At one point or another we’ve all tried to bring childhood memories to life in our kitchens – but some memories are harder to recreate than others. For me an ever elusive, yet much longed for, childhood treat has been pan dulce (sweet bread) – also known as Mexican Morning Buns. These sweet, fluffy buns fit in the palm of your hand and are covered with either a cinnamon or chocolate topping. In Mexican households they’re a staple at the breakfast table, where they’re served with coffee or hot chocolate.
When I was a kid one of my favorite Saturday rituals was going to the mexican bakery down the road with my father, where we could select an assortment of pan dulces for breakfast on Sunday morning. We always had a hard time deciding between all the different variations of pan dulce behind the counter. Did we want seashell shaped conchas? The cuernos, which are buns shaped like the horns of a bull? Or were we in the mood for elotes, shaped like an ear of corn? I’m telling ya, these are the decisions that will blow a kid’s mind. Usually we took the easy way out and selected two of each!
I like pan dulce, period – but if I had to choose a favorite shape it would be the simple, rounded buns with circles of cinnamon sugar on top. For months I’ve been experimenting with recipes in an effort to make pan dulce that would live up to my childhood memories, but the resulting buns were either too tough, or flavorless, or just missed the mark entirely. Finally I took matters into my own hands and came up with the recipe you see here, which makes about 16 fluffy, cinnamon-vanilla flavored morning buns. I swear the first time I put them in the oven I nearly floated down the stairs like a character in some Loony Tunes cartoon. That’s how good my apartment smelled. And the taste? Let’s just say I ate two of these before I even got them in front of the camera.
Buns like those you see here are the ones that panaderias usually make into conchas, which are named after conch shells. But I took the easy way out and simply placed a dollop of topping on each bun just before baking. In the oven it spreads and covers the bun in a sweet, slightly crunchy coating of cinnamon sugar. :)
These Mexican Morning Buns are fairly easy to make, but the dough is sticky so you’ll need to dust it with flour periodically during kneading. Don’t make the mistake of adding too much flour, which will dry out the dough and lead to tough buns. You want just enough flour to prevent the dough from sticking to the counter or your hands. I like to knead the dough by hand even though I have a stand mixer. Using a mixer makes it too easy to overdo the flour - better to have your hands in the dough so you can feel when it’s ready for its first rise.
Pan Dulce (Mexican Morning Buns) – My Recipe
Ingredients: Makes about 16 buns
For the buns:
- 1/4 cup warm water
- 2 1/2 teaspoons instant (rapid rise) yeast
- 2/3 cups warm whole milk
- 4 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 4 to 5 cups all-purpose flour
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into small pieces
For the topping:
- 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup confectioners sugar
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into small pieces
- 1 large egg
- 2 tablespoons whole milk
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
For the buns:
In a large metal bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the warm water, yeast, milk, eggs, vanilla, salt and sugar. Add 1 cup of flour and beat until smooth. Add another cup of flour and mix well, then add the butter and mix until incorporated. Add two more cups of flour, half a cup at a time, mixing between additions. This will bring you to four cups of flour already used in the dough. Allow the dough to rest for 5 minutes. It will be very sticky.
Generously dust your work surface and hands with flour, then turn the dough out. You are going to knead the dough by hand for 4 to 5 minutes, but will need to dust the it with flour 1 tablespoon at a time at intervals to prevent it from sticking to the work surface or your hands. Don’t overdo it with the flour. Use just enough to prevent sticking. You will probably use another 1/2 to 1 cup of flour during the kneading process.
Once the dough is soft, slightly sticky and springs back when you press your thumb into it, shape it into a ball and place it in a large, lightly greased bowl, turning once to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm area for 1 hour.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. With a knife, cut the dough in half, then cut each half in two. Now you’ll have four pieces of dough. Cut each piece into four more sections, then roll each section into a smooth ball. Place the balls onto your prepared baking sheet, gently pressing down and spacing them at least three inches apart.
With a sharp knife cut three slits on the top of each ball of dough. Cover each tray with plastic wrap, lightly spraying the wrap with baking spray before putting the oiled side down onto the dough. Allow the dough to rise for 1 hour.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.
For the topping:
In a large bowl, make the topping by combining the flour, confectioners sugar, butter, egg, milk, vanilla and cinnamon. With two metal spoons, place 1 tablespoon worth of topping on each bun, gently spreading the topping around with the back of one of the spoons.
Allow the buns to rise for another 1/2 hour, then bake at 375 degrees F for 18-24 minutes or until golden brown. If your oven isn’t big enough for both baking sheets to fit at once, it’s fine to bake one tray at a time. The buns that go in second will just have risen a bit more.
Cool on a rack, then serve warm or at room temperature. The buns will keep for about 2 days in an airtight container.