The thought of spending a morning tasting conchas, the ubiquitous shell-shaped Mexican pastry, is pretty much what my dreams are made of. The only thing that could possibly make such an adventure more appealing is sharing that experience with pastry chef Leslie Mialma of Winsome in Los Angeles’ Echo Park. Mialma, who grew up just south in Orange County, makes inventive treats representative of the LA’s dynamic, multicultural influences, and is a studied hand in both pastry arts and food history.
Growing up on the border of Texas and Mexico, my family and I would go to grocery stores on both sides of the border. For the basics, we stuck to the H.E.B. in Laredo on the Texas side. But in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, we went to Soriana for the good stuff: string cheese, real Coca-Cola, mangos I can still smell, and best of all, pan dulce—Mexican sweet bread. Nothing was better than grabbing a beat-up metal tray and loading it with campechanas, cemitas, orejas, and the family favorite, conchas (“concha” is Spanish for seashell, to which the pastries’ vanilla or chocolate cookie crust topping bears a resemblance).
Once available only to priests and nobility, today chocolate is prized around the world for its taste and seductive effects—qualities that have been appreciated for centuries.
Our word for chocolate comes from the Nahuatl chocolatl meaning “bitter water,” but theobroma, cacao’s botanical name, is Latin for “food of the gods.” Native to Mesoamerica, cacao was one of its most sacred natural staples, second only to maize. In Mayan cosmology, trees were a metaphor for spiritual transcendence, and Mayans believed the first tree that ever grew was a cacao tree. Its fruit was worshipped as a literal gift from the heavens.
Although the earliest recorded reference to cacao dates to the Olmec culture around 2000 B.C., it was the Mayans who first invented the use of chocolate as a hot, bitter, frothy beverage prepared with meticulous care. After a careful fermentation and drying process, ripe cacao beans were roasted and ground with spices in a metate, one of the oldest domestic tools in the Americas. A metate is a rectangular slab carved from volcanic stone used for processing cacao beans, as well as corn; it was used by women kneeling on the floor and rocking a rolling pin-shaped stone called a mano back and forth to form a powder. This powder was then mixed with flavorings including chiles, vanilla beans, and sometimes a little honey, and then made into a paste.