A friend traveling to San Juan called me in the middle of the afternoon a few weeks ago to ask for recommendations. I rattled off my usual favorite restaurants and shops and my preferred hotel and then, lowering my voice a bit to indicate the seriousness of what was to come, I told her that she was not allowed to leave the island without trying a mallorca. Preferably, I added, toasted and filled with ham and cheese.
Mallorcas, as I grew up calling them, are a sweet, coiled enriched bread (similar to a brioche) that is served dusted with copious amounts of powdered sugar. The breads are best freshly baked and toasted with lots of butter, or (my favorite) filled with thick slices of baked ham or jamon Serrano and some kind of cheese. In Puerto Rican cafes and bakeries (you can even find them at the local Starbucks there!), the options are invariably Swiss or American (as wonderful as the island is, they have terrible taste in cheese). I like to use a nicely aged cheddar instead. If you're a tourist, the counter person will probably assume you don't want powdered sugar on your sandwich, but I urge you to insist that they give it to you. The combination of salty ham and sweet bread is sublime. Even better, have them press the sandwich for you before dusting with sugar.
The Old San Juan cafe, La Bombonera, is famous for its mallorcas, but I actually most associate my visits with the ones I've eaten another bakery/cafe called Kasalta. Kasalta has been around since my parents were children. According them, it started out as a small cafe that grew and expanded over the years as it became increasingly more popular. Today, the bakery stretches down a long, narrow room, with various stations for coffee, desserts, sandwiches, savory dishes, and deli meats set up along the long counter. Opposite the counter are a series of cafeteria-style picnic tables where the dine-in guests randomly grab seats to eat their sandwiches. The seats are made for sharing, so don't hesitate to join another family if there aren't any empty tables available.
Growing up, we flew to Puerto Rico about once or twice a year for the various holidays and weddings and funerals that cause families to bundle into planes and zip across various North American flight routes. We felt lucky that for us these trips always meant a Caribbean vacation with fancy hotels and pools and beaches, while the other kids in our class were sleeping on sofa beds and air mattresses in random uninteresting suburbs just outside of Buffalo or Baltimore.
Of course, this also made the return home a bit tragic. The last day of vacation usually is. Suitcases haphazardly packed, squeezing back into a pair of suddenly-snug jeans (the only long pants that were brought on the trip). As kids we dashed in and out of the bathrooms and the hallways, snagging as many tiny shampoo bottles and shower caps as we could. Not to mention hotel pens and notepads emblazoned with that Ritz Carlton lion or the trademark blue Hilton "H." After check-out, the luggage was piled into the rental car and my dad would take us to our final stop: Kasalta.
We'd stock up. Egg and ham sandwiches or scrambles for breakfast that were eaten at the table, along with several Cuban or Media Noche or Mallorca sandwiches to eat on the plane. And then, triumphantly, the box of pastries. Flaky quesitos filled with sweet cheese and guava, almond pastries, doughy triangles filled with dulce de leche, and a few freshly baked mallorcas for good measure. The box was tied up with one of those thin red and white strings and tucked carefully into the carry-on; a final taste of the island meant to carry us through the next couple days of reentry.
On my most recent trip to the island, back in February with Eugene, I indulged in these treats every morning thanks to the overpriced but so good it was almost worth it buffet at the Caribe Hilton (aforementioned favored hotel). To help justify the 60-dollar-a-day breakfast, I'd wrap several mallorcas in a napkin just before heading back to our room and spend most of the day nibbling on them and spilling powdered sugar all over the floor and my black bathing suit. Classy, I know.
I woke up craving them a few days ago, so I set off on a hunt for a good recipe. I found one at The Noshery that looked promising since the blogger, Meseidy, is actually Puerto Rican and knows first-hand what those little rolls of deliciousness should taste like. The recipe came together easily, and the results were heavenly. The dough was one of the softest doughs I've ever worked with. Seriously, it was like poking a little baby in the belly. I just wanted to squeeze it, it was so cute!
The best part is that the entire recipe only takes about 3 hours to make (including risings), and as most of the time is inactive. It's the sort of recipe that can come together easily in the evening while watching your favorite shows or even getting dinner together. They'll keep well overnight and in the morning you can treat yourself and your family to freshly baked sweet rolls.
I modified the recipe only slightly, adding a bit of vanilla bean and a pinch of salt. I also had to add an extra cup of flour since my dough was much too wet (it was a humid day). Next time I make these, I think I'll combine lard with the butter just to see what happens (marvelous things, I'm sure!). Mallorcas, by the way, came to Puerto Rico by way of the Spanish who brought them from the Balearic island of Majorca. There, the bread is known by its proper name of ensaïmada (literally "en-larded"), since ordering "Pan de Majorca" while actually in Majorca would otherwise cause much confusion.
1966 Calle McLeary
San Juan, PR 00911
Note: Eugene is concerned that I didn't credit his hand modeling debut above. He was worried that you would think those are my man-hands. So just for the record, I don't have man-hands. Those are Eugene's.
P. S. Want more great Puerto Rican recipes? Check out my eCookbook: The Puerto Rican Christmas Table with 40+ recipes and full-color photos. Click here to learn more!
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Pan de Mallorca/ Mallorcan Sweet Rolls
Adapted from The Noshery
2 1/4 teaspoons dry yeast
3/4 cup white sugar
5 to 6 cups all purpose flour, divided, plus more for dusting
1 cup warm milk (warm enough to leave your fingertip in it for 10 seconds)
1 cup warm water (warm enough to leave your fingertip in it for 10 seconds)
6 egg yolks
1 vanilla bean, scraped (optional)
2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
In the base of your electric mixer, combine the warm milk, warm water, yeast, sugar, and 1 cup of flour and whisk well. Leave to rise at room temperature for 45 minutes. The mixture should have risen and appear frothy and bubbly after the rise.
Whisk in the egg yolks, vanilla, and the remaining flour until it is all incorporated. Whisk in the salt and 1/2 of the melted butter. Cover the bowl with an oiled plastic wrap and let rise for 1 hour until doubled.
Liberally dust your surface and your hands with flour to prevent the dough from sticking. Empty the dough out onto the surface and sprinkle it all over with flour. use your hands to knead it slightly. It will be soft and will feel almost liquid in the center, but you should be able to handle it by keeping your hands floured.
Divide the dough into 12 equal portions and roll each portion out into a snake about 12 inches long. Use a brush to coat the dough snake with a generous brush of melted butter, then coil into a little roll and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Space the rolls out evenly, only six to a sheet so they have room to rise.
When you're done rolling them out, brush with a little more butter and let them rise until they have doubled once again (about 30 minutes). (At this time, preheat your oven to 375 degrees)
When done rising, brush once again with the remaining butter, and bake in the oven at 375 degrees for 12-15 minutes or until golden and puffed.
Cool on a rack and dust liberally with powdered sugar just before serving.