I rarely go to Starbucks but a few months ago I needed coffee as I was out and about. Luckily every other store front in Manhattan is a Starbucks. As I was waiting to pay for whatever caffeinated concoction I chose I spied something curious under the glass counter amid a disturbing host of Starbucks confections. It was something called Mallorca Sweet Bread. You may have had one. Perhaps you were told these are based on the famous Mallorcan ensaïmada. It certainly looks like an ensaïmada. But don’t be fooled. The thing, although quite tasty, is closer to a cheese danish.
At the time, I skipped on the Mallorca Sweet Bread but decided to do some research. You see, I’ve heard how hard ensaïmadas are to make. In fact, it’s apparently nearly impossible to make them outside of Mallorca. Despite Starbucks’ uncanny ability to create 5,000 versions of coffee, I was skeptical they could make an ensaïmada, especially for mass production. I figured what I saw in Starbucks that day must have been a take on the Puerto Rican sweet bread called a “mallorca,” which, from what I gather, is more of a traditional danish. Not so, says a Starbucks spokesperson.
“Starbucks Mallorca Sweet Bread is inspired by the traditional Mallorcan ensaimada, where in the sunny Balearic island of Mallorca, one wouldn’t dream of starting the day without a cup of coffee and this traditional sweet bread,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “The Mallorca Sweet Bread has been available at Starbucks since 2007.”
Fair enough. It’s “inspired” by the ensaïmada. And as a Mallorcan American, I have to say I’m a little flattered by the attention to the island’s culinary traditions and impressed by Starbucks’ cultural reach. All the same, I had to get one to see just how “inspired” it was. For $1.95 I bought the last one under the glass counter at the Penn Station Starbucks and brought it home to share with my family. My kids loved it. I have to say, it is rather tasty. But it’s much closer to a cheese danish (sans cheese) than an ensaïmada.
I’ve tasted ensaïmada once in my life (I even once traded an ensaïmada for a night’s stay at a family’s home near Valencia — they’re that highly valued!). So I knew in my bones something was off. But for specifics I decided to turn to two ensaïmada experts, who also happen to be my parents.
They outlined three essential characteristics that an ensaïmada must have:
1) It’s greasy. My father says he would bring home ensaïmadas after work sometimes and by the time he got to the apartment the bag was saturated with oil. He also says after eating an ensaimada you’re forced to wash the oil off your hands.
2) It’s flaky and airy. My mother says it’s “unlike anything we have” in the United States. The flakiness is almost like that of pie crust only the ensaïmada doesn’t fall apart nearly as easily.
3) It can be unwound, almost in one strand without coming apart or ripping.
Starbucks’ Mallorca Sweet Bread fails on all three points. In the company’s defense, it may have tried the impossible. My father recalls how a relative of his traveled to Puerto Rico where a Mallorca-native had opened a bakery shop and was selling “Mallorcan ensaïmadas.” This relative was thrilled to get a little taste of home so he bought an ensaïmada. He quickly realized this pastry was an imposter and scolded the baker. The poor man tried to defend himself. He said he was using all the same ingredients. He even had water imported from Mallorca thinking that might be the problem. But, he lamented, “Nothing works!” He couldn’t make an ensaïmada. One has to think that such efforts produced what ended up becoming the Puerto Rican mallorca, which is probably closer to what Starbucks is selling.
What’s in an ensaïmada?
My parents sent me an ensaïmada recipe by a Mallorcan whose name slips my mind. I would include the recipe here but it’s rather imprecise; it appears to assume prior experience making ensaïmadas. From what I’ve read, that’s the norm with ensaïmada recipes. The basic ingredients are simple: yeast, eggs and sugar. But the process is involved and takes a long time. Ensaïmadas are can be made with what’s called in Mallorcan cabell d’àngel (angel’s hair), which is basically candied pumkin. Another common version includes sobrasada, which is cured sausage (and might be my all-time favorite food). Traditionally, ensaïmadas were made from pork lard. In fact, the word derives from the Mallorcan word saïm meaning pork lard. But it can also be made using olive oil and my father says that’s mainly how it’s done now.
By comparison, here’s what’s in the Starbucks Mallorca Sweet Bread:
enriched flour (bleached wheat flour, barley malt, niacin, iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), margarine (palm oil, water, salt, vegetable mono- and diglycerides, whey solids, flavor, citric acid, beta carotene [color], vitamin a palmitate added), water, dextrose, sugar, eggs, palm oil, yeast, contains 2% or less of: dairy blend (whey solids, nonfat dry milk, sodium caseinate), salt, soy flour, corn starch, corn syrup, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate), palm oil, soybean oil, modified food starch, caramel color, amidated pectin, mono- and diglycerides, natural flavor, titanium dioxide, rice flour, citric acid, vegetable color (annatto, turmeric), sodium citrate, potassium sorbate (preservative).
I don’t think Mallorcan bakeries include amidated pectin in their recipes. But what do I know?
For more on Starbucks’ Mallorca Sweet Bread, click here.
For a good write up on ensaïmadas, click here.