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Sweet Offerings 

El Pueblo's pan de muerto

click to enlarge Cooling pan de muerto loaves crossed with "bones."

Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Cooling pan de muerto loaves crossed with "bones."

In the little workroom in the back of El Pueblo Market Panaderia (312 Washington St., Eureka), a young man in a flour-dusted apron leans over the worktable to knead a pale yellow dough, putting his weight into it. Engelberto Tejeda, the shop's owner, reaches over, the sleeves of his crisp, white button down rolled to his elbows, and pinches off a couple pieces. These he quickly rolls into bone shapes with the flat of his palm before pressing them into the top of a round of dough, a final button at the center to form a traditional Mexican pan de muerto, or "bread of the dead."

There are small buns and one big enough to serve as a generous throw pillow, as well as muertitos, little figures splashed with pink sugar. All these will adorn local tables and ofrendas, or altars for lost loved ones, ahead of Dia de Los Muertos Nov. 1 and 2. And while El Pueblo won't be nearly as busy as it is in January with the sale of Rosca de Reyes, or King's Day bread, a steady stream of loaves will make their way out the door this week.

Tejeda's practiced ease flipping dough into crescent rolls and rolling it into bright, sugar-topped conchas was not always so natural.

After first coming to the U.S. from Jalisco, Mexico, in 1978, with stints working in asparagus and tomato fields in Stockton and at a vegetable market in San Francisco, at a tortilla factory and truck driving school, Tejeda started working in distribution, setting up Mexican goods sections in markets big and small. On a trip to Eureka to visit family, he noticed few places to buy Mexican goods and moved to Humboldt with his wife and three children to open a shop.

Tejeda started out with an even tinier shop (the retail space at El Pueblo's current digs take only a couple strides to cross) on California and Wabash streets, before moving to Broadway, which had plenty of room for baking and pastry cases. To fill those cases, he hired Antonio Noguéz, an older baker from Mexico who'd worked in bakeries since he was an adolescent, and he whipped up everything from pan dulce to cookies and cheesecake.

"When he came in, he told me he wanna teach me to bake," says Tejeda with a shrug. He declined, preferring to stick to the retail sales skills he'd already honed. But when Noguéz fell ill and went into the hospital, his absence left the shelves bare. Tejeda says his wife helped care for Noguéz, who recovered enough to come back to work, but it was clear retirement was imminent. So Tejeda yielded and learned to make the sweets for which the shop had earned a devoted following.

Noguéz would sit and give instructions, pointing and estimating measurements for the recipes he'd baked from memory for decades. Tejeda says the older man would tell him, "'OK, put two scoops of flour, one sugar,' ... but nothing come out." He laughs and passes his hand over his slicked back hair. It took long hours of apprenticeship and practice until he could turn out Noguéz's specialties. Noguéz died years ago, but the sweets behind the counter and the pan de muerto that appears at El Pueblo every October are faithful to the recipes he knew by memory and taught by look and feel.

When the Broadway location burned down in 2017 ("Customers Rally Behind El Pueblo Market Hit by Fire," Feb. 8, 2017), the operation moved to Redwood Acres and finally found its home on Washington Street, where the Tacos El Pueblo food truck, a business expansion started a few years ago, sits parked out front.

"Everybody make different," says Tejeda, his splayed hands circling in the air. But El Pueblo's pan de muerto are made with a yeast dough enriched with egg and flavored with cinnamon. Some are brushed with an egg-and-milk wash for a glossy finish, some get sprinklings of sesame seeds or a swipe of butter before they're dusted with sugar.

At the register, Tejeda says the buns will last at least a week — they'll still be soft after days on a family ofrenda, surrounded by candles, flowers and photos of the departed. But to pull off a piece in your fingers when it's still warm from the oven is something else; the fine crumb of the interior is tender and fragrant with cinnamon, the browned crust and cinnamon add a slight, nutty bitterness against the sugar. It makes sense to welcome back the spirits of loved ones who've died with something so soft and familiar, with nourishing bread and the memory of sweetness.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

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About The Author

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Bio:
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal.

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