The Colombian love of baked goods revolves around the sweet and savoury triumvirate of cheese, guava paste and arequipe.
Here in Toronto, that cheese is usually mild and moist queso fresco. Dense, sweet-tart guava (or guayaba) paste is easily imported. Arequipe is the Colombian version of dulce de leche, condensed milk slow-cooked into thick caramel.
Armed with three Spanish words - queso, guayaba and arequipe - you're ready to feast at Greater Toronto's Colombian bakeries.
Columbus Bakery is the granddaddy of the bunch. It opened in October ,2003 in a Dufferin St. strip mall just south of Lawrence Ave.
Baker Carlos Muriel Jr. and his dad Carlos Sr. own Envigado and Pereira bakeries in Union City, New Jersey but opened here after visits to relatives revealed the Colombian community wanted its own bakery. (We already have Chilean, Uruguayan and Salvadoran bakeries.)
The Muriels bought an Italian bakery and kept it as is for a year while they figured out how to get Colombian ingredients or substitutes. Then one day "a whole bunch of Colombian people started to come" and the bakers finally switched to a Latin line-up.
Columbus Bakery now boasts more than 60 kinds of baked goods - including pandequeso and pandebono (essential cheese breads), pastel Gloria and other treats based on puff pastry, empanadas, papas rellenas (potato-stuffed fried balls) and pan arequipe (a sinful egg bread stuffed with caramel).
"Here you see it's the real, real thing," says Carlos Muriel Jr.
Mary Luz Mejia, a Colombian-born, Toronto food writer, puts it in more romantic terms.
"All of these things are memories of childhood for a lot of us," she says while savouring buñuelos (corn and cheese fritters) and sipping Colombian coffee. (Hot chocolate and Milo, a chocolate malt drink, are other liquid options here.)
Mejia took part in a Colombian episode of Street Eats that features Columbus Bakery, along with Colombian coffeehouse Tinto and restaurants Mi Tierra and Los Arrieros. It airs at 6 p.m. on Jan. 20.
She and her husband often come to Columbus Bakery to stock up on things like frozen arepas (white corn pancakes they pair with scrambled eggs) and empanadas.
I'm transported by arepas de choclo - sweet, yellow corn pancakes that you slather with butter and queso fresco and microwave for 30 seconds. Churros - sugar-dusted, doughnuts stuffed with arequipe - are another must-have.
The bakery buzzes with Colombian music and Spanish/English chatter as people linger on stools at communal counters. Colombians are thrilled to get good press for their country by talking food.
Last year Rodrigo Pineros, director of La Guía Toronto magazine, introduced me to ajiaco - a famous Colombian soup. This year he emailed about "a very famous bread" being made in Aurora and got this bakery story rolling.
Saul Schimjawicz and Adriana de Francisco (both Colombian, though he has Jewish roots) run Bagel Flame as a Jewish bakery during the week and a Colombian one on the weekend.
He's a computer engineer and she has a philosophy degree, but they embraced their mutual love of baking when they couldn't find work in their fields after arriving in Canada with their three children.
They took over Bagel Flame in 2004. On weekends, a far-flung Colombian/Latin crowd comes for pandeyuca - airy balls made of feta and yuca/tapioca flour. People also adore softer, bagel-shaped pandebonos made of feta, corn flour and tapioca flour. Pandebono relleno stuffed with guava is my favourite.
Bagel Flame turns me on to avena, a cold, milky oatmeal drink that Colombian kids are raised on. And the hot, crispy empanadas are to die for. The small, corn-crusted crescents stuffed with meat are nothing like the big, doughy, baked Chilean empanadas we know (and love) in Kensington Market.
Head to Mississauga for our final Colombian bakery - the six-month-old Antojitos.
It's run by Edilberto Giraldo (a lifelong baker and Columbus alumni) and his wife Nancy Gall¨n.
It's the smallest of our trio, but still creates all the Colombian essentials - pandequeso, pandebono, buñuelos, empanadas, chicharrones, chorizo and tamales.
Giraldo isn't fussed about the competition from Columbus and Bagel Flame - he welcomes more.
"Oh, there should be more Colombian bakeries because the community is growing," he insists.
As for the name Antojitos, it means something you really want. Says Giraldo: "It means you want a doughnut in the morning and you dream of the doughnut at night."
Just remember what Patricia McCausland-Gallo says about the Colombian sweet tooth in Secrets of Colombian Cooking.
"We tend to eat sweets all the time, in small sizes but very often."
Now there's an idea for 2008.
Source: Toronto Star