Chaac Mool chef-owner Luis Vázquez arranges the familiar ingredients in front of him: flour, sugar, egg, yeast and a cup of milk.
With these, the fifth-generation panadero (bread maker) will teach 25 or so attending a recent class at La Cocina how to make the special Pan de Muerto, or Bread of the Dead. Traditionally the sweet rolls are made on Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, November 2.
Before beginning the instruction, Vázquez, his dark mustache groomed neatly, his shirt a festive red, gestures toward a side table adorned with candles, little bottles of tequila and other offerings for the deceased. The altars commemorating family and friends are typically set up 15 days before the traditional Mesoamerican holiday.
On the Day of the Dead, the entire day is spent preparing food.
“We don’t eat until the dead have eaten,” Vázquez explains through an interpreter. But don’t worry, he assures those flashing concerned looks. “Tonight you will eat.”
Typical of the hip Mission crowd, tonight’s students are already training high-end digital cameras on the red and green salsa and guacamole spread. Others swig Victoria beers garnished with slices of lime. Some have already experienced Vázquez’s culinary talents at his Chaac Mool stand stationed in Dolores Park, the Mission Community Market or Fort Mason Center.
As soon as Vázquez’s wife, Maria de la Luz Vázquez, distributes mounds of pre-risen dough, everyone puts down their recording devices to focus on the task at hand. The chef demonstrates how to form the dough into a thick oval as his wife stands close by, nodding approval.
Then he cracks an egg on top of it, adds a spoonful of sugar, a dab of butter and a sprinkle of yeast. The dough already includes pulp of orange and lemon. The dead follow the citrus aroma on their journey home because they don’t have sight, he explains.
Raised in Oxkutzcab in the Yucatán, Vázquez has been making bread since the age of 12. His entire family except for his father worked in a panaderia, and the process of baking reminds him of his family and culture. “It’s a communication between the dough and the baker,” he says of working with his hands.
Vázquez takes culinary inspiration from his grandmother, often using organic ingredients that combine pre-Columbian Mayan and Spanish colonial influences.
“So with my business I want you to experience Yucatec,” Vázquez says, citing the large (estimated by Asociación Mayab in 2009 at 10,000 to 15,000) indigenous Yucatecan Maya population in San Francisco. “I want you to leave satisfied in the stomach and the mind.”
He then deftly mixes the dough, grasping and stretching the sticky fiber until it is smooth. After another handful of flour, the dough is patted into a neat roll. The process looks deceptively simple, and the attendees giggle at their floundering attempts to imitate the baker’s dexterity.
Vázquez’s version of Bread of the Dead is adorned with a cross made of dough “tears” to represent sorrow for the deceased. “It’s gonna taste good, full of symbolism,” one participant says while pinching the beaded rope of dough. After the tops are brushed with milk for sheen and sprinkled with sesame seeds and sugar, the 25 or so circular-shaped loafs are placed in a 175-degree oven.
It doesn’t take long for the intoxicating smell of sweets to engulf the kitchen. Maria de la Luz Vázquez proudly distributes the round breads to the eager crowd. Golden rolls are pulled apart to display a light fluffy interior, quickly devoured by participants.
For those in search of Vázquez’s traditional Mayan cuisine, he’s not sure how long the Chaac Mool trailer will stay in Dolores Park. Neighbors have been vocal in their opposition to commercial vending in the park. He may move to the end of 19th Street, where it dead-ends at the park, says La Cocina’s mobile food associate, Daniella Sawaya.
However, Vázquez seems determined not to let the sunset of his vending stand in the park eclipse the evening’s festivities. “We know there’s some people who don’t want us there,” he says, looking down at the kitchen table. “But Dolores Park is the first step. The next is a restaurant. We will be waiting for you there.”
Chaac Mool’s Recipe for Pan de Muerto
Printed with permission from Chaac Mool. This recipe makes 160, so scale down if you are feeding fewer people. To speed up the rising time, the workshop attendees slightly changed the process explained below, adding sesame seeds and sugar sprinkled with a milk wash before the rolls were placed into the oven.
20 lbs organic flour
6 cups organic sugar
6 lbs organic butter
6 Tbs salt
6 Tbs yeast
6 quarts organic milk
2 cups azahar essence (made from the zest of 5 lemons and 5 oranges and the juice of 2 lemons and 2 oranges)
Mix all the dry ingredients together. Put the liquids in a mixer, then add in the mixed dry ingredients. Mix for about 20 minutes until the dough separates well.
Let the dough rest for an hour, then cut it to make small one-pound balls. With the same dough, form crosses to be placed on top of the balls.
Put in the oven for 20 to 30 minutes at 175 degrees until the bread is a golden color.