Dead Bread & Sweet Deals

Pan de Muerto
I'm writing this blog mostly to brag about the Pan de Muerto I made yesterday, but since I'm here, I'm also going to tell you about the sweetest deals I ever made.

On Top Chef Just Desserts last week, the contestants competed in a challenge wherein they had to whip egg whites by hand, prepare tart shells by laying dough inside little molds, stretch strudel dough and make frosting flowers. In my assistant pastry chef days, I did all of that except the frosting flowers. And to be fair, I maybe beat egg whites once by hand, but I regularly hand-beat whipped cream and I often still do (don't want to lose my touch). But my hands have seen a lot of tart shells and a lot of strudel dough.

For months, individual cherry pies and a caramelized apple/quince strudel were on the menu. As the assistant in the pastry kitchen, I got the most glamorous jobs: rolling out dough for hours, pitting bowls of cherries, peeling and cutting buckets of apples and quince (if you need an apple peeled and cut in seconds flat, call me), tucking fragile dough into mini tart molds, making tiny lattice tops out of the same fragile dough. Because my hands are almost always cold, I also got to stretch the strudel dough.

Describing cooking sometimes feels like dancing about architecture and I'm not sure how to explain stretching strudel dough. The dough itself is elastic, but fragile. You can take a blob of it the size of a soft ball and stretch it to cover a kitchen table, but so help if you get even a single hole in your dough.

I laid a tablecloth over the top of our long, waist-high freezer and sprinkled it with flour. Then I took the dough in my hands and start to flatten it like you might pizza dough. Once it was wide enough to cover both my fists, the real fun started. You had to work quickly, so it wouldn't dry out, but you couldn't act fast or it would tear. I rolled my fists under the dough stretching and turning. When it got wide enough, I hooked the dough over one corner of the freezer and keep rolling my fists under the dough pulling back until the dough covered the entire surface. It took a tense 10 minutes to stretch the dough--especially tense if my chef was watching--but it was really fun.

To prepare the cherry pies, I cut dough into circles with a large cookie cutter and laid the circles of dough over the mold. I pushed the dough gently down with one hand while turning the mold with the other. It doesn't sound difficult, but it was. Trust me. The more you work dough, the tougher it gets and to bake evenly, the thickness of the dough has to stay the same, even in the tricky corner where the side of the mold meets the bottom. Fast and accurate were keystones of my pastry experience.

Every work day, I stretched strudel and made a couple dozen cherry pies. With such repetition, the required actions buried themselves inside my fingers and as I watched the chefs on TV do the same things I done so many times, the muscle memory was incredible. While their thumbs urged dough into that tricky side/bottom border, I could feel the cold dough moving across my own fingertips.

I'm a lot less ambitious with my baking than I used to be. I don't get paid to cook. I no longer have access to a restaurant kitchen. I don't have a friendly dishwasher holding court in front of an industrial sink. I no longer have someone else who both orders and pays for my ingredients. That is all true, but it's also an excuse.

So this weekend, I decided to stretch myself and make a recipe I read in the LA Times: Pan de Muerto. And stretch me it did. I made the "starter" before I hit the farmers market. Two hours later, I completed the dough, an hour and a half later, I divide it and molded it into shapes (a round, a skull and some bones), an hour and a half later, I assembled and baked the bread. Twenty minutes later, I agonized over how to tell if it was done. Don't get me wrong, it's a blessing and a delight to be able to spend a Sunday on a single recipe. It's just not something I do very often. Was it worth it? Sure. I really liked how my bread looked and it tasted pretty nice, too. I thought it might be more moist, but the orange flavor wasn't as overbearing as I had feared.

With my dead bread finally on cooling racks, I wanted a change of scene and went for a walk through the closest neighborhood-y looking neighborhood. Seeing carved pumpkins on stoops and tiny dinosaurs roaming the streets reminded me of my own childhood trick-or-treating.

I didn't eat a lot of sugar as a kid (don't worry, I've more than made up for it in adulthood), and the amount of candy I would bring home after a good night on the streets was mind-blowing to me. My brother and I would spread our haul out on the floor and group it first according to type of candy and then according to genre of candy (fruit-flavored, chocolate, with nuts, peanut butter, etc). We cast off tootsie rolls and anything with coconut and got down to business. I built my trades around my desire for Butterfingers. My brother, I assume, built his trades around his desire to drive me crazy.

Once we were no longer willing to bargain, the candy went back in our bags and we handed them over to Mom. We got candy for dessert enough days running that when Mom told us it was gone, it seemed conceivable that we "must have eaten it all." A trick I would not fall for today!

Between my Pan de Muerto project and the flashbacks to Halloweens of yore, I quite enjoyed the holiday. I hope you did too.

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