Buñuelos, classic Mexican Christmas sweets, are time-honored snacks with roots in Catalan, Spain. Most of the world’s Spanish-speaking countries follow Spain’s lead and make buñuelos with yeast dough formed into small balls to deep-fry — think doughnut holes. Long ago, Mexico made fast use of its iconic bread, the tortilla, and morphed the balls into flat, non-yeasty wheat tortillas deep-fried (similar to Navajo frybread) and covered in sticky piloncillo (raw brown sugar) syrup or tossed in cinnamon sugar.
My favorite place in Mexico to eat buñuelos is definitely Oaxaca at Christmastime. The Spanish colonial city’s festive holiday food celebration begins in mid-December and lasts into February. Since the 16th century, things have kicked off precisely on Dec. 16 with posadas (literally, “inns”), when children and adults re-enact part-religious, part-secular rituals while parading as Mary and Joseph looking for an inn to spend the night.
The group pleads, through traditional songs, to enter homes of friends. Once a door finally opens, piñatas burst, candies fly and mugs of hot chocolate are passed.
Let your nose lead you to buñuelos
Up next, Dec. 18 is the day of Oaxaca’s patron saint, La Virgin de la Soledad. On this day, everyone rejoices with church Masses and processions followed by devouring crisp bueñelos.
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Follow their lead when you get that first whiff of fried sweet dough coming from a temporary stand at the north side of the cathedral and head straight there to absorb the spirit of fascinating buñuelo folklore. You’ll have to hunt for the end of the line and try to wait patiently to place your order. At long last, you will be handed — on a sad, seriously chipped plate — a puffy fried flour tortilla about a foot across. The tortilla will have wavy edges and be topped with a scattering of sugar crystals dyed red from cochineal (an edible, crimson scale insect that lives on nopales cactus, and yes, you most definitely want it!) and a spoonful of anise-flavored piloncillo syrup (yes to this, too).
In contrast to the dish, the buñuelo will be as ethereal and crackling-crisp as cellophane and so delicate that brittle pieces will fly as you take each sweet bite. It’s as fun to eat as cotton candy. You’ll finish it off in seconds and be left staring at the sad, empty dish.
You can follow your fellow revelers’ guide and, like a Frisbee, fling the damaged plate hard against the side of the massive green quarry stone edifice while making a wish. The dish will shatter, and the wish will count.
Dec. 23 features Oaxaca’s famous Night of the Radishes Festival, begun in 1897 and the only folk art event of its kind in the world. Craftspeople from local organizations carve sculptures from huge red radishes the size of Japan’s white daikon and proudly display their creations at booths on the zócalo (town square) next to the cathedral.
The experience is mind-boggling. Join the massive crowds and line up to slowly snake your way along raised viewing platforms encircling the square; try not to miss a thing as attentive volunteers constantly coddle and mist miniature nativity scenes, elaborate church replicas and funky cartoon figures to keep them from drying out. Notice how the entrants are primped and judged like beauty-pageant contestants, and the winners get to flaunt boasting rights.
On Dec. 24, Christmas Eve brings the last posada party with piñatas, tamales and hot chocolate, but Christmas Day is quietly spent with family and an enormous turkey drenched in luscious mole.
After a late night Mass on Dec. 31, another special mole dinner awaits, followed by 12 good-luck grapes to eat in rapid succession, a grape for each stroke of midnight.
The Feast of Epiphany on Jan. 6 continues the holiday season into the new year with a rosca de reyes (Epiphany cake), a ring of sweet yeast dough flamboyantly decorated with icing and colored sugar with the surprise of a tiny clay baby Jesus (or these days a plastic doll about an inch long) inside. According to tradition, whoever gets the figurine in his/her slice is expected to host the upcoming Candlemas Feast on Feb. 2, faithfully 40 days after Christmas. This last of Mexico’s holiday fiesta days is your final chance to fling used buñuelo plates at the cathedral and signals it’s time to take down the tree.
Buñuelos With Syrup and Red Sugar
Prep time: 3 hours
Cook time: 1 hour
Total time: 4 hours
Yield: 16 to 20 servings
For the buñuelos:
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
4 tablespoons melted butter or freshly rendered lard
1/2 cup whole milk
Vegetable oil for frying (about 3 cups)
For the syrup and red sugar:
3 cups water
12 ounces crushed piloncillo or dark brown sugar
1 (4-inch) canela stick (Mexican or true Ceylon cinnamon)
1 tablespoon anise seeds
1/2 cup cochineal sugar, or red decorating sugar found in supermarkets and cake-decorating shops
For the buñuelos:
1. In a mixer with a hook or paddle attachment, combine the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt.
2. With the mixer off, pour in the butter and milk and break the eggs directly on top. Slowly raising the speed, beat the dough until it is smooth and shiny, about 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Form into a ball in the mixer bowl. Lightly cover the dough with a tea towel and let the dough rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.
4. Divide the dough into 16 to 20 balls the size of a golf ball. Place each on a baking sheet as it is formed. Cover the balls lightly with a dampened tea towel to keep them moist.
5. Pick up a ball and flatten it with a rolling pin or your palms to make a disk about 5 inches across. Place it back under the dampened towel with the balls. Continue with the others.
6. Cover a table with a clean tablecloth to dry the buñuelos.
7. Pick up the first disk you made and, starting in the center, gently stretch it out to make a large, almost transparent disk 12 inches across, pulling along the edge. Lay it on the tablecloth to dry, about 30 minutes. Continue with the others. When they are finished, turn each over and allow the other side to dry another 30 minutes, or until the tortillas feel completely dry.
8. Place a wire rack over a baking sheet for draining.
9. Pour the oil into a skillet to about 1 inch deep. Heat the oil to 375 F over medium-hot heat. Carefully slide a buñuelo into the hot oil and press it down gently with a fork. The oil will bubble and the buñuelo will blister, and the bottom side will turn golden in less than a minute. Turn over and fry the other side for less than a minute. With tongs, remove it from the oil, hold vertically and let it drain back into the pot a few seconds. Place it on the wire rack to drain well and then on a flattened brown paper bag.
10. Fry and drain the remaining buñuelos. When cool, stack on a festive plate.
For the syrup and red sugar:
1. Pour the water into a saucepan. Add the piloncillo, canela stick and anise seeds.
2. Boil 10 minutes to make a light syrup. Boil longer to reduce and thicken if desired. Strain to remove the anise seeds.
3. Generously scatter red sugar on a buñuelo for serving. Top with a few tablespoons sugar syrup.
Note: As an alternative to syrup, mix 1/2 cup white sugar with 1 tablespoon ground canela. Toss canela sugar over the buñuelos while they are warm. You can make buñuelos up to two days ahead if kept dry. Reheat in a preheated oven at 325 F for 5 minutes.
Main image: Buñuelos. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky