Mantecadas – The Mexican Muffin

It all seemed very simple: just a matter of looking up a few references and recipes, bake a batch of muffins in red baking cups and we have mantecadas. However, as I read about these portion-sized baked goods, many questions arised about their origin, ingredients, contradictory directions in recipes, and even their name. The idyllic scenario had turned into an excursion through the world of Mantecadas.

The origin and name: Mantecada means “with manteca” where the Spanish word “manteca” may refer to any solid fat, namely, lard, shortening or even butter, as it is called in Spain, or mantequilla, in Mexico. Mantecadas de Astorga are a cupcake pastry, with a Protected Denomination of Origin granted to the city of Astorga, in Spain. As their name indicates, they must be made with butter, and to this date, the delicate batter is poured into square parchment paper boxes, called “cajillas”, that have been hand-folded by skillful “cajilleras”. Finally, they are sprinkled with sugar before baking, to obtain a crispy top (see photo).

Mantecadas de Astorga, baked in hand-folded paper boxes called “cajillas” (Photo Wikipedia Commons)

Although Mantecadas de Astorga are generally accepted as the origin of the Mexican version, I find it questionable for a few reasons, particularly that they do not include butter, the namesake ingredient, or any other solid fat for that matter! Mexican mantecadas are made with oil. An explanation is that the name stuck, but probably oil was more readily available and cheaper than butter at the time (1800s); nowadays, it continues to be used because it gives the tops a golden tone with a crispy texture, without sprinkling sugar.

Baking cups: Another difference is that Mexican mantecadas are traditionally baked in red baking cups.  This seems as unique, but completely different, from the Spanish “cajillas”:

Mexican mantecadas in their characteristic red cup (Mexico, 2019)

The reason for using this kind of cup comes probably from the baking temperatures used.  Different paper baking products have specific maximum temperature tolerances; for parchment paper, it is usually around 425ºF, which is ok for most cupcakes and muffins (including mantecadas de Astorga, baked at around 340ºF).  Some Mexican mantecada recipes call for temperatures as alarmingly high as 430ºF, so regular parchment paper cups are not recommended.  The classic red cups (as shown above) are made of glassine, a paper that is water and grease resistant, with a maximum temperature tolerance of 450ºF. *

Leavening agents and mixing method:  Another puzzling point is that in Astorga, the fluffy texture of the crumb is not obtained with leavening agents, but by vigorous beating of the eggs: yolks with butter and sugar first, and snowy whites folded after the dry ingredients, at the very end. This method is very similar to old-fashioned cakes before the advent of baking powder.  However, Mexican mantecada batches are mixed more like quick breads, wet ingredients first, with dry ingredients lightly incorporated at the end, and also calling not only for baking powder, but yeast as well!

It also seemed really intriguing that the use of two leavening agents appeared in many of the Mexican mantecada recipes classified as “traditional” or “homemade”, while recipes shared by commercial bakeries, listed only baking powder.  Some experts justify the use of two leavening agents because some work mostly before baking, or during the early stages of baking (like yeast), while others are most active towards a later stage (as baking powder), and also might act at different rates, so using two agents could mean more rising before and during baking. Others believe that most, if not all, recipes containing yeast and baking powder are redundant, probably developed when leavening agents were not as reliable as nowadays, and bakers included both as insurance for fluffy products. To add to this suspicion in the case of Mexican mantecadas, recipes without yeast did not call for particularly higher content of baking powder, compared to recipes using both agents, suggesting that the yeast might indeed not be needed.

History Timeline: Several references state that mantecadas simply glided their way into Mexico during Spanish colonial times, but fail to deal with the fact that the first documented mantecada recipe in Astorga dates from 1805, and in Mexico, the war of Independence from Spain started in 1810, ending in 1821; that makes me doubt that the recipe made it to Mexico, or was even developed, during those years, then changed so much in terms of ingredients, added leavening agents and preparation method. I wonder if the recipe really came from Spain at all, or if it was instead developed more organically as a cousin of the American muffins, which indeed were made with yeast, and then modified in the 1800s with chemical leavening agents. If this is the case, the only similarity between the Mexican and the Spanish mantecadas is how they look after baking (although they really are not that close either, judging from the photos above); this might have been the sole inspiration for the name in Mexico.  I could not find any evidence of this theory, but neither could find any solid reference of Mexican mantecadas coming from Astorga, or even Spain. This is another culinary legend that might remain accepted as a fact.

In conclusion, Mexican mantecadas:
– Were named after the Spanish mantecada de Astorga, although the recipe is very different and its origin is uncertain. In Astorga, mantecada batter is prepared similar to a cake (cupcakes), while in Mexico, mantecadas are prepared closer to a quick bread (muffins).
– In spite of the name, are not made with butter, but oil, which gives them golden-brown and crispy tops, without sprinkling sugar on them.
– Are traditionally baked in red glassine baking cups, to withstand high baking temperatures.
– Traditional recipes call for the use of both yeast and baking powder, but most commercial recipes use baking powder only. This suggests that the yeast might not be necessary.

To test some of the considerations above, I made three different batches of mantecadas; please take a look at the last section of this post, to see my results, and why I decided not to include yeast in my recipe, as well as how I chose temperature settings and procedures.  Since I was testing different batches, I developed my recipe for six mantecadas, to avoid waste, but the recipe may be doubled, for a full dozen. 

Mexican Muffins – Mantecadas

Ingredients (for half a dozen; double amounts for a dozen)

1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
2 large eggs
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla
½ cup milk
½ cup oil

I could not find the proper glassine red baking cups, sold in Mexico as “capacillos rojos #72”, which are 4 cm (1 9/16”) in height; I found white extra-large, and parchment large, baking cups in Canada:

Since the “large” were shorter than the #72 specification, I lined six muffin moulds in a tray with extra-large baking cups. If large cups are used, there will be some excess batter, so line an extra spot in the tray. Reserve.

Preheat oven to 400ºF (200ºC, still safe for the paper cups).  In a bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. Reserve.

Place eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl, and mix with an egg beater (photo below, left); continue beating until sugar is completely dissolved, and the mixture changes colour to pale yellow (photo below, centre).  Incorporate oil, vanilla and milk, while continuing mixing (photo below, right):

Sift reserved flour mix over the wet mix (photo below, left), and incorporate gently with a spatula (photo below, right):

Continue mixing just until smooth and uniform; divide batter amongst prepared moulds.  Place in the middle of preheated oven:

Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the tops are golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the centre of one mantecada.  This batch was ready after 35 minutes:

Transfer to a rack and allow to completely cool down before eating:  

For a presentation closer to the original Mexican mantecada, the excess rim at the top of the extra-large baking cups may be trimmed, as shown here, and at the top of this post:

The profile (photo below, left), was exactly what is expected of a Mexican mantecada: tall dome slightly pointy; the colour is a rich golden-brown.  When opened (photo below, right), the inside looks fluffy and with fine porosity, giving a pleasant contrast to the crispy bite from the golden-brown exterior:

* Sci-Fi and Baking Trivia: Remember Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”? He named his dystopian novel – in which books were burnt – in reference to paper’s spontaneous ignition temperature, or the temperature at which it will catch fire without being exposed to an external flame.  Fact or fiction?   In reality, the self-ignition temperature of any material depends not only on its composition, but the particular volume, density, and shape of the object subjected to a high temperature, as well as the time of exposure itself; although the theoretical temperature is around Bradbury’s choice, books would probably take a higher temperature or a very long time of exposure to self-ignite, and the lack of oxygen in the middle pages would likely extinguish the flame.  Cook’s Illustrated addresses this issue for parchment paper, since baking temperatures for some baked goods such as pizza, have been listed as high as 500ºF, along with the use of parchment paper; the conclusion is that the paper will not actually catch on fire, but it could turn dark and brittle after a while; pizza and other flat breads only require short times in the oven, but this may become an issue for other breads, so some precautions should be taken in those cases.   

Recipe Tests:

From the information and background at the top of the post, I decided to start by making two batches, baking side by side, one with yeast and the other simply omitting it, to test whether yeast contributed in any way to the volume, texture, or flavour. The batch with yeast was prepared first, following the recipe, but adding one teaspoon of instant dry yeast to the flour mix.  I divided the batter amongst six muffin moulds, lined with paper cups, leaving empty spots in between:

In this case the batter has to be allowed to rest for twenty minutes.

To preheat the oven, recipes used baking temperatures anywhere between 350 and 430 ºF (180 and 220ºC), so I chose 375ºF(190°C).

Meanwhile, I repeated all the steps and prepared the second batch, exactly the same way as the first, but omitting the yeast.  I poured the batter in the cups that were left empty, alternating with the first (yeasted) batch:

By filling the moulds this way, there would be no confounder from uneven heat in the oven.  Notice in the photo above that after 20 minutes of resting, the first batch batter looks mostly the same, with no significant bubbling or increase in volume. The filled cups look very similar, only the first batch was slightly darker. As soon as the oven was ready, I started the baking process; the photo below was taken at the starting point:

After ten minutes, the yeasted batch was already starting to crack, while the second batch was just forming domes:

After twenty minutes of baking, the second batch seemed to be catching up with the rising stage, and was cracking like the first batch:

At minute 25, the yeasted batch had browned considerably more than the second batch:

The difference was evident after thirty minutes, when the yeasted batch was golden brown and fully cooked, while the second batch looked pale:

At this point, I transferred the first batch to a cooling rack, and returned the tray to the oven; after ten more minutes, I took it out of the oven:

After cooling on racks for a couple of hours, I made a comparison side by side of one sample from each batch:

Side by side comparison of yeasted mantecada (left) and baking powder only (right)
Side by side comparison of yeasted mantecada (left) and baking powder only (right), without baking cups
Side by side comparison of yeasted mantecada (left) and baking powder only (right), cross section

It looks like the second batch could have used another five minutes to match the slightly darker golden brown tone of the first batch, so total baking times were around 30 minutes for batch one, and 40-45 minutes for batch two.  The mantecada from the first batch might be a tad bigger in this comparison, and the crumb looks slightly more open for the yeasted sample. 

Initially I thought of keeping the yeast on the ingredient list because it made the batch brown 10-15 minutes faster, but then I realized that it had been left resting for 20 minutes before baking, so it fact, the first batch took longer, when the total time was considered. 

Finally, the ultimate test; when my family tasted samples of each kind, they said the difference was almost not perceptible, and they actually favoured the second batch, without yeast.

In conclusion, it seems like any effect the yeast could have had was small, and even though the yeasted batch started to brown earlier, the second batch caught up and was as tasty (or tastier).  For the third and final batch, which I shared as my recipe above, I aligned with the commercial recipes, and omitted the yeast, granting that in this case, it really did seem redundant.  To shorten the baking time, and encourage early rising for a higher top, I increased the baking temperature to 400ºF (200ºC), still safe for paper cups, and that worked, rendering fluffy mantecadas, with pointy, golden-brown and crispy tops, ready in 35 minutes.

Science Tidbit:

It really did not surprise me that much that the volume, texture and flavour were very similar, if not identical, for both batches; after all, the way yeast operates, it would be expected that it should take much longer than 20 minutes to break down enough starch molecules in the flour into shorter sugars, and then feed on them to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for bubbling, to have more than a small effect on the whole batch of batter.

On the other hand, when flour and liquid are mixed together, glutenin and gliadin — two proteins in the flour – react with water molecules, and each other, to form an elastic network of molecules that is called gluten. When making bread, gluten development is desired to strengthen the dough and hold in gases that will make the bread rise.  Any further working of the dough encourages more gluten to form, since manipulating the dough causes more proteins and water to link together.  In the case of mantecadas, because the batter was thin and prepared as a quick bread, with very little handling of the flour, not much gluten would have developed, so even if any bubbling occurred, a lot of the bubbles would have escaped.  

Finally, flavour from yeast develops when amino acids, glucose and organic acids are generated as by-products of fermentation.  Again, since the yeasted batter was allowed to rest for only 20 minutes, very little flavour development could be expected.

One effect I was not expecting, though, was the faster cracking and browning of the tops.  Yeast are living organisms that are dormant when dry, and become active when moisten and heated; their active temperature range is between 40ºF (4.5ºC, below which they go dormant again) and 130ºF (54.4ºC, above which, they die).  When the batter/dough is first placed in the oven, there is a very short period of time, called the “oven spring” in which there is a burst of activity from the yeast before it overheats and dies; any gases trapped in the dough/batter would also expand due to the increase in temperature, producing an increase in volume (rising).  That would explain the early cracking of the tops in the yeasted batch.  The most dramatic effect was the browning of the tops and walls of the yeasted batch; I can only speculate, but I think it was probably caused by whatever breaking up of starches into shorter molecules, such as sugar, occurred during resting and before the yeast died in the oven, which as it is well known, would enhance the Maillard reaction, responsible for browning, as soon as the surface reached 356ºF (180ºC).

In the end, I concluded that, although the yeast might have accelerated rising and browning of the mantecadas, the final product was close enough to the second batch (with baking powder only), to make yeast unnecessary, and any time saved during baking, cancelled out with the resting time that the yeasted batch required before baking.

Note: A test I did not perform was to prepare a batch without yeast, but letting the batter rest before baking, to see if the baking powder had been partially activated by moisture (hence, further explaining the early rising and browning). I confess it was more of an afterthought, and since I had already ruled the effect of yeast as small, and I had shortened the baking time with a higher temperature, I did not think it was necessary to make a fourth batch.

I am sharing my recipe at Over the Moon #232, graciously hosted by Bev @ Eclectic Red Barn, and Marilyn @ Marilyn’s TreatsUPDATE: Thank you so much to Bev, for choosing this recipe amongst her features at her Over the Moon #233.

I am bringing my recipe to Full Plate Thursday #492 with Miz Helen @ Miz Helen’s Country Cottage. Special thanks to Miz Helen for featuring my Fish in Chile- Lime Sauce at this party.

I am also sharing my recipe at Thursday Favourite Things #447 with Bev @ Eclectic Red Barn, Pam @ An Artful Mom, Katherine @ Katherine’s Corner, Amber @ Follow the Yellow Brick Home, Theresa @ Shoestring Elegance and Linda @ Crafts a la Mode.

I am joining Fiesta Friday #336 with Angie @ Fiesta Friday, this week co-hosting with Liz @ Spades, Spatulas & Spoons.

I am linking to What’s for Dinner? Sunday Link-Up #261, with Helen @ The Lazy Gastronome.

32 thoughts on “Mantecadas – The Mexican Muffin

  1. As a kid I remember these, or something very similar, coming from a Spanish bake shop near where my grandmother lived in NYC. This brought back a lot of memories. I was, however, glad that I read this post after I ate breakfast.


  2. ********************************************************
    Thank you for sharing at #OverTheMoon. Pinned and shared. Have a lovely week. I hope to see you at next week’s party too! Please stay safe and healthy. Come party with us at Over The Moon! Catapult your content Over The Moon! @marilyn_lesniak @EclecticRedBarn

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for the information on Mantecadas, the recipe, the 451F connection, and the scientific experiment comparing yeast with non-yeast. Who says baking can’t be fun and educational also. Great post, Irene!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe adding 1/4 tsp of baking powder would help a GF batter, and since there is no gluten, a little extra beating to aerate will not hurt the structure either. Let me know how it worked out if you get a chance to try it. Thank you for your kind comment, I am glad you enjoyed this post!


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