Six days a week at seven in the morning, the future of Southern baking emerges from a convection oven in Louisville and goes on display in a six-slot pastry case that looks like a grade-school gym cubby.
Sold from a walk-up window, the rol de canela con lechecilla from La Pana, a Mexican American bakery in Logan Street Market, translates from the Spanish as a cinnamon roll with cream. Speckled with pecans, baked until russet and crisp, slit along the side while still warm, piped with chilled vanilla custard, and dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar, it translates on the tongue as an improvement on a beloved sugar-and-joy delivery vehicle that previously seemed to require no intervention.
La Pana proprietor Diego Hernandez grew up in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, where his mother, María López Altamirano, and his father, Genaro Hernandez Montesinos, still operate the bakery La Flor de Oaxaca. Brioche dough is the base for cinnamon rolls there. Hernandez respects the traditions of his birthplace, where his grandfather Felix Hernandez sold empanadas and doughnuts on the street. At La Pana, he refashions what his parents taught him, building his cinnamon rolls, instead, with a laminated dough, folded and refolded until flour and butter become one and glow a soft yellow in the morning light.
Mexican American panaderías will soon be more common across the South than old-guard bakeries turning out thumbprint cookies and strawberry cupcakes. Most of those panaderías cater to a Mexican American audience and stock a dozen or more pastries. La Pana limits its menu to just five, plus coffee, and showcases what cultural crossover makes possible.
While Hernandez learned to bake from his parents, a backpacking trip through Europe, staying in hostels and following his curiosities, inspired him to make baking a career. In Brussels, he studied the work of a family that baked strudel. Traveling Madrid, he fell for the Parisian croissants there, and soon, high-fat cow butter instead of the goat butter often used in Oaxaca.
The world shrinks at the La Pana window. Drawn by those roles de canela, along with doughnuts and apple strudels, disparate communities connect, says the bakery’s co-owner Joshua Gonzalez. “Dominicans, Haitians, Mexicans, they hear the music and sense something familiar,” he says. (Most mornings, La Pana blasts local station 107.7, where “Running with the Devil” is in heavy rotation.) Among the converted is Louisville mayor Greg Fischer, who marked the grand opening by declaring December 4 La Pana Day in the city.
“Bread is life,” Hernandez says, pulling another tray of cinnamon rolls from the oven, repeating the refrain of his father. That phrase is ancient, but this taste of warm puff pastry and cool custard and raspy cinnamon is new. And glorious.