Handmade Hispanic Breads

Traditional, handmade Hispanic breads represent an art form of baking that demands precision, aesthetic awareness and, most of all, experience. Whether it is the shaping of bolillo, concha or campechana bread, a seasoned understanding of the dough — and its components —is vital to producing an aesthetically pleasing product.

As machines have become increasingly indispensable for efficiency and reduced labor in the production room, the subtle accents of handmade products have gradually faded as a common art form. While the gradual disappearance of this authentic production may not be noticeable in a typical bakery, the intricacies of hand-shaped Hispanic products can rarely be reproduced by machinery with the same level of artistic aptitude. In many ways, each Hispanic loaf is much like an artist’s canvas.

The campechana, a Mexican-style pastry, is a perfect example of a Hispanic bread that cannot be reproduced by a machine. One could argue that the shaping of the bread is a trivial aestheticism that has an insignificant influence on the taste and quality of the finished product; however, in the retail world, aesthetic details can have a profound influence on the value and appeal of a product.

“Our customers still want that same feeling of going to the old bakery to pick up their bread every day. They want that feel of home,” says Kirk Michaelis, owner of El Bolillo Bakery in Houston, TX. “When it’s not made by hand and it is just some store bought loaf, it’s just not the same. I am sure it just tastes better from the look of it.”

The element of nostalgia plays an important role in the shaping of Hispanic breads. As large-scale machine production is limiting the individuality of each loaf, and consequently generating a more generic and uniform product, many customers seem to yearn for the rare artisan breads bought and baked by another generation. By returning to traditional hand production, bakeries like El Bolillo Bakery cater to their customers who have a sophisticated appreciation for authentically made Hispanic products.

Describing his customers as well-versed in quality baking, Michaelis explains that his regulars will routinely sift through the products, carefully searching for the most appetizing. Oftentimes, they will ignore the items with tears or less than beautiful borderings. Ultimately, you just cannot ignore the obvious correlation between visual appeal and the actual taste and texture of a product. Customers judge the value and quality of Hispanic bread based on its appearance and traditional production. Machines are incapable of authentically producing artisanal bread.

Many Hispanic bakeries produce a large variety of artisan breads, each with a different style and shaping. Juan Reyes, manager of El Bolillo Bakery, emphasizes the noticeable influence each stage of formation has on the finished pastry. In order to encourage the most flattering formation of the dough during the baking process, rolling the bread tightly enough — and at the correct time — is critical.

“Anybody can make bolillos, but to make them right, you have to tighten them well, the dough has to be perfect, and you can mess it up really easy,” Reyes says. “If you don’t do it correctly, it will not open up, and it will not look pretty.”

While shaping the dough, tightly rolling the product will make scoring the bread a more successful endeavor. It is also important to avoid carelessly mishandling the dough. Carefully allowing the proper amount of resting time between shaping and scoring can determine if the bread blossoms as intended or if the scoring becomes an unappetizing, flat opening on the loaf.

Reyes explains that after tightly rolling the bolillo dough, he will score the product with a blade that has been bent into an L-shaped form. The score will go from end to end across the loaf. As a result, the bread will open up without pouring out as if it had been squeezed during the baking process.

Contrasting with tradition, machine-produced bolillos are rounded off on each end and are then positioned on trays with rounded placements for the dough. These trays would typically be used for baguettes. As a result, the machine-made bolillo has a noticeably different appearance from a handmade one.

Like any art form, the talent of shaping Hispanic breads is acquired by long hours of practice and years of experience. It is not nearly as efficient as a machine; however, the process results in a much more appetizing product.While machinery seems to eliminate the need for taxing labor and time, the quality and look of Hispanic products are sometimes dramatically compromised when not made by hand.

Not only do these handmade breads impart a certain degree of nostalgia to many customers, but their artistic features also highlight the talent of the baker who made them. “There’s a pride to doing things right, and this is a dying art,” Reyes says.