Tortas on the 9th of May
I’ll admit I’m late with this one, but I was having too much fun this week. The arrival of Cinco de Mayo (5th of May) is embraced in the US similar to the way we embrace St. Patrick’s Day–a day of food and drink flavored around one particular ethnicity, in this case Mexico.
So for one day, we’ll see people of many colors and backgrounds chow down on tacos, drink Coronas, tequila, and margaritas, maybe listen to some salsa, and let out their inner Mexican. It’s all good fun, as I find any time of the year a good time to indulge in Mexican cuisine.
The Actual Holiday
Beyond the food, drink, sombreros, and piñatas, there is an underlying story to Cinco de Mayo. Unlike what many might assume, it is NOT the celebration of Mexico’s independence from Spain. Cinco de Mayo is the anniversary of a Mexican victory in a battle that took place in city of Puebla.
In the mid-1800s, Mexico was riddled with debt due to a shaky economy and several wars that occurred during the century. Failure to pay debt lead to a coalition of forces from Great Britain, Spain, and France to invade Mexico. However, it was soon discovered that France’s Napoleon III more wanted to conquer and add Mexico to his global empire, thus driving Great Britain and Spain to withdraw support.
With conquest in mind, French forces set their sights initially on the city of Puebla. They were better trained, better equipped, and outnumbered the Mexican opposition 2 to 1. Surprisingly, Mexico crushed the invading French, which sent a shock around the world.
Now the victory at Puebla did not really help Mexico strategically, but symbolically it had inspired Mexicans both within and outside of the country with a sense of pride and strength. This carried itself all the way north into California, where Mexican-Americans began to observe the anniversary of the victory as a celebration of their culture and heritage.
Cinco de Mayo remained a small holiday for Mexicans in California until the 1940s, when the growing Chicano Movement brought the holiday into vogue and spread the idea across the country through the 50s and 60s. Oddly enough, the moment when non-Mexicans in the US really started to celebrate was in the 80s...due to beer marketers capitalizing on the holiday to push more product.
Celebrating the Flavor of Mexico
Granted it’s now four days past Cinco de Mayo, but you don’t need a holiday to enjoy great Mexican street food. Visit any decent Taquería and among the normal staples of tacos and burritos, there is a masterpiece known as the torta. A sandwich of good bread piled high with meat, cheese, and a variety of garnishes meant to add flavor or even fire to your palette.
A sandwich is only as good as its bread, so we’re going to start there. Most torta rolls you’ll encounter will be named bolillos, but there’s been some debate on whether that name should cover all the types of rolls used. For our sake, I’m going to separate.
Bolillos are similar to a baguette in how they have a crispy or crunchy exterior with a soft, spongy interior. Telera rolls are flatter and have a texture more similar to a Kaiser roll in how it’s soft all the way. Cemita rolls are a local specialty of Puebla, with a texture reminiscent of a brioche.
I’ll show you telera and cemita rolls down the road, as today I was to dive into making bolillos. They’re honestly quite simple to make, but you need to have patience and quality ingredients.
Mexican Bolillos (bread rolls)
- 2 cups of warm water
- 2 1/4 tsp (1 packet) of active dry yeast
- 4 cups of flour
- 1 tsp of salt
- 1 tsp of sugar
- 1/4 cup (1/2 a stick) of butter or shortening, softened
- 1 egg white
- 2 dozen ice cubes
Making a starter
- In a small bowl or container, combine the yeast with 1 cup of the water.
- Let the yeast and water sit for five minutes before stirring in 1 cup of the flour.
- Mix well, then cover and place the container into the refrigerator.
- Leave the starter in the fridge for at least 8 hours.
Making the dough
- In a large mixing bowl (or your electric mixer bowl), combine your starter with the remaining flour, salt, sugar, and butter (or shortening).
- Knead the dough for 15 minutes (7-8 minutes in an electric mixer), or until the dough separates from the bowl.
- Place the dough on a working surface and form into a ball.
- Grease a bowl with the oil, then place the dough inside. Add a little more oil to coat the ball.
- Cover the bowl with a towel and place in a warm place for 2-3 hours, allowing the dough to double in size.
- Using your fists, gently push the dough in to release the air, then pull it out of the bowl on to your working surface.
- Divide your dough into ten pieces, cover with towels, and let them rest for 15 minutes.
- Form the pieces into your desired shape. Place each finished roll back in its resting spot.
- Cover the rolls and allow them to rise again for an hour.
Baking the rolls
- Pre-heat your oven to 450°. Set up your shelves with one at the very bottom and one in the middle. Place a shallow pan on the bottom shelf.
- Using a sharp knife, make a deep cut down the middle of each roll before arranging on a baking sheet.
- Lightly brush your rolls with the egg white.
- When you're ready to bake, place 12 ice cubes on that lower pan in the oven, then place your sheet of rolls in on the middle shelf.
- Bake the rolls for 20-25 minutes, or until they gain a golden brown color.
- Place your hot rolls on a wire rack to cool.
The purpose of the starter is help the final dough gain size and fluffiness, so you hopefully do not end up with dull, dense rolls.
If you have access to a standalone mixer, I'd strongly urge you to use it. It'll save you a lot of work.
Be careful with the type of yeast you use. If you're using Rapid-Rise yeast, then use 2 tbsp of it. If you're using Active Dry in the packets (as I do) then just use one packet or 2 1/4 tsp.
A damp towel over the rising dough will create moisture and allow the yeast to do it's work better.
When I say "desired shape", it's entirely on you. You can go from small ovals to simple circles, depending on what you want to use them for.
Don't overlook the ice. The steam generated in your hot oven is necessary for the rolls to bake perfectly, or else you end up with flour-based stones. Use about 10-12 ice cubes per batch you put in the oven, and don't use water as a substitute.
Now that we have our rolls, we need to make something to put in them. Granted many will enjoy a good bolillo with some butter, but we’re making tortas today. We need some kind of good protein, and I’m in the mood for beef.
Carne Asada is simply known as “barbecue” to Mexico and the American Southwest, and I’ve yet to go to any cookout hosted by Mexicans and not be offered this yummy meat. It’s great for tacos, burritos, nachos, salads, on its own, or in a sandwich. Personally, I was mainly impressed at the idea of using fruit juice and vinegar to tenderize and flavor beef, but they are acids, so it works well.
- 2 lbs flank or skirt steak
- 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 1/2 cup of cilantro, minced
- 1 tbsp of cumin
- 1 cup of orange juice
- 1 tbsp of lime juice
- 2 tbsp of white vinegar
- 1 tsp of salt
- 1 tsp of pepper
- Prep the steak by patting it dry and trimming any cartilage from it.
- Place the meat into a sealable container or bag.
- Combine the garlic, cilantro, cumin, orange and lime juices, vinegar, salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly.
- Pour the marinade on top of the meat, seal the container (or bag) and place into the refrigerator for at least four hours. Overnight is better.
- Cook the meat either on a grill or in a broiler to your desired doneness.
This recipe was posted originally for making tortas, but this meat also works wonderfully in tacos, burritos, or on its own.
Crafting the Tortas
With bread and protein made, let’s get the rest of what you might need. Cheese is a popular ingredient for a Mexican torta. You can find decent queso fresco or Oaxaca cheese in almost any grocery store. If not, then I’d suggest some shredded mozzarella.
Beyond meat, cheese and roll, here’s a short list of potential ingredients you might want to consider...based on your personal taste:
- Refried beans
- Poblano, Chipotle, or Jalapeño peppers
- Salsa roja (red) or verde (green)
I’d usually suggest slicing your bolillo lengthwise and either toasting it or even setting it on the grill until some nice lines form. Some will craft the sandwich and then press it slightly in a panini grill.
One other good tip I’ve seen is to mash up the avocado, if you choose to have it. Spread on the roll, it almost acts like a mayonnaise. You can also boil and mash up kidney beans if you wish for a healthier alternative to refried beans, or skip beans altogether.
And there you have it. Look down the road for more torta ideas including Al Pastor, and a breaded cutlet known as Milanesa.