When Viridiana Padilla Johnson was a little girl in the Mexican state of Sonora, Christmastime celebrations radiated out from her grandmother’s kitchen. That’s where she’d watch her prepare buñuelos, learning how to make the disks herself along the way. An accompanying piloncillo syrup, made with unrefined sugar, perfumed the space with the warm smells of clove and anise.
“It was something special,” said Ms. Johnson, who now puts her own twist on her grandmother’s recipe and makes more than 500 buñuelos throughout December for her catering business in Tuscon, Ariz., La Receta de Mamá, My Mother’s Recipe. “We all miss our roots, and we cannot visit family, so at least what we can do is have a piece of your own country through food.”
Buñuelos, a sweet, fried dough sometimes served with a syrup, is a popular street food and Christmastime treat throughout Latin America. It has roots in Spain, and many countries have their own versions (and sometimes other names). In Mexico, the flour-based dough is rolled out until it’s paper-thin, then it’s deep-fried until it puffs up. In places like Cuba and Nicaragua, they are made with yuca, the root of the cassava plant. In Colombia, buñuelos are typically made with cheese.
Many versions are flavored with anise, a spice that indicates Spanish origins, particularly a Spain once under Muslim rule, said Maricel E. Presilla, the author of “Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America.”
There is such a variety because the Spaniards who colonized Latin America used different shapes and ingredients native to the region they were in, Ms. Presilla said. In Cuba, for example, that meant using root vegetables like yuca, which is widely available.
Today, buñuelos in Latin America are synonymous with cookies and milk in the United States.
“They become affordable to everyone, and it becomes part of the tradition,” said Ana Sofía Peláez, the author of “The Cuban Table: A Celebration of Food, Flavors, and History.”
But the dessert is also considered a special treat, as its process can be laborious. The undertaking reminds many Latinos of home, making buñuelos a food that connects people to their parents and grandparents no matter where they are.
Mely Martínez, the author of “The Mexican Home Kitchen: Traditional Home-Style Recipes That Capture the Flavors and Memories of Mexico,” makes two styles of buñuelos — the puffed disks and buñuelos de viento, which are shaped with a cast-iron mold to look like a flower.
The latter are typically dusted with sugar, and the piloncillo syrup is sometimes flavored with guava in addition to cinnamon, citrus and the anise. The more ubiquitous disk style has a texture that is similar to some types of Native American fry bread.
Either version requires care and attention, but home cooks are willing to set aside the time to make the tedious treats, Ms. Martínez said. “People are becoming more proud of our Mexican heritage and our gastronomy. More and more people are looking forward to the holidays and making traditional meals.”
In Cuba, buñuelos are reminiscent of a pillowy yeasted doughnut because of how the root vegetables thicken the dough. Cuban buñuelos are often rolled into a figure-eight shape before they’re deep-fried and steeped in a syrup also flavored with anise, citrus and cinnamon.
For more than 20 years, Mercy Torres, of Peachtree City, Ga., has made Cuban buñuelos with her daughter, and she has yet to skip a year.
The tradition began when she rolled out the buñuelos (she likes a sort-of pretzel shape instead of a figure-eight) before one late-night church service on Nochebuena, or Christmas Eve. When she and her family returned to their home, she fried them up and served them with syrup.
Ms. Torres continues to make them “to remember my tradition,” she said. “I remember my family, my mom and where I come from.”