough for concha or bolillo or using decorative cutters to mark their tops (under 3 seconds to do either task). They were so polite as well, indulging questions and politely asking me to step aside despite my best efforts to stay out of the way while gawking at their incredible efficiency at the same time.
We then made our way to the front of the bakery which was their retail area. Definitely a no-frills type of operation. Considering that each pastry sold for under 5 pesos, I can see why. I found their giant palmieres very impressive – they were about the size of my face. The fact that they had a sheeter did viennoiserie on premises was quite impressive to me as it’s quite warm in Oaxaca, so keeping the butter at the right temperature with absolutely no climate or humidity control can be quite difficult. We each bought our fill of pastries and thanked the bakers for their time, then rushed to get back to our hotel to regroup with the rest of the class.
We met Angela and Mark at their production site which looked like it was previously a two-story townhouse. The kitchen had been expanded and equipped with a commercial range as well as a larger commercial convection oven. Angela briefly explained that many of the sweets in Mexico are post-hispanic since refined sugar, wheat, many nuts and some fruits, and most importantly domesticated animals such as chicken for eggs and cows for dairy products were introduced by the Spanish. Many of these sweets were developed or invented in the convents.
We broke up into four groups and were told that we could make whatever we wanted. There was a comment on how one year there were three tres leches cakes. Not wanting to have to eat three cakes just two days before we were about to leave Oaxaca, we went around and asked what other groups were making in an attempt to reduce the number of duplicate items we’d have to eat. In our recipe packet there was a large selection to choose from which included conchas (sweet bread with a shell design on top), buñelos (really thin dough that’s deep-fried and served with a piloncillo syrup, often a street food), nieves – tuna and leche quemada (prickly pear and burnt milk ice cream), jamoncillo (a cooked milk dessert, often made with cajeta, which is a goat’s milk caramel, and topped with pecans), sweet tamales, budin (essentially a bread pudding), cocadas (very similar to a coconut macaroon), tamarind candy, and another candy I can’t remember the name of that involves pulverized peanuts and sugar.
We had a huge bounty of sweets to take back with us. Knowing that we probably wouldn’t be able to finish before we left, we packed up a few boxes to send to the hotel and the ICO as a small token of thanks.