Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bread of the dead

I have an on-going love affair with many things Mexican. Mexican oilcloth. Mexican hot chocolate. Mexican history. Mexican culture. Mexican art. Mexican literature. Mexican molcajetes. Mexican music. And, por supuesto que sí, Mexican cuisine. I think my Mexico thing goes back to my BFF in first grade, Susí. She and her family were from Mexico City and she was Just. So. Cool. We spent hours listening to ABBA on the boombox in her bedroom, pretending "Dancing Queen" was all about us.

As I've mentioned before, one of the things that fascinates me most about Mexican culture is the Day of the Dead. I won't go into the boring details but if you're interested, has a good explanation of Dia de los Muertos' history and significance. I volunteered to do a small cultural lesson for our home school group this week, and thought the timing would be perfect to spotlight Dia de los Muertos, which is coming up on Sunday and Monday. And not just because I wanted to bake pan de muerto again (though that would have been a good enough reason all by itself!)

My loaf turned out a bit misshapen compared to the real thing, but it tasted heavenly. Yes, technically the sugar topping made it off limits, but I ripped a piece of crust off the bottom to sample (all in the name of quality control, mind you!)

This recipe is easy, absolutely delicious, and the heavenly smell of the cinnamon and anise seeds when it's baking is divine. I had to fight the kids off after their third and fourth helpings so I'd have enough to take home to Jim.

Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead)

¼ cup milk
¼ cup butter (half a stick)
¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 package active dry yeast
¼ cup very warm water
2 eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour, unsifted
½ teaspoon anise seed
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons sugar

Bring milk to boil and remove from heat. Stir in butter, ¼ cup sugar and salt. In large bowl, mix yeast with warm water until dissolved and let stand five minutes. Add the milk mixture. Separate the yolk and white of one egg. Add the yolk and the other whole egg to the yeast mixture, and save the white for later. Now add flour to the yeast and egg. Blend well until dough ball is formed.

Flour a pastry board or work surface very well and place the dough in center. Knead until smooth. (I used the dough hook on my stand mixer and kneaded the dough for five minutes, which worked just as well). Return to large bowl and cover with dish towel. Let rise in warm place for 90 minutes. Meanwhile, grease a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 350° F.

Knead dough again on floured surface. Now divide the dough into fourths and set one fourth aside. Roll the remaining 3 pieces into “ropes”. On greased baking sheet, pinch 3 rope ends together and braid. Finish by pinching ends together on opposite side. Divide the remaining dough in half and form two “bones”. Cross and lay on top of braided loaf. (Note: I think the form of the loaf varies regionally. I followed these instructions the first time I made the bread, but the loaf I made today was round, with “bones” on top, modeled after some images I found on the internet).

Cover bread with dish towel and let rise for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix anise seed, cinnamon, and 2 teaspoons sugar together. In another bowl, beat egg white lightly. When 30 minutes are up, brush top of bread with egg white and sprinkle with sugar mixture. Bake at 350° F for 35-40 minutes.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

It's true...

...that I've been ignoring my blog. One of the things I've been doing instead is experimenting with reworking and rethinking some of my writing.

Last week, I made a second attempt at starting a poetry group, and was grateful (more than I'd care to say) when someone showed. It was worth the wait. I met a local poet who teaches psych up at the college and she had some interesting insights about my poems. One thing she told me, I already knew: I tend too much toward the narrative. But instead of viewing this as a weakness, she said, "Maybe you're a poet who should really be writing stories." She also pointed out that some of the longer pieces seem to have poems within poems that interrupt or detour from the flow of the larger poem, that maybe could stand alone.

When I got home, I looked of those poems and started to experiment with pulling them apart and reworking them, both as prose and separate poems. I tried not to think of it as chopping apart my babies but rather that the sum of the parts might be lesser than the actual parts themselves. It's a challenge to think about my writing in new ways, since I'm such a creature of habit, but I'm trying to be open.

One of the ones I've been working with was "Lac De Roche", a poem I wrote earlier this spring. The middle section is a vignette about picking gooseberries for my grandmother, and in looking at it with fresh eyes, I think it can (and probably should) stand alone. Last week I tried reworking it as a short, short prose piece, and am not sure how I feel about the product. So this morning I've been trying it as a poem. I'm going to give it a test flight at a poetry open mic night this evening, down in Yakima. Wish me luck!

Gooseberry Pie: a Disappointment in Three Acts

Hidden in the tall grass
low bushes of gooseberries grow wild
along weather-silvered fence rails
their taut globes whiskery
pale-veined translucent green
warm under my fingertips
from hanging all day in the sun
my hands weave a delicate dance
through prickly branches
plucking enough to fill an old plastic bucket
and when the soft one-by-one of them
no longer plunks against the bottom
when a few unruly berries
spring over the rim
when it holds enough for a whole pie
I carry my bucket back to nana.

She measures butter, flour, sugar
leveling each cup
with the straight side of a table knife
rolls out a delicate crust
with deliberate strokes
eases it into a glass pie plate
fills it with berries
then more butter, flour, sugar
finally, she cuts and weaves a fragile lattice
to crown her masterpiece
before commending it to the oven
and for a delicious hour
the cabin walls strain to contain
the golden aroma
of buttery crust and bubbling berries.

No scent of foreshadowing
prepares me for the sour regret
of braving thorns for bitter fruit:
I suck my cheeks in hollow
after a single sharp bite of pie
poke once with my fork at its sugary crust
and leave the rest
still steaming on my plate.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


It's a bit after the fact, but here's a little birthday wrap-up:

My fortieth got off to a rousing start because I had to renew my driver's license, and this is the first time I can remember not lying about my weight on my license. I've always fudged the truth by at least ten pounds, and sometimes even more egregiously. This year I agonized but finally decided it's time to make peace with myself. After all, truth counts most in those little areas where only I would know I was lying. That said, I'm still feeling bitter about having to give up my old license, which had a much better photo than this time around.

Jim and I took the kids to dinner at one of our favorite local places, and it hit me unexpectedly as I was cutting into my big, juicy steak: there was no one I'd rather party with than them. One of my girlfriends asked recently if I was doing something special for my birthday. A year ago, I would have wanted to go out and celebrate this milestone with friends, and maybe have a separate party later with family. Somehow, when I wasn't paying attention, that changed, because now nothing matters more than being with my husband and kids. It's even more enjoyable to watch Jimmy getting a chocolate mustache while slurping down my birthday sundae with gusto than eating it myself.

Don't get me wrong; I loved my kids before and tried to always put them first. But it used to be because I knew that's what a mother is supposed to do and while I wanted to be a good mom, I sometimes resented having to place my children's needs before my own. Now, so much more of my own personal joy comes from seeing their happiness and growth, rather than from my own gratification. Paradoxically, I'm also better able to find the balance in taking care of my own needs so that I have the energy and inner calm to be available and present for them.

And that joyful balance is the best gift. EVER.