Sunday, November 2, 2008

Pan de muerto

On Ocean Park Boulevard in Santa Monica, there's a narrow little bakery shop called Antequera Panaderia y Pasteleria. It's just across the street from a ball field connected to a middle school, and within a few blocks of a local community college.

One summer, I took swimming lessons at the college in the morning. After my swim, I'd drive down to the Boulevard and stop in Antequera Panaderia for a cup of coffee and a breakfast pastry, or pan dulce. Each morning I picked a different kind of pastry - sometimes a fruit-filled turnover, sometimes an egg-rich yeast bun studded with sesame seeds, or a delicately frosted bun shaped like a seashell.

A few days ago, I was walking along Ocean Park Boulevard, and noticed the bakery's windows were displaying sugar skulls.

Skulls and skeletons are symbols for the Mexican holiday, Dia de Los Muertos, which is celebrated on the first and second of November, in conjunction with the Catholic celebration of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. It's a holiday where families gather and remember relatives and loved ones who've passed away. People visit cemeteries to clean and decorate the graves, leave offerings of favorite foods and drinks the deceased ones enjoyed, build altars, known as ofrendas, in their homes or at the gravesite to remember the dead, and exchange gifts of food and sweets.

Among the sweets are calaveras de azucar, or skulls molded of sugar and decorated with colorful icing. The window held sugar skulls ranging from the size of an egg to one bigger than life.

When I went inside, I saw the pastry cases were full of huge, colorful loaves of pan de muerto, the traditional bread for the holiday celebration.

Antequera Panaderia's bakers are from Oaxaca, in the south of Mexico, and their pan de muerto is fashioned in the Oaxacan style, with icing piped in intricate designs and colorful sprinkles. At one end of the loaf a halo'ed doll's face is embedded in the dough to represent a departed soul.

I asked about the skulls, and the bakery woman helped me choose one, and also showed me their trajinero figures - skeletons made of dried sugar dough shaped like the traditional boatmen that carry produce, flowers, and sell drinks around the docks in Oaxacan sea villages.

On the wall over the counter, an altar had been crafted, with pictures of the Virgin Mary and figures of heros, saints, and crucifixes surrounded by twinkle lights, bouquets of artificial flowers, and postcards and photos. I asked for permission to photograph it, which was granted with grace, and the woman also offered "Come back on Saturday. We're making an altar in the window for the holiday."

I bought a soft-ball-sized calavera, and a boatman wearing a pink serape. I couldn't buy a loaf that day, but I came back on Friday afternoon.

The narrow shop was crowded with people, and I could see into the kitchen through an open door behind the counter. A baker with a pastry bag was piping icing in patterns onto one fresh golden loaf, glazed and shining, while other loaves were stacked on shelves in varying states of completion.

A customer set a wide flat aluminum baking pan on the glass counter, and the bakery woman brought her three loaves, which she arranged on the pan.

After she paid, another woman stepped forward to the counter next to me. She reached out her hands and handed something to the bakery woman. Three small round greenish fruits, with leaves and stems. "What are they?" I asked. She looked at me and smiled, saying "Guayabana" - guavas.

From the kitchen, a woman wearing a deep purple apron, embroidered in the Oaxacan style with multicolored flowers, delivered an armful of loaves to the pastry case, while another woman came through carrying bunches of bright orange marigolds. Traditionally ofrendas are decorated with bunches of marigolds and celosia and arrangements of fruit.

When it was my turn at the counter, I asked for a loaf with a doll whose halo was pink. The bakery woman tore a large sheet of white butcher's paper off a roll, and laid it on the counter, then placed my loaf on top. "Don't cover it," she said, "it's not yet dried." - meaning the piped icing decoration. "Be careful with it when you put it in the car."

I walked down Ocean Park Boulevard bearing my pan de muerto carefully in my arms. A Big Blue Bus pulled to the corner and let out a customer. The driver honked the horn and I turned to look at him. He gestured me to come aboard his bus. I smiled and shook my head, and then he pointed at my beautiful pastry. THAT was what he wanted! I laughed and walked on to my car.

I had an clean tablecloth in the back of the station wagon - I forget why. But I used it to drape on the floor of the passenger seat, and gently nestled my pastry within. And drove carefully home.

Here it is on my kitchen counter. We made a display with the calavera and trajinero, and some candles. I bought some marigolds and celosia from a florist on Pico Boulevard. I had some other pieces of folk art and calacas that I added to the display, and we kept it up for the holiday.

But aren't you supposed to eat pan de muerto? How does it taste? While it was on display, the whole kitchen smelled of sweet yeast bread, and soon little bits of icing disappeared, as we surreptitiously snuck little tastes. But how can you bear to slice into that beautiful crust?

We finally did it. The bread is an egg-based dough, light and airy and mildly sweet, similar to challah or brioche. Pan de muerto is often flavored with orange zest, cinnamon, or anise - in Antequera Panaderia's loaf I could taste a touch of citrus and a whisper of anise, perhaps - faint and delicious. We toasted a couple of slices for breakfast.

We left the rest for the spirits. I hope they liked it as much as we did.


Sherri said...

very interesting story. It looks yummy

JCK said...

Wow! The work that goes into the skulls and the bread. Amazing. What a lovely tradition to honor the dead.

Kizz said...

I wonder if there's any way I can do Halloween in NYC then get on a late night flight and have Dia des los Muertos in CA. I love all those pictures and I want to honor my dead that way!