When I was younger, I dreamed of my hometown, Laredo, Texas, almost on a weekly basis. I roamed its streets, looking for my house, feeling anxious because I could no longer find it. I took buses that dropped me off at streets I no longer recognized. I knocked at houses where no one knew my family. I walked up and down Kearney Street, looking for the mesquite tree that grew in front of our house, not recognizing anything. To add to my anxiety in this recurring dream, I knew my loved ones were waiting for me to arrive from this long trip home. Funny how dreams are a tapestry of our aspirations, our worries, and our sorrows.
Last night after many years, I dreamed again of going back to Laredo. It was a collage of symbols, of the surreal, of longing, and of loss. In the dream I found my son under the mesquite tree in front of my house, waiting for me. My mother’s white dishtowel flapped from one of the branches. My son was dressed in camouflage as he extended his hand to me to tell me, as he always did, that everything was alright. He led me inside the house where his grandmother and the rest of the family was waiting, gathered around a table bedecked with foods that we all knew he liked.
It comforts me to believe that our dearly departed and beloved come back to be among us on November 1, Día de los Angelitos, and November 2, Día de los Muertos. But the truth is, I always feel close to my son. From my second story window, on this beautiful fall day, I look down at the brightly colored leaves scattered below and can almost see him, looking up at me, proudly stepping out of his new car as he did a few years before he deployed to Iraq.
It was comforting to prepare this simple egg bread, Pan de Muertos. I’ve woven together recipes belonging to different relatives in Mexico with my own knowledge of bread baking. The result is a very easy brioche-type bread that is not difficult to make and it doesn’t stray much from the traditional bread of Mexico. It is an orange blossom and anise-scented, barely sweet, airy bread. Sweetness, love, remembrance, lament…all are part of this ritual. It’s hard to believe I’m here, blending, kneading, baking this bread in this quiet house, thinking of my son and all those who did not return from a war that finally ended, much too late.
A whispered Why? floats in the air, unanswered, and the yeast continues to do its work.
- ½ cup warm water
- ¼ cup butter, room temperature
- 3 cups unbleached flour
- 1 packet yeast
- pinch of salt
- 2 teaspoons anise seed
- 1 tablespoon orange zest
- 3/8 cups sugar
- 2 jumbo eggs or 3 small eggs, room temperature
- 2 tablespoons orange blossom water
- granulated sugar for sprinkling
- For the glaze: 1 oz cone of piloncillo and ¾ cup water and juice of one orange
- In a large bowl mix the sugar, flour, anise, salt and ½ cup of the flour and then mix in the butter.
- The eggs, the water, and orange blossom water should be combined in a separate bowl, mixed well, and added to the first mixture.
- Add another ½ cup of flour.
- Add the yeast and another bit of flour until you have gradually added the rest of the flour and a dough is formed.
- Knead the dough on a floured surface for about 3 minutes.
- Place the ball of dough into a bowl large enough to allow the dough to rise and cover with a slightly damp dishcloth.
- Cover the bowl with a lid so that the heat and moisture will allow the dough to rise.
- Let it rise near a warm area for about 1 hour and a half.
- Punch down the dough and shape it into a large ball, leaving small pieces of dough to form the ball on top and the four rolled pieces that form the ‘bone’ shapes.
- Let this shaped dough rise for another hour in a warm spot of your kitchen.
- Brush the glaze on it, (see below), sprinkle with granulated sugar and place in 350 degree oven for 45 minutes or until it is a golden brown.