The traditions that feed us

Clara Garcia | News-Bulletin photos

Betty Jean Villa and her daughter, Mari Cruz Villa, continue their family custom of baking and selling traditional New Mexican desserts, such as biscochitos, empanadas and pastelitos at Manny’s Fine Pastries in Los Lunas.

Walking into Manny’s Fine Pastries in Los Lunas is much more than an adventure into a space overflowing with sweet treats — it’s a place where New Mexican culture is created.

For Betty Jean Villa, baking has been a tradition passed down from generation to generation. She remembers helping her grandmother bake, and then her father, Manny, who opened the bakery 26 years ago. She continues the baking tradition with her own daughters, Mari Cruz and Beatriz.

“My dad taught me and my oldest nephew, Floyd, who has passed on,” Villa said. “He also let me bring my girls here but, at first, they were only allowed to wash dishes, but they learned.”

Now Villa’s daughter, Mari Cruz, and other relatives, including nephew, Estevaz, bake and sell their appetizing goods.

Villa says her customers have been a joy to bake for and serve, and enjoys them all, including her loyal regulars who come in every single day, once or twice a week, and even those who come in a few times a month.

“We have all kinds of New Mexican pastries,” Villa said. “We can focus on that because New Mexico and its desserts are special.”

While Manny’s Fine Pastries is known for its freshly-made doughnuts, customers appreciate the locally-owned bakery for its mastery of traditional pastries, such as biscochitos, empanadas and pastelitos.


 

Biscochitos

The crispy goodness that is the biscochito — New Mexico’s official state cookie  — has traditionally been made and consumed during the holidays, but more and more people are enjoying the baked good all year long.

Villa makes and sells hundreds if not thousands of biscochitos every week at her Los Lunas bakery. While biscochitos are more in demand around Christmastime, a lot of Manny’s Fine Pastries’ customers enjoy them year-round.

“It’s our No. 1 seller,” Villa said of the New Mexican cookie. “I do it all year long, and we make probably 70 dozen a week. People will special order them for funerals or birthdays or even weddings.”

As with any food, biscochito aficionados usually enjoys them in their own unique way — thin or thick, light or dark, with rum or without, and with or without its staple ingredient — anise, which has a licorice-like taste.

Villa says she sticks to the standard biscochito — with anise.

“I get customers who want it without anise,” Villa said. “I’m traditional, so if you don’t like it, they don’t have to buy it. In the beginning, I was catering to people, but I am who I am.”

For those who might not like the licorice taste, Villa encourages her customers to at least try her biscochitos.

“I scale everything,” she said. “I only put enough to flavor that 22 dozen and, believe me, it’s not enough to overpower.”


 

Empanadas

Back in the day, Villa said, people would make empanadas with sweet dough, adding cinnamon and sugar, and with fruits from their own trees.

“My grandmother had apricots and peaches,” Villa said. “And if they didn’t use them for empanadas, they’d put them in the pastelitos.”

Empanadas are crescent-shaped, savory pastries made of dough and filled with a variety of ingredients. Empanada filling varies, and can include anything from fruits to meat.

Traditionally, empanadas are deep-fried, but Villa bakes them, and uses pie dough rather than sweet dough.

“They’re like a mini pie,” she said. “When I started with dad (Manny Gutierrez), I wasn’t the baker in the family … but I eventually learned, and said I would bake (empanadas) instead of frying.”

Villa’s mother, Nellie, was the one who would make the empanadas de carne with sweet pork, raisins, piñon and wine. She would not only make it to sell, but mostly to give away, Villa remembers.

“When I took over, I decided I wasn’t going to do empanadas but customers would come in and ask for them,” Villa said. “I called my mom and she came in and we did it a number of times. We wrote it down and they went like hotcakes.”

Villa is proud to be one of only a few bakeries in the state who can say they offer fresh empanadas every single day.

In the beginning, Villa and her crew would make a few dozen each week, but as word got out, the demand grew. Today, Villa makes about 60 dozen every week with fruit of the season — peaches, apricot, apple, pineapple, pumpkin, cherry,  raspberry, blueberry, strawberry-lemon.

“We’ll do any fruit,” she said. “We get people in every day asking for empanadas. It’s very popular because people like traditional.”

Villa says the empanadas de carne is more popular during Christmastime.

“They’re just as popular during the holidays,” she said. “They have your pork meat, raisins, piñon and our secret ingredient. It’s mom’s recipe. Grandmas use what they had on hand.”


 

Pastelitos

New Mexican pastelitos, which means “little pies,” are a traditional Latino pastry made with cooked fruits between sheets of simple dough.

There are many versions of pastelitos depending where in the country or region they are made. The dough is quite simple with pie dough while other versions use a more complex puff pastry.

In New Mexico, the dough is typically a simple flour, salt, baking powder and shortening mixture. The treats are made in large flat pans and cut into rectangles.

Common fillings include raisins, prunes and apricots. The filling is cooked down to a thick paste then spread on a bottom layer of dough then topped with another layer of dough.

Pastelitos are also a customer favorite at Manny’s Fine Pastries, with more selling around the holiday season.

“I can sell about 120 half sheets every day,” Villa said. “This past year, I didn’t make as many because my husband got very sick. He’s better, and we’re back in full swing this year and we’ll be making pastelitos again.”


 

 

Natillas

For Ana Morales, making traditional desserts at Teofilo’s Restaurante in Los Lunas is a dream come true. Being able to create sweet sustenance on a daily basis for their customers is a great way to spend her day and to make a living.

Johnnah Torres, who, along with her family owns Teofilo’s Restaurante, says natillas is their customers most favorite dessert.

“It’s right there with our Toledo creme cake,” Torres said. “It’s our version of an Italian creme cake, and it’s really yummy with natillas on top. We even have a special called the “Ritchie (Tabet) special,” which includes strawberries. It’s one of our secret menu items … until now.”

Natillas is a rich, creamy egg custard made without the crispy sugar topping. It’s sweet, thick, comforting and perfect for entertaining. This traditional dessert is made every day at Teofilo’s, adding to the New Mexican charm of the restaurant.

“It’s very New Mexican,” Torres said of natillas.

“It’s because it’s your grandma’s recipe that makes it so good,” Morales said.

Torres said her mother, Tensie, researched natilla recipes in different New Mexico cookbooks before opening the restaurant, and came up with her own recipe they still use today.

“Our family just loves desserts, and once someone tries it, they fall in love with it,” Torres said.

Teofilo’s makes three quarts of natillas every single day. Torres says natillas is typically made with milk, sugar, vanilla, eggs and cinnamon.

Morales said the dessert is prepared by gently boiling the half and half and sugar, and slowly stirring in the eggs (for at least a half an hour) and other ingredients to create a sweet pudding.

“The biggest secrets here at Teofilo’s and why our food is so good is because of the energy in the kitchen,” Torres said. “They have music on, and Ana’s laugh is so contagious. She brings a lot of love. Everyone here loves what they do, and they love cooking.”

Teofilo’s serves at least 25-30 bowls of natillas every single day, not to mention catering orders and the mini natillas they give to customers who come in on their birthdays.

“Our customers just love it,” Torres said. “People love their old-fashioned desserts. I think it’s comforting for people; I know it is for me.”

With Los Lunas growing leaps and bounds, the newer customers love the dessert, Torres says.

“It’s so exquisite but yet so simple,” she said.


 

Flan

Flan, a Latin dessert made up of a caramel topping and custard base that’s made with milk, eggs and sweetener, is popular at Teofilo’s but not as in demand as natillas.

It is usually baked in a water bath for the best texture, and after baking it is chilled then later inverted onto a platter.

Morales says she makes the dessert just once a week at Teofilo’s because it can be refrigerated.

Flan, Torres says, is one of those desserts that people like or don’t because of the texture. She loves it, saying she was raised eating flan.

Torres says a good flan has the texture of a just-firm-enough custard. It should wiggle and jiggle on the spoon, and still be silky smooth when you bite into it. Morales said the sticky sauce on top is a simple caramel.

“I tell people they can compare flan to a crème brûlée, but it has a hard sugar topping, whereas the flan has the sugar at the bottom,” Torres said. “I remember my mom would make it for us growing up, and she would unwrap those caramel squares and put it on the bottom.

“When she was studying recipes, she learned with the sugar, she’d brown it and keep stirring until it was like candy. That was the more traditional way,” she said.

Torres says desserts, whether its natillas or flan, is the perfect ending to a great meal.

“I think we, as Americans, love our sugar and love to have a little sweet to just finish things off,” she said. “When they’re made in house, we want to try them. Ours aren’t these huge portions — but just perfect portions.”

“It’s made with fresh ingredients and with a lot of love,” Morales said.

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.