La Bombonera in Old San Juan
Back in the 1970s, I was a teenager growing up in Puerto Rico and my mother was young, strong-willed and fashion-conscious. She was always ready to dress me in the latest fads, as best as we could afford, like midi skirts with suede boots and a gown straight from a bridal magazine for my quinceañera.
Together we’d shop for fabrics or accessories at the specialty stores in Old San Juan, and then, before heading home, we’d stop at a coffee shop called La Bombonera and sit in a booth. She’d have a café con leche while we ate mallorcas, the puffy, sweet, soft buns found all over the island.
Sometimes the mallorca is used as a sandwich roll, most commonly for grilled ham and cheese. But at La Bombonera, we purists liked the coiled bun simply sliced in two, buttered up and pressed flat between the hot steel plates of a griddle. Then it was showered with a flurry of confectioners’ sugar, from the tap-tap-tap of plastic shakers. That ritual — slice, butter, transform — was performed hundreds of times throughout the day as customers at the counter watched.
That warm bun could never be mistaken for the “mallorca sweet bread” that is sold at Starbucks, which is handed to you at room temperature in a brown paper bag. La Bombonera’s mallorca melted in your mouth. You ate it from a plate, with a fork, with the reverence it was due.
I remained loyal to La Bombonera through adulthood, even after I moved to the States. It was a mandatory stop on my annual trips home, just like the kiosks and shacks that sell seafood fritters and fresh coconut water near Isla Verde or Luquillo Beach. The first time I brought my boyfriend, and now husband, to Puerto Rico, he shunned the fried food but took to the mallorcas like a native.
I’ve tried plenty of mallorcas, which are named for the Spanish island where they originated (and where they are known as ensaimadas), at other restaurants and bakeries. Not one has come close to the Bombonera version. Some are not crisp to the bite, or juicy enough inside. Some are too chewy or spongy. Some have a hint of lemon or citrus, which for me ruins the flavor.
The owners of La Bombonera plan to reopen the restaurant and are working out the details, said the Puerto Rico Manufacturing Extension, a nonprofit business consulting group assisting in the effort.
But during our last visit to the island, in January, I walked by a shuttered restaurant, its red awning and tiled facade still intact with the name of the original owners, “Puig y Abraham,” Spaniards who opened the place in 1902.
It became clear that if I wanted to taste a mallorca like La Bombonera’s again, I might have to do some hunting. Puerto Ricans swear by mallorcas from a few other bakeries, and by those sold by Panificadora Pepin, a bread company in the San Juan area that takes mail orders. But I wondered if I could find the Bombonera recipe somewhere, so I could conjure up the real thing. If not, maybe I could track down a worthy substitute.
Finding a good recipe for home cooks was not a given. According to Yvonne Ortiz, author of the cookbook “A Taste of Puerto Rico,” Puerto Ricans usually buy their breads and pastries, not make them at home. She included her mother’s mallorca recipe in her cookbook; her mother learned to make the buns in cooking school in Puerto Rico one summer. Ms. Ortiz, who grew up on the island and now lives in California, understood my quest. “The mallorca is such a staple,” she said. “It’s one of those comfort foods when you’re away from the island.”
By the time I spoke with Ms. Ortiz, I had already found a promising recipe on the Noshery, a cooking blog. The recipe, which was credited to the Web site the Recipe Link, drew raves from both devotees of La Bombonera and newbies to what one commenter described as “the lightest, fluffiest, melt-in-the-mouth-like-cotton-candy sweet roll I’ve ever eaten.”
I’m no baker, but the recipe seemed simple enough. On a Sunday morning, I prepared the dough mixture and then let it rise. I ran into trouble once I had to form the sticky dough into the mallorca’s coiled shape. But a dusting of extra flour on my hands, the dough and the cutting board solved the issue, and I was able to create a dozen fat buns that bore a pretty strong resemblance to the familiar mallorca form. As they baked, the kitchen, and then the house, soon filled with the unmistakable sweet, buttery aroma of a Puerto Rican bakery. They were my tropical version of Proust’s madeleine. I clapped in excitement.
The soft, plump buns came out of the oven after 15 minutes. They were gigantic and some were almost flat, looking like melted cheese. The bottoms of some were overdone. But I didn’t care about looks as much as achieving the right flavor.
After the mallorcas cooled, I tried one plain. It had a nice, fresh, pleasantly sweet flavor and could be nibbled just like that. I then followed La Bombonera’s ritual for two others: slicing them in half and spreading each side with butter. I also buttered up the two flat griddles of the sandwich press I had bought for the occasion and toasted each mallorca for three minutes.
The result gave us joy. We bit in and experienced that familiar taste, with the texture of custard.
I was so confident I had cracked the code that I decided I would hold a blind tasting the next time Puerto Rican friends were over for dinner. I also had mallorcas shipped from Panificadora Pepin so we could compare them. The package arrived with a sheet of dough, which was divided into tear-off buns, and a plastic packet of confectioners’ sugar. My husband and I found those delicious, but a bit too doughy. For good measure, I made traditional Spanish ensaimadas, too, which used lard instead of butter. Those were the least moist of the three. (So much for lard.)
The night of the dinner party, five friends took part in the tasting, including two who were familiar with La Bombonera. I passed around the trays of bread. One friend picked my mallorca as the winner because it tasted like French toast. Another guest said its flakiness reminded her of a croissant.
A croissant? French toast? When are these people leaving?
I was feeling pretty deflated until the guest who mentioned croissants deemed my mallorca the closest to the Bombonera’s.
So it wasn’t exactly the same mallorca. And after the fact, I found out that another restaurant in Old San Juan called Cafeteria Mallorca, founded back in the day by the original owners of La Bombonera, uses vegetable shortening instead of lard or butter. I may try that next.
But really, it didn’t matter. For in that one brief moment, the mallorca took me back to the restaurant booth where a mom and her daughter bonded over a favorite food.
The New York Times