History Tidbit – September 15-16, 1810: The Cry for Independence
This weekend, Mexicans will be commemorating the onset of the Mexican Independence War. Right at midnight, on the night of September 15, 1810, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Roman Catholic priest in the town of Dolores, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, rang the bell of his parish and called people to fight against the vice-regal European government. The insurgents began the war still supporting their Spanish king, who had been deposed by Napoleon back in Europe; over the course of the following eleven years, and after the death of many (including Hidalgo), the basic principle of fighting against a grubby and oppressive government remained, but it ultimately resulted in the birth of Mexico as an independent nation. This pivotal point in Mexico’s history is commemorated in many places around the country by re-enacting the dramatic call, named “El grito de Dolores” or “El grito de la Independencia” (“The Cry for Independence”). The town of Dolores was renamed Dolores Hidalgo, and the bell from its parish was brought to the National Palace in Mexico City, situated right in front of the main square (Zócalo). There, the president himself comes out to one of the balconies to re-enact “El grito”, finishing with the cry of “¡Viva México!”; the Bell of Dolores rings once again, resonating around the Plaza de la Constitución (“Constitution Square”), official name of the main square, completely filled with people gathered to participate in the ceremony. The celebration continues with activities to tease all the senses: music, light displays, fireworks, and of course, lots of food.
Antojitos (Little cravings) are prepared in the spot by street vendors: quesadillas, elotes, tamales, and many other delicious offerings. Tortas are probably the best known Mexican sandwiches, prepared with crusty buns called teleras, and filled with anything available to the cook’s imagination and resources: simple ingredients such as ham and cheese; regional delicacies, for example, octopus; and even tamales, known by some as the “double T” (tamales inside a telera!) There are, however, many other Mexican preparations involving bread; the star of the Independence celebrations is one of my personal favourites: pambazos. I have to be a little careful here, because it appears that several Mexican states claim their version to be “the real pambazo”, and the origin stories range from being a “pan basso” (“pan bajo”, “low bread”, for the lower classes during colonial times) to a fancy treat created for no less than emperor Maximilian I and his queen Charlotte, the eccentric rulers of Mexico during the French occupation (1864-67).
I am going to focus on the pambazos from my childhood in Mexico City. This is the sandwich I remember the most as a street food, omnipresent at nearby tourist attractions – especially outside convents and churches, for some unknown reason – and sold at every single outdoor event, including fairs, and religious or civic holidays. Probably the most attended outdoor event in Mexico City is “El grito”, and pambazos are perfect for this celebration because they feature Mexico’s flag colours, with a crispy red crust, and white and green ingredients inside. Pambazos sure bring back memories, and make me feel both patriotic and in a celebratory mood.
4 pambazo buns (I used Portuguese buns; panini would be my next choice)
1/3 lb (150 g) Mexican chorizo
2 medium potatoes; peeled, cooked and cut into small cubes
Mexican cream (or sour cream mixed with a bit of milk)
Fresh cheese, crumbled (panela, or feta)
Salsa verde (cooked tomatillo sauce) check my recipe or bottled
Oil, for pan frying, if needed
Guajillo adobo, optional
Pambazo buns are oval shaped and flat, with a relatively soft crust, sometimes sprinkled with flour on top. It might be a challenge to find them even in Mexico, so if a substitution is needed, look for a soft and not too tall bun, such as panini. I found Portuguese buns, which are almost perfect, soft and dusted with flour on top, just slightly thicker than pambazos. I sliced the buns lengthwise in half, and set aside until ready to assemble:
For the filling, I removed the case from the chorizo, and fried the meat in a pan, stirring and breaking into small pieces. When perfectly cooked, I drained and reserved the drippings (photo below, left), then mixed the potatoes in with the chorizo and continued cooking until the potatoes were slightly crispy and had turned red from the chorizo (right):
Before describing how I assembled my pambazos, I have to comment on the methods I reviewed on-line. For Mexico City style pambazos, all the recipes I found required the buns to be dipped in guajillo adobo, then pan fried with a generous amount of oil until the adobo dries out, and the buns become very crispy. Now, I am not sure if I have a distorted memory from my childhood, but I always thought that the red tint on pambazos came from coating the buns with chorizo drippings, which would then be the only fat needed to make them crisp while grilling on the pan. This method is less messy than using adobo, and the flavour is literally a perfect match for the chorizo and potato filling. Anyway, since I could not find a single source to corroborate my version, I decided to try both side to side and let an impartial judge (my husband) determine which would be the best technique for the tastiest pambazo.
I prepared a batch of adobo (directions in the printable recipe and at the end of this post). The outer sides of one bun were tapped on the reserved drippings from the chorizo (photo below, left), then I decided to brush adobo on another, instead of dipping, so it would not get too soggy. I placed them in a skillet over medium heat to crisp, adding just a bit of oil on the side with the bun brushed with adobo (photo right):
I then had to fill them with potatoes and chorizo; top with lettuce, cream, and cheese; and finish with green sauce. I was going back and forth around the kitchen and managed to burn (just a little) the pambazos! When I finally had them next to each other on a plate, they looked as stressed as I was feeling:
Nevertheless, the taste test proceeded; the charred spots were actually good, and without much deliberation, my husband chose my version! Ugly as they were, the pambazos were very tasty, and although I liked both, I seriously did not feel the taste of guajillo triggering any childhood memories of pambazos, unlike the bun coated with chorizo drippings, also with just the best crispiness, no comparison at all. The next batch of pambazos was prepared after cleaning and setting all the ingredients in an orderly manner (three words: mise en place); I also lowered the heat to medium-low for the skillet. The steps were very straightforward: coat outer sides of bun with reserved chorizo drippings, place bottom halves on hot skillet, coated side down; top with a generous portion of chorizo and potato filling, then lettuce, cream, cheese and green sauce. Close sandwich with the top slices, and carefully flip, to crisp the top halves. Flip back onto a plate, and serve hot, looking neatly Mexican: green sauce and lettuce; white cheese and cream; and red from the chorizo, both in the filling and coating the bun!
From the first bite, I felt transported to Mexico City, enjoying my pambazo on a cool September evening. It cannot be just me, there must be other people who remember pambazos coated with chorizo drippings, right? Anyone?
Anyway, I am going to enjoy the rest of my pambazo while watching this video of “El Grito”, featuring president Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City’s National Palace, along with a summary of the Mexican War of Independence.
10 dry guajillo peppers
¼ medium onion, cut into large chunks
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 tsp salt, or to taste
Open one side of each pepper with a fork or paring knife; remove stem and seeds:
Place peppers in a bowl with boiling water, and let soak for 10 minutes:
Process soaked peppers, onion, garlic, salt and one cup of the soaking water in the blender for about three minutes, until very smooth:
Use this adobo for brushing on pambazos; any leftovers may be fried in one tablespoon of vegetable oil or lard, and used as salsa for tacos or to add to stews and soups