There are two kinds of staple breads that are most prevalent throughout Latin America: The bolillo and the telera. The bolillo is basically a torpedo-shaped French roll with a thick and crunchy crust. A sourdough version of the bolillo is often called a birote, and this is the roll most commonly used in Jalisco state's famous "drowned sandwich", torta ahogada (delicious! Look it up!). Bolillo is also a slang term for caucasian males, similar to "gringo", but that's another story.
The telera is a flatter, softer roll, slightly rounded in shape, with a thinner crust. Larger than a bolillo, its signature is two shallow indentations in the top to divide it into three sections. It has a higher water content than the bolillo, and forms a stickier dough. The telera is the bread of choice for tortas, the traditional Mexican sandwiches, and there are few things better in life than getting to the panaderia first thing in the morning as the bakers are just pulling those rolls out of the oven and dumping them into a bin, ready for you to take them home. I always have to buy one or two extra, because I rarely make it home without testing them to make sure they taste all right.
Sandwiches made with bolillos are frequently referred to as "lonches" rather than "tortas"-- except in the case of Jalisco state's famous "drowned sandwich", mentioned above. It is always called a "torta ahogado", never a "lonche ahogado". Interestingly, the bolillo is masculine ("el bolillo") while the telera is feminine ("la telera"). I wonder why that is?
The recipes below will tell you how to make your own telera rolls from scratch, in case you can't find them at your local supermarket, plus some great ways to use them in sandwiches. You're going to like these!
PAN TELERA (Torta Rolls)
Makes 20 rolls
Activate the yeast by sprinkling it into 1/4 cup water that's 105° - 115° F and wait for it to begin foaming (about five to ten minutes).
Meanwhile, mix the flour, salt and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center of these ingredients, pour in the dissolved yeast and the water, and stir the mixture thoroughly until all ingredients are well mixed. It will form a sticky dough.
Do not knead the dough. Cover it with a damp cloth and let it sit in a warm, draft free place for about two hours, until it has roughly doubled in size.
Punch down the dough and knead it for several minutes on a floured board. Note that the longer you knead it the finer the texture of the final product will be, as the kneading rids the dough of large air bubbles and develops the gluten framework. You may need to dust your hands and the board with more flour as you work, to keep it from sticking. You'll know when the dough has been kneaded enough as it takes on a smooth and satiny appearance. About 5 or 10 minutes usually does the trick.
Divide the dough into 20 equal-sized pieces. Brush them with vegetable oil, dust lightly with flour, and flatten each piece evenly with your hand. They should be about an inch thick, and a round or slightly oblong shape.
Lightly score the top lengthwise in two evenly spaced places, using the edge of a very dull knife or the edge of your hand. This will visually form the dough into three sections. Do not score too deeply.
Place the rolls on baking sheets, cover them and set them in a warm place until they are somewhat less than doubled in bulk.
Bake them in a preheated 360º oven until they are golden brown, about 30 minutes.
Because oven thermometers vary in their accuracy, start checking the rolls after about 20 minutes so they don't get too brown.
The finished product should have a thin crust on the outside and be soft within. Once they are cool, they can be frozen and will last for about a month in the freezer.
Now for some sandwich ideas-- not necessarily traditional:
Shredded Chicken Torta:
Split the rolls in half lengthwise and scoop out some of the soft interior bread (save it in the freezer for making breadcrumbs, or feed it to the birds in your backyard). Spread the bottom half with a layer of hot refried beans; sprinkle with shredded cheese. Pile hot cooked chicken on top of the cheese, top with sour cream, salsa and a couple slices of avocado (or a spoonful of guacamole). Top it off with some shredded lettuce, cap the whole thing with the other half of the bun and serve immediately, while it's still hot.
Black Bean Chorizo Torta
Put the chorizo into a large skillet over medium heat. Cook until the fat has rendered, about 10 minutes, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon until it is crumbly. Drain the fat, leaving the chorizo in the skillet.
Add the refried beans to the chorizo, stirring until well mixed, and cook for 10 minutes at a simmer. (If it becomes too dry, add a small amount of water) Season with salt to taste.
While mixture is simmering preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Slice the rolls in half lengthwise and pull out some of the soft interior and place them on a baking pan. Brush the insides with a little olive or canola oil and toast in the oven for about 3 minutes.
Heap the bean and chorizo mixture onto the bottom halves of the rolls, top with the cheese, avocado, and salsa, and cap it with the other half of the roll. Serve immediately.
Bay Shrimp Tortas
Combine all ingredients for Bay Shrimp Sauce. Chill until needed.
Combine shrimp and shrimp sauce, mixing well. Place lettuce leaves on bottom half of rolls. Heap the shrimp mixture on top of the lettuce. Top with egg slices, tomato and cucumber slices. Place top half of buns on top, squish it down just a little bit, and serve while cold.
That should be enough to get your creative juices flowing. Anything is good on pan telera!
If you are interested in "daily life" in Mexico and would like to read about a family that makes bread for a living (and see pictures!), visit "The Best Bolillos in Mexico?" in the intriguing blog Living and Working in Mexico. You'll be glad you did.
If you have a favorite recipe for a Mexican or Mexican-inspired dish, I'd love to add it to our recipe box! email email@example.com (and put "recipe" in the subject box so I'll know what it's about)