Monday, October 31, 2011

Remembrance: Pan de Muertos

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.

Pan de Muertos

Recipe Type: bread, desert

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 3 hours

Cook time: 45 mins

Total time: 3 hours 45 mins

Serves: 8

Dear readers, The error in this recipe has been corrected.


  • 1/2 cup warm water

  • 1/4 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 3/4 cup water and juice of one orange


  1. In a large bowl mix the sugar, flour, anise, salt and ½ cup of the flour and then mix in the butter.

  2. The eggs, the water, and orange blossom water should be combined in a separate bowl, mixed well, and added to the first mixture.

  3. Add another ½ cup of flour.

  4. Add the yeast and another bit of flour until you have gradually added the rest of the flour and a dough is formed.

  5. Knead the dough on a floured surface for about 3 minutes.

  6. Place the ball of dough into a bowl large enough to allow the dough to rise and cover with a slightly damp dishcloth.

  7. Cover the bowl with a lid so that the heat and moisture will allow the dough to rise.

  8. Let it rise near a warm area for about 1 hour and a half.

  9. 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.

  10. Let this shaped dough rise for another hour in a warm spot of your kitchen.

  11. 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.


For the glaze:
Bring a 1 oz. cone of piloncillo to boil in about ¾ cup of water until it dissolves, let it boil until it thickens, add the juice of one orange, cook for another 3 minutes; then let it cool before brushing it on.


  1. Oh my goodness. My eyes are watering and my heart is pounding as I read this post. I am so sorry for your loss. My brother was deployed twice and both times were very difficult for the three of us. Thankfully he came home safe (Thank God).
    My deepest prayers go out to each family who has suffered such a loss.
    As I made my pan de muerto I felt so at peace thinking of my grandmother who passed away at the age of 98. I tried to remind myself of all the happiness she brought to my life. Making pan de muerto was very therapeutic for me.
    Your pan de muerto is beautiful. May God's amazing love and comfort heal your soul as you honor your son.

  2. Gilda Valdez CarbonaroOctober 31, 2011 at 11:30 AM

    Thank you, Yvette. There is definitely something therapeutic in the loving preparation of a meal, although it has taken me several years to get back into it. I thank my ahijada for the encouragement. It's a mixed blessing, the cooking brings me joy, but there is never a meal I've prepared when I don't think of the empty place at the table. Thank you for taking the time to write.

  3. One more time you have brought your love to the hearts through your cooking and baking. As I read about your dreams and the loss that you have endured and continue to endure, I felt a warm and loving shift in my heart and soul and received the image of your beloved son smiling through all the words.
    He is in peace and wishes the same for you. Your Pan de muertos will turn into pan del amor and this love connects all of us whether on this earth or not ,to one another.
    Indeed, you are that expert boatman who crosses the tumultuous river to the safe shores of Love.

    My humble appreciation and ocean of love for you

  4. Gilda Valdez CarbonaroOctober 31, 2011 at 10:04 PM

    What kind and soothing words! If words and ideas connect us all, certainly food does the same. Thank you

  5. Dear Gilda,
    I have all the ingredients ready to make the Pan de Muertos. To me cooking is also therapeutic and meditative. Thinking about you...

  6. Gilda Valdez CarbonaroNovember 1, 2011 at 12:09 AM


    This is an easy will see. Being in Spain, I'm sure you found the azar de naranja easily. Wishing you good things.

  7. My dear colleague,

    Your words are the sweetness that make life bearable for your family and others. The bread symbolizes all of this love and heartache, and someday I will share some with you so you know that you, your son and your husband are in the thoughts of so often.

  8. Gilda Valdez CarbonaroNovember 1, 2011 at 1:40 PM

    Thank you, Tina.

  9. It came out great! I did have all the ingredients but the piloncillo which I replaced by brown sugar.

  10. Gilda Valdez CarbonaroNovember 3, 2011 at 10:58 PM


    So glad you alerted me to the error. I wrote it too fast with a short publishing time :(

  11. Gilda,

    This is still my favorite post, a year later. It is so beautifully written.

  12. Gilda Valdez CarbonaroOctober 7, 2012 at 1:28 PM

    Thank you for this. You encourage me.

  13. As Yvette sorte, "my eues are wateringue as i read your post
    My post sincère thoughts to you And fluvio
    Your récipes impress me. Keep it up
    Include à gourmet trip to northern France next Time

  14. Gilda Valdez CarbonaroOctober 20, 2012 at 5:01 AM

    Gracias, Paul.


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