This story originally appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2016.
Matcha is one of those unique flavor profiles of the world that has the power to turn you into an utterly helpless junkie over the stuff. If you dig the grassy, floral, bitter flavor, you will most likely go broke as you try to feed your expensive addiction, be it through tea lattes, soft serve, Japanese Kit Kat bars, noodles, and now—of all things—pan dulce.
Conchas, to be specific—a matcha concha. And it may very well be the perfect pastry to capture the state of LA's blossoming dining scene, which draws inspiration from the many cultures that reside in this city of ten million.
This particular majestic specimen comes from the mind of Leslie Mialma, the pastry chef of Winsome, a three-month-old cafe in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. A mom and chef-turned-pastry chef, Mialma's story behind the concha is all too common in the world of culinary school graduates. She learned of pan dulce after marrying her husband, a native of Morelos, Mexico. But since pan dulce was not included in her culinary school training, she had to take it upon herself to teach herself how to make it.
This style of pan dulce happens to be the most iconic and delicious of the Mexican pastry world. In a nutshell, it's a tender, soft brioche dough topped with a buttery, shortbread-style cookie crust—usually a vanilla or chocolate flavor—in the shape of a seashell. (Concha means "seashell" in Spanish.) Its lightly sweet flavor and fluffy texture is highly conducive to being dunked in thick hot chocolate or milky coffee. The tradition of fine breads in Mexico is believed to be a product of the Spanish conquistadors who brought along their staple foods from Europe. There are many variations of the pan dulce with many names including cuernitos, puerquitos, elotes, and a whole lot more, but the concha remains the most widely known and loved.
The final product is something beautiful to behold, being equally suitable for a droolworthy, close-up cameo in a Miyazaki film and a Chavo del Ocho episode.
"When my husband first introduced me to pan dulce 11 years ago, my first thought was: Wow, I have been missing out on this my entire life?" Mialma tells me this as she carefully removes each of her conchas from the baking tray without much effort, probably thanks to all of the Plugra butter that she uses when making the dough and streusel-like topping. "In school, French techniques are seen as the epitome of delicious breads and pastries, but there are so many other countries out there with really cool stuff." Since pan dulce wasn't covered in her curriculum, she stayed after school one day to practice the recipe, DIY-style.
Mialma—an Orange County native—is no noob when it comes to the LA dining scene, having worked at places like Providence, LAMILL Coffee, and Republique before answering a Craigslist ad for this position. Some of the other pastries she makes at Winsome include savory butternut squash-stuffed baked samosas with a curry crust, spelt blueberry muffins, coconut wafers, brûléed caramel rye brownies, and buckwheat ginger oat cookies. Mialma says that she likes to experiment with the different flavors of grains as much as she can.
The idea for the matcha concha was born out of Mialma's drive to equalize Mexican pan dulce with pastries from France and the rest of the world: "I wanted to show all the naysayers of Mexican sweet breads just how good it can really be." The matcha flavoring component was inspired by her home's proximity to Little Tokyo and Chinatown, and as a "fun way to reflect my neighborhood of Echo Park."
As with many other baking projects, the process of arriving at this perfect rendition was not easy. "My first attempt at these were bad. I kind of cried, actually. I went home defeated." This is because of the difficulty of forming gluten when introducing enough matcha to the brioche dough to make it intensely green and matcha-forward. Mialma eventually found out that the trick was to incorporate a matcha paste—made with sugar, matcha, and milk—to the dough after the gluten was formed. She knew she had hit the sweet spot when her Mexico-born husband gave her the OK.
The final product is something beautiful to behold, being equally suitable for a droolworthy, close-up cameo in a Miyazaki film and a Chavo del Ocho episode. Right out of the oven, each one was cloud-like in texture and barely sweet, releasing its intensely buttery, floral aroma, reminiscent of the one that stops you in your tracks when you step inside a busy Mexican panaderia. It may very well be the pastry that bridges Japan's eerily similar melonpan with Mexico's concha.
Despite the fact that most of Winsome's customers had never heard of pan dulce, Mialma has been selling out of them every day. "It's kind of shocking to me that we are in LA and people don't know what a concha is," she tells me.
Nonetheless, it is safe to say that she is on to something big, and her mission to equalize pan dulce is steadily moving forward.