Thursday, May 14, 2009

How to make a cemita

Have you ever had a cemita? It’s a sandwich found in the Mexican state of Puebla. At first glance, you may think it looks like a hamburger as it’s housed on a round, sesame-seed bun. But after you take a bite you’ll realize this isn’t a hamburger at all—instead it’s a festival of flavors and textures nestled between a pillow-soft bun.

The bun, which is also called a cemita, is where the sandwich gets its name. It’s an egg-rich bread topped with sesame seeds that is sort of a cross between challah and brioche. (And it’s not to be confused with the cemita or semita found in Northern Mexico, which is a Mexican sweet bread spiced with star anise).

The other distinguishing characteristic of a cemita is the liberal use of the minty herb papalo. When I had my first cemita, it was that bright note cutting through all the other flavors that made this sandwich sing.

Papalo isn’t always in season, however, so you may sometimes have a cemita made without it. But without the sesame-seed roll, you no longer have a cemita, you just have a sandwich.

Recently I was at a Jackson Heights taco truck that I’d never been to before, but the line was long and the condiments were fresh and plentiful—two signs the food should be delicious. To work on my Spanish I struck up a conversation with one of the other customers and asked him what to order. He said everything was good as the food tasted like what you would make at home.

We don’t often think about street food as home food, but ever since that conversation I’d been obsessed with making a cemita at home. And since the cemita is nothing without the roll I knew that I’d have to figure out how to bake that particular bread in my own kitchen.

I speak just enough Spanish to get into trouble when I visit forums on Mexican food sites, so until I learned that there were two cemitas, I was wondering why there were no sesame seeds and so much sugar in the recipes I found. And yet I still couldn’t find a proper recipe for the bread that I wanted.

After much delicious research out in the field, however, I decided to combine several recipes to create the tender roll. Eggs and buttermilk make the crumb soft and dense, oil and sugar make it sweet and moist and the sesame seeds add crunch and contrast. Sure it’s a bit decadent, but lean times sometimes call for affordable pleasures.

This roll is intended for a cemita sandwich, though I find that it’s also darn good as a bun for hamburgers, as a home for barbecue or simply on its own, warm from the oven and slathered with cool butter.

Cemita roll

2 cups (9 oz.) flour
1 teaspoon of salt
2 tablespoons of sugar
1 teaspoon of yeast
2 eggs at room temperature
½ cup of buttermilk
¼ cup of canola oil
1 tablespoon of milk
1 tablespoon of water
¼ cup of sesame seeds

Mix all the dry ingredients together. Whisk the eggs together with the oil.Heat the buttermilk on low until it’s warm (110 degrees if you want to use a thermometer). Do not let it come to a boil!

Stir into the dry ingredients the warm buttermilk, eggs and oil. Mix until the liquid is incorporated and then let it rest for 15 minutes.

After it’s rested, knead the dough on a floured-surface until it’s smooth, though note that it will still be a bit sticky. That’s OK.

Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover it and let it rise until it’s doubled in size, about an hour and a half.

Depending on how large you want your rolls to be, divide the dough into eight or four balls and let them rest, covered for 15 minutes.

To shape the rolls, take each ball and then flatten it so it looks like a disc.

Place each roll a few inches apart on a parchment-paper lined baking sheet. Cover the baking sheet and let the rolls rise for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

When rolls have risen, mix the milk and water and brush the top of each roll with the wash. then sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Bake the rolls for 20 minutes or until lightly browned.
Note: Bread only lasts a day, but freezes well.

And now that you have the rolls, you can make a cemita sandwich!

Cemita sandwich
A few papalo leaves (can be found at most Mexican markets)
Chipotles in adobo
A ripe avocado cut in slices
Savory Mexican meat such as carnitas or tinga
Mexican Oaxacan cheese (can substitute mozzarella if you can’t find it), shredded

Take a roll and slice it in half.
Lay the avocado quarters on each half of bread.
Pile high the meat, cheese, chipotles and papalo on one half of bread, place the other half on top and enjoy!

Other people's thoughts on cemitas:
Anita shares more background, while Matt professes true love.

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Kay said...

My mouth is watering. And yes, when I read your tweet I thought you meant the pan dulce kind of bread. LOL

Linz said...

Mmm... looks yummy! :)
What is the difference between cemita and a torta?

Phoo-D said...

Oh this is SO exciting! The best hamburger of my life was in San Antonio on a bun that matched this description perfectly. I've been searching and searching trying to figure it out with no luck. Thank you for posting this!

Helene said...

I've never heard of cemita. I would love to taste it. Looking at those beautiful pictures we want to take a bite.

ARLENE said...

Oh, yum! I wish I had one of these right now! Some street food is just ethereal.

Sarea said...

That looks delicious! And I really enjoy the versatility of the rolls ... since I mostly cook for myself I usually have to make too much of one thing, to the point where it either gets wasted or I get sick of it. Being able to use this for different bun-appropriate meals is great.

lisaiscooking said...

I keep finding more reasons I need to visit Puebla. Your rolls look fantastic!

laura said...

Oh this looks amazing! I've never come across Cemitas. I can't wait to try this at home.

Keri said...

I have never heard of a cemita, and I love mexican food!!! Thank you so much for the recipes. The sandwich sounds divine!

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Kay--They should have called it something else!

Linz--A torta is on a French-bread roll called a bolillo, and it's usually made with mayo, refried beans, jalapenos, avocados, cheese and meat instead. No chipotles (usually), sesame seed bun or papalo.

Phoo-D--Hope it's the same! These are rich but awesome for burgers.

Helene--They are indeed tasty!

Arlene--I'm a big fan of street food.

Sarea--They are indeed versatile plus they freeze well, too.

LisaisCooking--I know! I've never been to Puebla but I'm planning a trip--so much delicious food there!

Laura--I never saw them, believe it or not, until I moved to New York. But I'm in love!

Keri--It's a heck of a sandwich!

Culinary Wannabe said...

Wow, this looks delicious and filling. It must be a heck of a sandwich for you to go to all the trouble as to actually make the rolls!

Anonymous said...

If you don't mind me asking, which truck did you visit? I work in JH/Elmhurst and I'm always on the hunt for good street eats. :)

- SK

Daniel said...

Misplaced Texan here in Chicago. I was first introduced to a cemita while watching a Food Network show. They showcased a local Chicago joint, Cemitas Puebla, and I had to try it. This is an awesome sandwich. The main difference between a cemita and a torta is the roll, but also the chipotle peppers and the papalo.

If you ever find yourself in Chicago, be sure to try this restaurant and pair your cemita with a bottle of Coca-Cola imported from Mexico. The experience was borderline transcendental.

Here is a link to the Chicago restaurant:

For anybody in Texas, papalo grows wild in West Texas.

Farmer Jen said...

I've never heard of a cemita before, but I have made rolls similar to these. They are delicious! I will have to try the sandwich filling on these rolls now.

Spork In the Eye said...

I suspect this would be really good with tongue. Yes, I said tongue -- if you've never tried it, you should.

Tommy said...

Thanks for the cemita rundown. I didn't realize you had to make your own rolls, but could you use a good hallah roll in a pinch ?

I am still hoping a praying some adventurous restauranteur realizes they could make a fortune if they brought a real taco truck to Toronto and served authentic street food.

Claudia said...

Girl, you never cease to amaze me with your knowledge of the real goods from Mexico. The last time I was in my native land of Puebla all I ate for the 2 months I was there were Cemitas and Tacos Arabes. I'm guessing you probably have never had the later and I wouldn't be surprised if this taco truck had them seeing how they had the rare cemita. I've heard of a place in LA that has both but I have yet to find this elusive place.

Keep on keepin on as I live vicariously through your eats.


Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Culinary Wannabe--Actually, I made the rolls because I couldn't find them for sale anywhere. Though it is indeed a heck of a sandwich and I love to bake!

SK-I think it's called Tia Julia. It's at 91st and Roosevelt.

Daniel--That looks awesome! I'll have to go next time I'm in Chicago!

Farmer Jen--Aren't they wonderful?

Spork--Ype, lengua is on my list of things to write about! Such a succulent meat!

Tommy--You're very welcome. I think a good challah roll would work. And if I had the time, money and inclination, I'd open a taco truck there in a flash!

Claudia--Believe it or not, I have had a taco Arabe at one of the Pueblan places here, and that's on my list of things to try and figure out how to make. I don't have a spit or a rotisserie, but I love those tacos as I'm a fool for anything with chipotle chiles.

ultradave said...

Oh man, those bring back some memories. You've had some amazing things features but these really are amazing.

TacoLady said...

In Rosa Mexicano's cookbook they have a breaded chicken cemita recipe. They suggest that if you can't find papalo use a mixture of cilantro and watercress. About 1/2 cup of each per sandwich. I've never seen papalo do you think this is a good substitute? Neat article.

Mely (mimk) said...

So glad to know that more people are discovering the tasty cemitas. And like Daniel mentioned above, so far the Cemitas Puebla in Chicago are the best and closest to the real thing. Plus Food Network has the Chipotle salsa recipe given to them by "Cemitas Puebla" Chicago.

There is a history behind the "Cemita" bread. You can read it here.

It is in spanish but I know you will be able to translate it.

I lived in Puebla for a year, and every weekend my husband and I had lunch at "Los Arcos" , they sell some of the best cemitas there.

I enjoy your blog, great recipes.

Cynthia said...

Thanks for the introduction to yet a new taste.

pennydelossantos said...

Man I wish I could find one of these in Austin right now at 7am, my stomachs growling after this read. That and a cafe con leche sound like the perfect way to start the day.

Di said...

And, here I am wondering which truck you went to. We live in Jackson Hgts, so we're making our way along Roosevelt Ave, trying all the trucks.

I have been taking a hiatus from it the last few months, something about street meat and pregnancy...

Ashley said...

Do you use a specific kind of flour? Or just all-purpose?
Can't wait to make these for this weekend. I'm gonna take a pan of your carnitas and these rolls down to the drive-in!

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Ashley--I used bread flour, but you can use all-purpose as well.

melissa said...

Hi Lisa, after reading about your cemita adventures all those months ago I've been looking for them everywhere. No dice... it seems Seattle is not a hotbed of regional Mexican gastronomy. Oh well, at least I can make them myself now thanks to you. And you can be sure I will!

Anonymous said...

I love your blog! *I* am a homesick Texan, but I have to confess... I am New Mexican first and Texan in my heart too.

Well anyhow. I do not get to go back to Texas until after the holidays (and I am on the East Coast, so this is saying something) but I decided to make your recipe here just to cheer myself up.

Confession is good for the soul: I put some barbecue sauce, a good spoon of green chile (from Hatch), and some queso fresco in my roll (got to have the New Mexico/Texan combo) and it was delicious!

Your rolls are crunchier looking than mine are, and look as though they have a nice, crunchy outside and a softer inside. Mine are more moist and soft. Delicious, but not as pretty as yours. Should I cook longer next time? Go lighter on the kneading? I feel like I went wrong somewhere.

That said, they taste like heaven!

I love your site.


"New Texican"

Mara said...

I know this post is so so soo old but I had to comment after poring over your recipes all day.

I love cemitas too but I have had the majority of them at 2 places...Smorgasburg (Williamsburg location) and Tacos Matamoros in Sunset Park. Tacos Matamoros is my go to place for tacos in NYC...they have come the closest to what I'm used to, Guatemalan tacos in Oklahoma City. Definitely try it if you haven't, although I'm sure you have already!

Brody said...

Hi. Just discovered your blog and recipes! Quick question - can you use a bread machine for the rolls? Thanks! Can't wait to try so many of your recipes!

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Brody--I've never used a bread machine so I don't know the answer to that question!

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