I must be getting old, because I actually just said out loud: “Where has the year gone?” Really, people, can I get an amen here? Doesn’t it seem like 2008 has just screamed on by? (And yet, somehow, Election Day seems like it might never come.) I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but the holidays are really right around the corner, with Halloween just past and everyone’s favorite feast less than a month away. And today’s a holiday, too: Dia de los Muertos.
I feel like I’m repeating myself a little here — we talked about marigolds, sugar skulls, and La Catrina last year. But really, there’s so much more to enjoy, so many more wonderful food traditions that go along with this fiesta. After all, the idea behind the Dia de los Muertos ofrendas — the memorial altars to loved ones — is that the living tempt the spirits of loved ones to pay a visit by putting out their favorite foods, drinks, and other little mementos of the things they loved in life.
Last year, I took a day off from work and brought home a whole table’s worth of treats. This year, the weekend snuck up on me; the best I could manage was relocating a flowering houseplant (not quite marigolds, but hey, at least they’re orange), and adding a few things I know my Dad loved: A jar of home-made tomatillo salsa, a shaker of Tabasco-flavored seasoning salt, and the little greyhound calaca figurine — Dad would never travel anywhere without his dogs.
Almost as much as he loved greyhounds and spicy food, Dad loved sweets. I knew the ofrenda couldn’t do without pan de muertos, the rich, eggy bread made just for the occasion. But I had no time to head to the Mission, and with Eat Local Challenge just wrapping up it didn’t seem right to buy a loaf filled with goodness knows what.
My first attempt at homemade pan de muertos was a qualified success; tasty, but flawed. I can almost hear Dad telling me, as he always did, that I am being too critical of my own efforts: “Neen, it looks great. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” (And he’d be right… it really does look fine, just not like I expected, and definitely not like store-bought.)
The nice thing about pan de muertos — and all of the tempting treats laid out on the ofrendas — is that they’re just as much for the living as for the deceased. Hooray, we get to eat it, too! And even though I know that the holiday is supposed to be filled with happiness and fond memories, this year I’m happy to have a little extra bit of comfort to help me get in the festive mood.
You see, this year we’re also remembering our friend Briana Brownlow in our celebrations. Bri passed away just last week, at the impossibly young age of 31, after a hard-fought battle against cancer. Though we met her in person only once, we knew her well as one of those people who makes everyone’s life online a little brighter. Even in the midst of her cancer’s recurrence, it was a joy to see Bri’s optimism, and her obvious joy as friends offered support through food (and a food-bloggers’ fundraiser).
Tomorrow morning, when I toast up a piece of the leftover pan — looking out at the bright yellow of our lemon tree in the otherwise grey, rainy yard — I’ll smear it with some of the citrus curd I made from our backyard fruit and remember the woman whose strength inspired so many.
Alas, no recipe today. I’d planned to share my variation on Diana Kennedy’s pan de muertos, but something went awry. Not badly enough to keep us from eating the bread, but odd enough to keep me from unleashing the recipe on you. The “bones” melted into the main body of the bread, and the whole thing came out far too flat and wide; I think I must have miscounted egg yolks or mis-measured butter. It still tastes fabulous, though… it just doesn’t really look the way it ought.
But don’t let that discourage you from giving it a whirl. Although it’s a time-consuming recipe that calls for fussy things like overnight rises in the fridge and multiple buttered sheets of waxed paper, it’s a very forgiving dough that’s a lot of fun to make.