Marranitos. Cochinitos. Puerquitos. They all mean “little piggy,” and here in Texas, they generally refer to the gingerbread pig-shaped pan dulce found in nearly every panaderia in town. When I was a kid, my dad worked for the City of El Paso. He was in charge of several local senior citizen centers, and his job often included evening meetings with members of the community in south El Paso. For me, this meant he would stop at Bowie Bakery and bring me a marranito. Never conchas or empanadas; it was always one marranito on meeting nights. Dad wasn’t there for dinner or to tuck me in at night. But I knew he was thinking about me while he was working when I saw that marranito on the kitchen table in the morning.
Marranitos must be eaten a very specific way: feet, ears, nose, head, then body. Peel that paper thin layer that forms on the top of the crust while enjoying a glass of ice cold milk. Growing up, I didn’t give much thought to how differently each panaderia makes them.
When I moved to San Antonio, I decided to go hunting for the marranito of my childhood here in town. It turns out, the only thing these little guys have in common are those nose, feet, ears, head, and body. I found marranitos in all sizes and colors, in practically every corner of San Antonio. Some were full of ginger and nutmeg, spicy like a true gingerbread. Some were hard, crunchy cookies; others were almost cake-like. Only one had that elusive paper-thin layer that I love (La Machacada, if you’re curious). One, at Fiesta Bakery, was barely pig-shaped at all. I found something to love in each cookie. But none of them were Bowie Bakery.
Since I was certain I remembered my childhood marranitos accurately, I decided it was time to make them myself. I found a pig cookie cutter on Amazon, gathered my kids, and got to work. The dark color of marranitos is from the molasses. This is also what gives it the spicy bite (there’s actually no ginger in most traditional recipes). Of course, I didn’t have enough molasses. Thanks to Google, I learned I could substitute honey. I added ginger and nutmeg to make up for the decreased molasses. While we measured and stirred, I talked to my kids about why these little cookies were so important to me. The kids had already gotten into the habit of pointing out panaderias when we drove past so we could stop and check for new marranitos to try. But I hadn’t ever really explained the history to them. We talked about their grandfather having to work in the evenings, and my daughter was so proud when she pointed out that I sometimes did the same thing. We rolled, cut, baked, laughed, and talked.
The little pigs came out of the oven and looked yummy. But they were all wrong. The color was too light. There was only the tiniest paper-thin top. When I tasted them, I was certain they were too dense and the flavor was all wrong. They were good cookies, but not the marranitos of my childhood. Needless to say, my kids didn’t care. They loved them.
My parents returned from a visit to El Paso with Bowie Bakery marranitos a few days later. I placed the original on the counter and our creation beside it. The former was bigger, and the papery layer was more prominent. Surprisingly, the color was almost identical. Our cookies were denser, but the flavor was spot on. With my eyes closed, I could not have told the difference between these two cookies. Apparently my memory had been off. I cut off little pieces of both cookies and gave them to the ultimate taste testers. My son promptly announced that our marranitos were better. Why? Because we made them, he said.
I continue to be surprised by this parenting thing. I thought I was teaching my kids about my childhood. I thought we were learning some kitchen math and maybe even a bit about their cultural heritage. Instead, it turns out, they were teaching me. When my kids grow up, they won’t have memories of Mom bringing home treats after an evening at work. But they will have memories of baking in the kitchen with Mom. They will remember our successes and our failures. (They STILL talk about the night I made a dinner that was so bad NO ONE ate it.) These are the gifts I can give them. And if my beloved Bowie Bakery marranitos have been eclipsed in my son’s eyes by the ones we made together, I guess I can call that a win.