In dictionary Spanish conchita means “little shell,” a diminutive of the larger object, concha, and is also a shortened endearment for people named Concepción. In many Spanish-speaking parts of the world conchita doubles as shape-descriptive slang for female genitalia. In Mexico, it is also a sweet thing—a cottony, conch-shaped breakfast roll coated in a thin sugar skin. Since size descriptions and endearments often work the same way in the language, a lot is rolled into this word. They are shells, sex, bread, and for plenty of Latin Americans, a food memory; another type of madeleine.
Conchita is also my aunt Concepción’s nickname, a woman whom I’ve seen only twice in the past decade, but who has taught me more about how to eat than anyone else. These are her rules: if you can cook for others, do it; eat fruit every day; and if you can soak it in milk, you should. I saw Conchita more often as a girl, when my mother would bring my brother and I back to Mexico to visit her side of the family for Christmas and summers. These were the years she’d wear creamy hot pink lipsticks, would tease my bangs into little poufs with hairspray, and ran a shop outside the family home in Puerto Vallarta that sold diapers and stationary and gum.
In the mornings, a boy would bike over a daily shipment of conchitas to the shop, the basket of the sweet breads balanced on his head. In the afternoons, I’d walk up and down the aisles of her shop sucking Coca Cola out of a plastic fruit bag with a straw while she quizzed me on English words and held cans of chilled Fanta to her cheeks and throat. Those summers were unforgivingly hot, but every morning without fail there were conchitas, papaya, and hot coffee for breakfast. I’d pick the cinnamon-flecked sugar skins off the rolls before pouring coffee-spiked milk over large pieces of the bread. I now do the same with any baked thing, though the liquid needn’t always be milk. A couple of years ago, I yelped in delight when both of my husband’s Italian grandmothers taught me to soak bread in red wine, cake into white.
Stir two and a half teaspoons of yeast and half a cup of warm water together in a ceramic bowl. Mix in half a cup of whole milk, four tablespoons of melted butter, one egg, a little sugar, two cups of flour, some cinnamon and salt. Mix in two more cups of flour bit by bit until the dough comes together enough to knead on a counter. Fold the dough in half and in on itself until smooth and springy.
Conchita has only disciplined me twice in my life. First, when I was five and threw a headless Barbie doll my cousin and I were fighting over into a pot ofpozole she was making for company. The second was a couple of years later, after she’d found better money selling palm-size tacos filled with grilled head meat and tongue to drunk tourists downtown. One evening a woman walked into the smoky little tacqueria and I shamelessly gaped at her stubble and broad shoulders the entire time she ate.
“Chantal, cómo se dice dios en ingles?” Conchita hissed at me after the woman left. How do you say God in English? I repeated, not understanding the question.
“Well, in the eyes of God that woman is a person, and you’ve just ruined her dinner.” She re-applied the makeup the grill had steamed off, and didn’t talk to me the rest of the night.
While dough is rising in a warm covered bowl, beat one cup each of sugar and butter with scraped vanilla seeds until fluffy. Add just enough flour to make a thick paste.
Because my abuelo didn’t speak much when he was alive, I know him mostly through memories of objects, and stories about the same. There is the silver tray on which he’d take his breakfast the mornings he was too weak to get up: conchitas and Carnation instant coffee, no milk. There’s the case of vintage Dom Perignon he saved up for and brought to his 19-year-old daughter’s wedding, my mother’s, which one of the caterers stole. At 52, she has still never tried the champagne.
There is the blue nylon trucker hat he wore through most of the nineties, which he’d use on occasion to spank his grandchildren. That same visit as the Barbie doll, I convinced all of my younger cousins to tear apart a morning delivery of conchitas, thinking that they would sell better if made into new shapes. We kneaded the shell-shaped pastries into sticks, circles and triangles, as if they were pizza dough, leaving sticky pink-and-white crumbs all over the red linoleum floor. We all got the blue hat for that one, even though it was only my fault. “Your aunt works [smack] so [smack] hard [smack],” he said, over and over. I ran to tell my mother and didn’t touch the shop’s pastries for the remainder of the visit.
In retrospect I wish I had done neither. The former, because it contributed to an ongoing splintering between life in Mexico and life in what eventually solidified its status as back home: growing up in Canada, my brother and I were never spanked. The latter because Mexican pastries, pan dulce, weren’t a common find in suburban Toronto until a few years ago, and not particularly quick to make. I only started making them recently, and over-kneaded the first few times. Those first conchitas were chewy and did not take milk well.
Cut the risen dough into even-sized pieces, and roll into balls. Cover with balls of sugar paste rolled into flat circles and buttered to stick, and score them with a knife into web-like patterns. Give the dough more time to rise, then bake at 375 degrees until the dough puffs up, darkens, and turns gold—about twenty-five minutes. Enjoy with black coffee.
Chantal Braganza is a writer, editor and sometimes journalism instructor living in Toronto.