East Bay pop-up celebrates Mexico’s most iconic baked good


As the granddaughter of a former Mexican bakery owner, Ulloa gravitated towards Mexican pan dulce (sweet pastry bread) and realized that what she wanted to bake most was one of Mexico’s most quintessential baked goods — the iconic concha.

Of all the Mexican sweet bread varieties, conchas are among the most popular. The pastry itself is best described as a rounded bread with a thick powdery sugar dome that’s etched with a sundry of linear designs. Its shape and appearance help give the traditional pastry its name, meaning seashell.

Agueda Ulloa prepares to bake conchas, a Mexican sweet bread, in her home oven in Union City, Calif. on March 3, 2021. She started her home business, named Cafe de la Olla, using a family recipe that she slightly tweaked.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Initially, Ulloa baked for friends and family but never imagined that the hours she devoted in the kitchen would lead to something much greater. But since August 2020, Ulloa has baked dozens of conchas for her East Bay pop-up, Cafe de la Olla.

“In August I was a full-time supervisor at Krispy Kreme, and I was [starting] my college semester,” Ulloa said. “I would make donuts Monday through Friday in the early mornings, go to class and then make conchas on the weekends. It was a really busy startup, and I didn’t really have expectations for the business, but as time went by, I started getting recognition in the community.”

Ulloa has since quit her job at Krispy Kreme to focus on her small business full-time. Cafe de la Olla is located within Ulloa’s home in Union City, where she bakes regular- to mini-sized conchas that are priced at $15 and $10 a dozen, respectively. Customers can place their orders online and pick them up in Union City or catch Cafe de la Olla at one of its pop-up events in Hayward. She also sells individually wrapped conchas that she says have been especially trendy with pandemic drive-by parties. Her clientele has even expanded beyond friends and family and has attracted customers from all over the Bay Area, with some visiting as far east as Tracy.

Agueda Ulloa bakes conchas, a Mexican sweet bread, in her home oven in Union City, Calif. on March 3, 2021. She started her home business, named Cafe de la Olla, using a family recipe that she slightly tweaked.

Agueda Ulloa bakes conchas, a Mexican sweet bread, in her home oven in Union City, Calif. on March 3, 2021. She started her home business, named Cafe de la Olla, using a family recipe that she slightly tweaked.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

The pop-up has only been around for about seven months, but Ulloa has been making conchas ever since her childhood. “It runs in my blood,” Ulloa said.

Conchas always take Ulloa back to her childhood when she’d spend time with her extended family in Oklahoma. On those visits, making Mexican pan dulce was a bonding experience and each member of the family, including the kids, would take part in the baking process. Ulloa says the children were tasked with placing the sugar topping on each concha and she still remembers the feeling she’d get as she watched her grandfather — the pro baker — place the sugar garnish with such ease.

“It was entertaining watching my grandpa … he’s definitely a showoff,” Ulloa said with a laugh. “[He would] put [the sugar topping] on in seconds with fast hands and the young kids [would take] a few minutes. He’s a very straightforward person so he’d be like, ‘Oh, this kid has technique’ or ‘No, this one won’t carry on the tradition.’”

Agueda Ulloa bakes conchas, a Mexican sweet bread, in her home oven in Union City, Calif. on March 3, 2021. (top left) measuring the dough and shaping into orbs, (top right) patting together the sugar coating, (bottom left) shaping the conchas using her palm, (bottom right) and then using a tool to create a design on the sugar coating.

Agueda Ulloa bakes conchas, a Mexican sweet bread, in her home oven in Union City, Calif. on March 3, 2021. (top left) measuring the dough and shaping into orbs, (top right) patting together the sugar coating, (bottom left) shaping the conchas using her palm, (bottom right) and then using a tool to create a design on the sugar coating.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Despite the simple ingredients needed to make conchas, preparing the pastry is a lot harder than many would think. On most days, Ulloa fulfills about 60 dozen concha orders (but she can make up to 100 dozen for pop-up events) in a two-day process that requires an overnight rest of the dough. The sugar topping is made of equal parts vegetable shortening, sugar and flour that, once blended together, resemble the texture of Play-Doh, Ulloa said. But adding the sugar mix on the actual concha takes technique and practice. If you’re not careful with the placement, you could inadvertently flatten the mound and prevent it from blooming into a soft, pillowy pastry.

Ulloa developed a brioche-style recipe for the pastries she makes, though she also uses the original family recipe her grandfather employed at his bakery in Tlacuitapa, a small town in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. Curating the recipe was no small feat either.

“It took me years to find this exact twist on so many different recipes and put it all together into one,” Ulloa said.

Agueda Ulloa and her father Isidro hold conchas, a Mexican sweet bread, she baked in her home oven in Union City, Calif. on March 3, 2021. She started her home business, named Cafe de la Olla, using a family recipe that she slightly tweaked.

Agueda Ulloa and her father Isidro hold conchas, a Mexican sweet bread, she baked in her home oven in Union City, Calif. on March 3, 2021. She started her home business, named Cafe de la Olla, using a family recipe that she slightly tweaked.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

One advantage to the brioche-style concha is that the pastry is less dry compared to traditional conchas, thanks to plenty of butter that goes into the batter. Ulloa also puts her unique spin on conchas with a variety of flavored toppings she developed. Cafe de la Olla offers the standard vanilla, chocolate and strawberry flavors, but there’s also a cinnamon apple version and conchas topped with Oreo cookies. There’s even Paleta Payaso and Mazapan de la Rosa flavors — a nod to the candies that Ulloa would find at her local Mexican supermarket.

Across Latinx households, conchas and other Mexican pastries are best enjoyed dipped into coffee or Nestlé’s Abuelita hot chocolate. The tradition of sinking bread in hot chocolate dates back to the 1500s when it’s believed that a viceroy “dipped his bread in the local, sweetened hot chocolate in front of a crowd” and the “addictive habit was born,” Eater wrote in a deep dive of the history of conchas. The pastry itself was likely influenced by French immigrants during France’s occupation of Mexico in the 1860s, leaving their imprint on Mexican culture by introducing baguettes, croissants, crepes and more into the region. Mexican versions of French baked goods were adapted and integrated into daily life, continuing through today, where Bay Area panaderias sell pan dulce.

Agueda Ulloa checks on some conchas, a Mexican sweet bread, she was baking in her home oven in Union City, Calif. on March 3, 2021. She started her home business, named Cafe de la Olla, using a family recipe that she slightly tweaked.

Agueda Ulloa checks on some conchas, a Mexican sweet bread, she was baking in her home oven in Union City, Calif. on March 3, 2021. She started her home business, named Cafe de la Olla, using a family recipe that she slightly tweaked.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Cafe de la Olla’s unique spin on the traditional concha is one way Ulloa believes her business stands apart from other dessert-style pop-ups around the Bay Area. And customers love them too: Ulloa has been thrilled to hear the positive feedback from her clients, both young and old, who have been caught off guard by the flavors, Ulloa says.

Ulloa has plans to add more to her current menu with the addition of cafe de olla (coffee sweetened with piloncillo, or pure cane sugar), cold brew, horchata cold brew and chocolate Abuelita cold brew. She started experimenting with cold brew coffee recipes when customers at previous pop-up events asked if she had coffee available.

Ulloa admits that launching a pop-up during the pandemic wasn’t easy as she had to navigate through the permit process on her own. She said there didn’t seem to be a clear path to opening a small business from home, and getting email responses from the county also took time. Eventually, Ulloa got all her licenses, including the cottage food operations license, to cook and sell goods from home. She’s also currently saving up to buy a larger professional oven.

Ulloa’s grandfather, who now resides in Oklahoma, hasn’t had the chance to try conchas from Cafe de la Olla yet, but Ulloa says he’s thrilled that she’s carrying on the family tradition.

“The idea of making conchas came long before my own generation,” Ulloa said. “I want [my grandpa] to be here to see the whole process. Hopefully when the pandemic permits, he’ll be here helping.”







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