Some years ago, I visited my friend in her ethnically eclectic neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens, where the Indian and Pakistani produce/spice/tchotchke shops about Peruvian cevicherías and sit opposite the Colombian asaderos. In this neighborhood, you can traverse the span of continents in minutes and English interrupts the flow of Urdu and Hindi as much as it sticks out in a river of Spanish.
On this particular day, we were on a quest to discover the best place for Colombian bread and pastries. My friend, an adventurous food person, had already sampled her share of fríjoles con garra, chunchullo and chicharrón, and was looking for something less challenging for her growing baby to munch on. With my own bun in the oven, we walked slowly behind her stroller, pausing to peer into steamy windows on a dry, sunny, and very cold winter morning.
“What are we looking for?” she asked, squinting at the menu taped to the inside of the glass that hung beneath a painted-on bandera tricolor. “Pan de bono, almojábana … those are my favorites. Or pandeyuca. But those are really hard to get right.” She listened intently. “So, the last one is presumably made with yuca?” she asked. She had taken Spanish all through high school. “Yep. Yuca flour and cheese. And the others are cheese bread. So, like one is yuca and cheese, the other is cheese … maybe also with yuca flour? And the other one is cheese bread but a little sweet?”
The more I struggled to describe these completely distinct breads, light and fluffy yet toothsome and hearty, perfectly pocketed with air and ethereally gooey, the more we both realized I was just repeating “cheese”, “bread”, and “yuca” in different patterns. My friend, knowing I had majored in reading and writing looked at me quizzically. We blinked at one another for a few moments in the cold air. Her baby wiggled in his stroller. Unable to think of more words, we headed into a panadería, sat down, and ordered café con leche and one of each item on the menu, to share.
Pan de Bono
Delicious pan de bono headlines this list because its dough is the basis for many of the cheese breads. Named “pan buono” or “good bread” by early Italo-Colombians, it is often available in most Colombian bakeries around the United States, at gas stations in Miami, and frozen in the ethnic aisle in participating supermarkets. These snack super-stars are typically baked into small, smooth rounds or into donut-shapes. Their cheesiness is achieved with queso costeño (feta cheese is a good substitute) and they are naturally gluten-free because they are made with cassava flour.
At first glance, an almojábana might look just like a pan de bono, round and smooth, defying the traditional Colombian bakery rule that you can discern a bread by its shape. But if you look closely, an almojábana will always look a little more yellow than its saltier brother, thanks to the addition of cornmeal to the basic pan de bono dough. This makes the texture less chewy and more bread-y, as well as creating a sweeter effect through the synergy of the corn and sugar in the recipe.
The confusion between all these cheese breads is solved when we realize that the basic dough for all is made of harina de yuca and a salty cheese. Each preparation then shapes and treats the dough differently, and varying some ingredients. For pandeyucas, the dough is identical to pan de bonos, but it is rested in the refrigerator overnight before baking, drying it out and giving the crust of these roles a crispy texture absent in the other preparations. Pandeyucas are traditionally horseshoe-shaped and a typical choice for onces or the afternoon meal.
Traditional midnight snacks on nochebuena, it is common for Colombian families to tuck into a platter of buñuelos, a slice of natilla (a cinnamon-infused panna cotta criolla), and a mug of agua de panela, after attending midnight mass and waiting for el niño Jesús to drop off the gifts. Buñuelos are mixed exactly like pan de bonos, but in this case the dough is shaped into spheres and is deep fried, resulting in a golden ball of umami heaven with a texture almost like a croqueta filled with cheesy bread instead of ham and bechâmel..
Pan de Queso
Not to be confused with our Brazilian neighbor’s pan de queijo, which, thanks to its use of yuca flour (also known as cassava in the Caribbean and manioca in Brazil) is sharply cheesy, airy, and chewy like pan de bono, Colombian “cheese bread” is different. Made with traditional white wheat flour and leavening, pan de queso is often baked into swirly rolls or even in loaf molds and has a more typically bread-y consistency.
If your local fairgrounds haven’t tapped into the deliciousness of mobile arepa carts, just order yourself some pre-cooked cornmeal (it does have to be specifically for arepas — I highly recommend PAN brand) and griddle up some for yourself. Akin to the tortilla for Colombians, arepas vary from the very simple, which accompany the meal, to more complex preparations, which are themselves meals. Each region presents its own version of the arepa — some plain, to be slathered with butter and salt (Antioquia y la zona cafetera); some with the addition of cheese to the dough (Boyacá); some thickly prepared so they can later be stuffed; and one magical version, twice-cooked and stuffed with a raw egg before it is sealed and perfectly fried, the wonderful arepa ‘e huevo from the Caribbean coast.
In childhood, I was always disappointed that a roscón was not a doughnut. Eyeing the giant round, bigger than anything at Dunkin’, with its attractive sugar crystals freckling the top, golden crust, I would bite down into the neutral/savory dough, its resistance more like a bagel than a donut, and immediately hang my head, wistful for the easy yield and tooth-decaying sweetness of a chocolate glazed. Now, the memory of the airy bready-ness of the dough, the crunchy granulated sugar-and-egg wash topping seems in perfect balance with the gooey, super-sweet filling of either guayaba or arequipe (dulce de leche). Its circumference graced by copious amounts of filling, a roscón, I now know, does not need a sweet dough.
No one knows who Gloria was, but what is a fact is that she must have been a genius to pair buttery, homemade puff pastry with a square of guayaba or a dollop of arequipe in the center. The pastry bakes up to a high and golden crisp, but for the very center that drapes around the filling, which would always remain more elastic and sort of under-baked in the best possible way. I used to love eating them one layer at a time, keeping the chewy center for last. This modern hack with Pillsbury dough looks easy enough to try at home.
Colombian empanadas sometimes differ from Argentinian ones and sometimes they don’t. For some reason, chicken (onion and green olive) empanadas tend to be wrapped in wheat flour dough and oven-baked, while a typical empanada de carne, with its ground beef, potato, and pea filling is usually encased in a corn flour dough and deep fried. Empanaditas de pipián from Bogotá are super small, filled with meat and potatoes, fried, and served with a peanut sauce. No matter what kind of empanada you prefer, a little ají casero or fresh chile salsa is always a good idea.
The dough for these sweet-savory packets of steamed corny goodness resemble a fresh polenta, in which fresh cut corn is enriched with butter and cheese, and encouraged to set up by the addition of a little cornmeal. Wrapped into corn husk packets, envueltos are then steamed until cooked and best enjoyed hot.
The venerable great-uncle of the envuelto, the tamal is famous in the region of Tolima in Colombia, where it contains a whole meal within its plantain-leaf cloak. The basic dough is made with cornmeal and cooked rice, but instead of a little butter, both the dough and the meat topping are heavily seasoned with lard, aromatics, and sazón. Like in neighboring cultures, there is a tradition of using an assembly-line to prep enough tamales to feed everyone in the family, so that come Christmas Day no one has to cook from scratch — just steam and eat up.
A hearty little bundle, the mogolla is traditionally made with whole grains and bran, making one small, wholesome-looking round a fast, cheap, and filling choice. Available fresh daily at bakeries, markets, even corner kiosks, the mogolla plus a Colombiana soda is a typical mid-morning snack for laborers and office workers in Colombia.
If the mogolla had an opposite, it would be the white-flour-and-milk-based, faintly sweet and soft pan blandito. The other ubiquitous offering on daily sheet pans at Colombian bakeries, these small, oblong rolls are recognizable by their shape and golden color. See if you can snag one off the tray while it’s still warm and dip it into your café con leche.
The paper-thin and crispy wafer that possibly began as a communion cracker is also baked up into large disks and sandwiched with arequipe in Colombia and called an oblea. To ensure that the caramel filling doesn’t have a chance to make soggy the impossibly crisp wafer, obleas are best when freshly spread while standing at one of the bake shops that specialize in this treat in Colombia. Our best solution here in the U.S. is to find the wafers and arequipe disassembled and put the oblea together just in time to eat. Ordering pre-made ones from Amazon is, well, at least an option.