While walking through a Mexican bakery generally yields a chaotic sensory experience of breads, cakes, pastries and cookies of all shapes, colors and sizes, the essence of most Mexican pan dulce can be boiled down to just a few basic doughs. There’s a yeasty, faintly sweet and rather dry pastry dough, a plushier pastry dough, and a laminated, crispy dough, among others. Similarly, there's a manageable assortment of doughs when examining the cookie selections on offer at most Mexican bakeries. While aesthetic diversity still reigns supreme, many of the Mexican cookies that you’ll find in Houston can be distilled down to just a few categories (though they're often reincarnated into a variety of differently decorated cookies).
One texture you’ll never find in a Mexican cookie is gooeyness (save for the occasional sticky filling) — for the most part, the cookies lean dry, most with either a cakey or a sandy texture. This is because these cookies are generally built for the highest calling of being dipped in thick, spiced champurrado (a chocolate-based corn drink) or hot chocolate while being consumed.
We sampled cookies from several bakeries around Houston that were either dedicated Mexican bakeries or purveyors of Mexican pastries: Arandas, El Bolillo, Panaderia Tierra Caliente, La Reynera Bakery, La Guadalupana, Rustika Bakery and the El Tiempo Market. Here are our top picks for Mexican cookies in Houston.
Marranitos (also known as cochinos or puerquitos): The “gingerbread pig,” a classic caramel-colored pig-shaped cookie, is thicker and cakier than typical American cookies — they’re almost like an intersection between a cookie and sweet bread. "Gingerbread" is actually a misnomer since most marranitos don’t call for ginger in the recipe itself — generally, they're spiced with just a subtle pinch of cinnamon. They get a mellow sweetness and caramel color from piloncillo, an unrefined brown sugar typically pressed into small cones. Usually, the piloncillo is boiled to make a molasses syrup that is added to the dough before it's rolled out and the cookies are cut. They are always brushed with an egg wash that leaves a glossy lid over the top, and you can expect a subtle sweetness that will grow on you.
Top pick: The marranito at Panaderia Tierra Caliente has a darker, more caramelized exterior than several others we tasted, and we were impressed with the distinctive flavor of molasses that pervaded the puffy cookie.
Polvorones con canela (Mexican wedding cookies): These are rolled extra thick to keep them from falling apart. The name "pan de polvo" means made of dust. These go by many names (ojarascos, polvorones, biscochitos, pan de polvo) and the origins of these cookies are nearly as varied. It’s likely that these were introduced to Mexico via Spanish colonization after the butter- and sugar-laden sugar cookie was introduced. They're typically made from butter, flour and sugar with a high ratio of ground nuts to ensure an almost meltingly flaky texture, and you’ll be likely to recognize the flavor of these traditional Mexican cookies as they’re very similar to Russian tea cakes or sandies. You may see these in Mexican bakeries around Houston, either in the traditional round shape or in crescent form. They are often served at Mexican weddings and anniversaries and around Christmas; El Bolillo sells ojarascos by the bag in two varieties — covered in either powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar. Both ways yield delicate cookies that are very crunchy, airy and light.
Top pick: The Mexican wedding cookies from Rustika Bakery are atypically large and round, more akin to the American “snowballs” with a denser, sandier texture and doused in a generous layer of powdered sugar. Softer than the variety at El Bolillo, these will melt in your mouth.
Biscochitos means made of dust: These shortbread-like cookies typically spiked with anise originated in Spain and gained popularity in Mexico once they were introduced in the 16th century. Sometimes also referred to as pan de polvo, which translates to bread of dust, these cookies are very similar to Mexican wedding cookies with a high fat content, but are rolled and cut out instead of shaped into balls. Traditionally, they are cut into diamonds and served with wine, but in Houston, you'll almost always find a round version. While Houston versions sometimes come peppered with tiny bits of anise seed (as at El Bolillo), other bakeries simply use cinnamon. The high ratio of shortening means that these cookies have to be rolled extra thick to keep them from falling apart. Nearly all the biscochitos we tried in Houston were hefty specimens: around half an inch thick, crumbly and thickly dusted with cinnamon sugar. They are traditionally made with lard, but most in Houston are made with vegetable shortening.
Top pick: The cinnamon-sugar biscochitos at Panaderia Reynera were smaller than most, powdery, light and almost feather-soft on the tongue. They almost had a melt-in-your-mouth quality similar to that of the Mexican wedding cookies at Rustika Bakery. (Pro tip: Don't leave Reynera without grabbing a cheese empanada or croissant. Unlike the unsettling, but admittedly delicious, smooth and gelatinous layer of cream cheese filling that inhabits the queso empanada at El Bolillo, Reynera's is slightly textured and buttery — it makes for a heavenly filling inside a slightly crunchy empanada shell or pillow-soft, yeasty croissant.)
Polvorones: These Mexican “shortbread” cookies often come in large round discs brushed with a shower of sugar in a variety of colors — pink, white, brown (a warning to chocolate lovers: the brown ones taste only faintly of chocolate). Even more so than biscochitos, these cookies have an especially sandy, crumbly texture that comes from a mixture of shortening, butter, powdered sugar and flour— fittingly, since "polvo" translates to "dust." Pale variations on this dough are often dressed up many different ways — infused with vibrant food coloring, shapes like watermelons, fruit or flags are popular. You may also see a similar crumbly dough brushed with egg yolk for a glossy golden cookie, dusted with powdered sugar, covered in sprinkles or decorated with a dollop of jam.
Top pick: Although it's hard to go wrong with these, Arandas had our favorite cookie. It tasted almost like a sugar cookie with just the faintest hint of almond.
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Bonus: Mexican-style alfajores from Rustika Café: Although alfajores are traditionally an Argentinian cookie, Rustika Café puts a Mexican-style twist on its meltingly soft dulce de leche cookie sandwiches. The cornstarch-heavy dough lends a lightness to the crumb, leading to cookies that dissolve in your mouth almost the second they hit your tongue. The thin, gooey layer of dulce de leche will have you praising the cookie gods.
Overall, El Bolillo, the reigning king of Mexican bakeries in Houston, had the widest variety and was a very consistent contender, although Panaderia Tierra Caliente and La Reynera had several exemplary items. La Guadalupana, Rustika Bakery and El Tiempo had a much more limited variety compared to the traditional bakeries, but come with the bonus of full restaurant menus. For the most part, these bakeries shone in pastries rather than cookies, though the alfajores at Rustika Bakery were one of our favorites of the batch.
My overall favorite? I still haven't gotten past my love of the puffy marranito at El Bolillo, but my favorite new find of the bunch was actually the queso empanada at La Reynera (perfectly paired with a breakfast taco on the fluffiest flour tortilla I've found in Houston).