Ona a recent trip to Sonora, I became obsessed with a certain Sonoran pastry known as the coyota. I bought a dozen in Guaymas, another in San Carlos, two more in Hermosillo, and one in Magdalena. When I returned to Tucson, I sought them out at Mexican bakeries. Although I shared a few with friends and family, I mostly hoarded them. In January, as I drove my daughter across Texas to take her back to college, I made sure we had a dozen in the back seat. To me, they had become as essential as coffee. In fact, I’m eating one right now, doing my best to keep brown sugar crumbs off the keyboard.
Invented in Sonora, the coyota is a truly regional treat. Why are they so good? For one, they’re versatile. Coyotas are the perfect complement to breakfast coffee; a great rejoinder to spicy savory dishes like egg and chorizo burritos, machaca, and carne asada; or a lovely dessert, especially when paired with coffee or tea. Coyotas can be topped with a scoop of ice cream, as you would do with pie, or dipped in milk like a cookie. Coyotas are also a great conversation starter. If you show up with coyotas at a dinner party, you are almost guaranteed to have a postprandial treat most of your guest won’t have tried; in addition, you’ll have a story to tell.
The word coyota literally translates as “female coyote,” but is also Sonoran slang for a girl of mixed Indian and Spanish heritage. In a bakery, a coyota is a flat, usually round, stuffed pastry not entirely unlike a turnover and similar to an empanada (with some important differences).
The tradition of the Sonoran coyota began in 1954 in Villa de Seris—a village that’s since been absorbed by greater Hermosillo—when a Spanish woman, known only as La Espanola gave her neighbor, a baker named Doña María González Ochoa, a recipe for this sweet treat. Ingredients include wheat flour, butter (or vegetable shortening), salt, and Mexican brown sugar (piloncillo) sold in pylon-shaped chunks. The bakery that Doña María subsequently founded, Coyota’s Doña María, now produces up to 11,000 coyotas a day for markets in Sonora and for export to Arizona. In addition, competitors have proliferated. In Villa de Seris, coyotas are cooked in traditional wood-fired ovens, although other bakeries employ standard bread and pizza ovens. The popularity of coyotas has spread all over Sonora, so much so that even the bakery inside the new Guaymas Walmart produces them.
Variations on the original coyota are widespread: you can also choose from a whole host of fillings in addition to the original brown sugar (piloncillo): flavors like caramel (cajeta), burnt milk caramel (jamoncillo), dates (datil), guava (guayaba), figs (higo), peaches (durazno), pineapple (piña), and quince (membrillo).
The good news is that you don’t have to go to Sonora to sample coyotas. Take a tour of Tucson’s Mexican bakeries and you’ll find a different style of coyota at nearly every stop. Although coyotas are typically round, other shapes are popular in Tucson.
Erica Franco, of La Estrella, explains that because many of Tucson’s Mexican bakers come from Central Mexico, they have dressed up the standard Sonoran coyota so much that when Sonoran customers see them they sometimes exclaim, “That is not a coyota!”
Franco says that Tucson’s bakeries are unique in that, like La Estrella, most make their coyotas in a Napoleon’s hat shape with fancy crimped ruffled crust. The consistency of coyotas varies from maker to maker, and ranges from flaky pie crust, semihard cookie, hard bread, crusty bread, to hard cookie. Franco says, “Our recipe is a balance. It aims for a texture between hard cookie and empanada.”
Indeed, there is a difference between coyotas and empanadas. Yes, they are both stuffed, turnover-like pastries made from flour, but a coyota is bigger (in diameter), flatter, flakier, and harder. Coyotas also tend to be less uniform than empanadas, and have beauty marks like air pockets and burnt spots.
To taste varieties of coyotas filled with caramel, dates, and other goodies, you’ll need to make a stop at Dolce Pastello in El Mercado, where Ahydée Almazan sells the flat, round, Hermosillo-style coyotas that bear her mother’s name: “Doña Ofi.” After all, her mother, Ofilia Almazan, does make them. When I talked with the younger Almazan at Dolce Pastello, she shared a game-changing tip about coyotas: “You can reheat them in the toaster.” Sonoran Pop-Tarts! Why hadn’t I thought of this?
I can’t decide which Tucson coyotas I like best, but I think the versions made at La Estrella and Dolce Pastello are both top-shelf examples of two very different styles. Visiting these bakeries, filled with bread smells, Spanish, and smart and lovely young bakers, reminds me of how much I like living in Tucson. I’m already gearing up for my next adventure, the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo mountain bike race, and because they travel so well, taste so good, and offer so much fuel, you can bet that some coyotas will be coming along in my backpack. ✜
2 pounds flour + 5 tablespoons for filling
1 pound of shortening
6 piloncillos (brown sugar shaped into
pylons available at Mexican grocery stores)
2 tablespoons yeast
1 cup water
2 eggs, beaten for brushing
In a cup of water dissolve 2 piloncillos and set aside. Crush the other 4 piloncillos and mix in 5 tablespoons of flour. Mix well by hand and set aside.
In a separate mixing bowl add flour, shortening, yeast, and water with dissolved piloncillo. Mix well until it reaches a doughy consistency. Add more water if needed.
Knead dough by hand and roll into 40 balls. With a rolling pin, roll each ball into tortilla size and shape. Add 1 to 1½ tablespoons of piloncillo flour to 20 of the rolled out dough tortillas. Cover with the other dough tortilla and bend in the edges.
With a knife or fork, poke holes on top of each one, place on a lightly greased baking sheet, and brush with egg. Bake until golden, 350º.
Makes 20. Recipe courtesy of NibblesandFeasts.com.
Dolce Pastello. 120 S. Avenida del Convento. 520-207-6765.
La Estrella Bakery. 5266 S. 12th Ave. 520-741-0656. LaEstrellaBakeryIncAz.com
Coyotas Doña María. Sufragio Efectivo 37. Hermosillo, Sonora. 52-662-250-5883 CoyotasDonaMaria.com
Scott Calhoun is the author and photographer of six books about the American Southwest. He spends as much time as possible in the Mexican backcountry searching for new plants and eating local specialties. Scott runs Zona Gardens, a garden design studio in Tucson.