traditional Mexican oven
87 year-old Dormorito in Pantepec, Chiapas, Mexico bakes bread for the whole town in this oven. Picture by Cherry Bedenkop of Arizona

Because the Spanish introduced wheat into the Americas, when we talk of wheat-flour products there can be no reference to noble roots in Mexican-Indian antiquity. Nonetheless, from colonial times onward, first in monasteries and Spanish households and later among the mestizos, Mexicans have been so innovative with wheat flour that today their wheat-flour-based breads, pastries, and candies can be considered "real Mexican gastronomy." At the right you see a traditional oven for making bread of various kinds. Once the stones are heated to a high temperature by burning wood inside the oven, dough placed into the oven with the long-handled tool bakes extremely fast.

Selling bread in Jalpan, Queretaro
Bread table in Jalpan, Querétaro

The kinds of Mexican breads and breadlike things is amazing. In the mountains of Hidalgo, for instance, sometimes you can find locally made bread, baked with firewood, that is so dense and flavorful -- maybe because the flour is so crudely refined -- that it tastes indiginously down- home. These breads come in a multiplicity of shapes, sizes, and mixes of ingredients, and each variation has its own, often fanciful, name.

A Cuernito ("Little Horn")

For example, there's cartera (pocketbook), casco (cask), colchón (mattress), cuello (collar), chilindrina (joke, or trifle), elote (ear of corn), espinazo (backbone), huarachito (little sandal), magdalena (Magdalen), mestiza (mixed), peineta (little comb), piedra (stone), remolino (whirl), tacón (shoe heel), trenza (braid), yema (egg yolk)... In arid maguey-growing regions, bread sometimes contains settlings from the fermented drink called pulque, and is redolent with pulque's subtle aroma. Typically towns known for their local bakeries make just one or a few bread types.

bread called Bamba in Veracruz
A bread known as bamba in Veracruz. Photo by Maria Pagola, of Ask Maria, in Veracruz

The same proliferation of shapes, sizes, ingredient mixes, and names is to be seen in mercado-neighborhood pastry shops. Often the names of the little cupcakes, macaroons, cookies and Twinky-like things are as sugary as the ingredients -- there are novias (girlfriends), reinas (queens), besitos (little kisses), bocados (mouthfuls), polvorones sevillanos (Seville dustys), and duquesas (duchesses).

To gain an idea of the spectacular variety of Mexican sweets you might find in and around a Mexican mercado, browse through our list of "Sweets Words." Don't forget to review our "Bread Baker" page where a traditional baker in Oaxaca describes her operation.