In cavelike darkness, my bare feet touch the varnished tile and I negotiate the quirky antiques that fill our room: the base of an ornate brass bedstead, a chair I’m afraid to touch because the carved arm wants to come off, an old Singer sewing machine table that supports a Sony flat-screen tv. I pull at a latch high up on the old wooden doors and, like some magic trick I’ve performed, pure sunlight comes streaming in. Outside is Puebla, the nicest Mexican city we’ve never heard of.
Our mornings in Puebla were filled with cooking, guided by the capable hand of Chef Alonzo and his sidekick Lizbet. By mid-afternoon, however, the streets were ours to explore, and came alive with sights and sounds that we wallowed in. Hawkers and clowns and piles of balloons and great churches and bright displays of goods swam through our senses, along with the sound of men repairing stone walkways in the hot sun. In those moments we could have been forgiven for thinking that Puebla was a Mediterranean city, say in Spain or Italy. As evening fell, we’d secure a table on the square, nosh on excellent food and watch the people go by.
But while Puebla had the look and feel of a European city, in many ways it was different. Its tolerance for beggars, buskers and trinket sellers, for example, was distinctly Mexican; never once did we see one verbally abused or turned out. And its street food, which was everywhere, was purely Poblano.
Ah, the street food.
Down every street were tiny shopfronts spilling with hotplates. If we looked carefully, we’d find tortillas in all shapes and sizes – filled usually with pork or chicken, but sometimes with something exotic like squash blossoms or cactus or corn mould. At the front of small restaurants, charcoal-fired bales of meat turned on great skewers. In the pedestrian area of Cinco de Mayo, large triangles of pastry were sold from boxes in the evening. Vendors specialized in fried potatoes in the old market at Victoria, where a quart of spiced potato chips or a spiral skewer of chipped fries would keep you going till dinner time. Once we saw a shop with hundreds of chickens roasting on spits in wall ovens the size of refrigerators.
In all the culinary fracas spilling out onto the streets of Puebla, it was the cemitas that intrigued me most. Made with their signature rolls, cemitas were fistfuls of sandwich, piled high with avocado, pan-fried pork or beef, special herbs and sweet chilis, all topped with strings of panela cheese.
Here’s my version.
Cemitas: Amazing Sandwiches from Puebla, Mexico
Enough dough for 8 sandwiches
For the rolls:
12 ounces water at 100°
1½ teaspoons dry yeast
1½ teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
2 Tablespoons Spectrum shortening or lard
11 ounces (rounded 2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
6 ounces flour (1¼ cup) flour for mixing
¾ cups flour for bench work
Water and sesame seeds to finish
For the filling (quantities per sandwich):
¼ ripe avocado
1 boneless pork chop, marinated in 1 teaspoon each vinegar and sugar, smashed with a hammer and coated with some masa harina or breadcrumbs
Oil for frying
Salt and pepper
A few sprigs of basil
2 marinated sweet cherry peppers
¼ cup shredded lettuce
Authenticity note: I’m going to tell you right off the bat that there are two things about my recipe that aren’t authentic. I’ve substituted basil for a herb that’s grown in Puebla specifically for cemitas but is unavailable here. And I’ve substituted lettuce, onion and mozzarella for the panella cheese that’s generally used to bulk out the sandwich. My recipe for the rolls, however, is very close to the real thing.
Make the dough: Put 12 ounces warm water, the yeast, sugar, shortening, salt and 11 ounces of flour into the bowl of a stand mixer. Break in the egg. Whisk with a wire attachment for 5 minutes on medium speed until the dough is very smooth and has the consistency of a cake batter. Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl as necessary.
Switch to the dough hook and add 6 more ounces of flour. Mix on low for a further 5 minutes or so to make a soft dough.
Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead for 5 minutes or more. Put the dough into a big bread bowl and cover the bowl with plastic or a damp cloth.
First rise: 4½ hours at 65°. Punch down the dough, turn using a dough scraper, and let rise again.
Second rise: 3½ hours at 65°. I prefer at this point to put the dough in its bowl on ice packs overnight. Take away from the ice and punch the dough down early in the morning.
Shape the rolls: Shape the dough into a snake, and cut into 8 equal pieces, about 4.5 ounces each. Form into round doughballs, stretching the skin over the tops. Let rest for ½ hour, covered with a floured cloth.
Lightly butter a large cookie sheet. Flatten the dough pieces somewhat (to about 1” thick) and space them evenly on the tray. Let rest for a further ½ hour.
Preheat the oven: Turn oven to 450°. Use quarry tiles for best results. Set rack at the halfway point in the oven.
Finish and bake: Brush the rolls with water, wait 2 minutes and then brush them again. Lightly sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Bake for 18 minutes, or until the skin on the rolls turns golden brown. Let rolls cool on a rack for an hour before filling.
To make the sandwiches: In a large frying pan fry the smashed pork chops one or two at a time in a Tablespoon of oil over medium high heat. Turned once, the chops will be cooked through in about 5 minutes or when browned on both sides. Salt and pepper to taste and leave chops to drain on paper towels.
Meanwhile, shred the lettuce and mix with some sliced onion and mozzarella cheese. Slice the avocado and sweet peppers.
Build sandwiches with (from the bottom up):
- Sliced avocado
- Smashed, breaded and fried pork chop
- Sprigs of basil
- Sliced sweet peppers
- Shredded lettuce, onion and mozzarella cheese
- Hot sauce, if desired
Final Note: At Cemitas Las Poblanitas, the cemitas café that takes up the whole northeast corner of the Mercado del Carmen in Puebla, more than 1000 cemitas are created every day. To sample an authentic cemita – in their case topped with about ¼ pound of cheese and finished with a slice of ham – do give them a shout if you’re in the area. You’ll be glad you did.
And if you happen to see my friends Alonzo and Lizbet sitting at one of the tables there, raise a beer to them. And tell them Sortachef says ‘hi’!