Though Dia de los Muertos, which begins on Thursday and extends to Friday, may be associated with Halloween with its parades, costumes, and skull imagery, the Mexican holiday, a joyous two-day memorial service to celebrate the loved and lost, has little to do with a candy free-for-all. Altars are built, relatives converge, sugar skulls are set in place, and favorite food is prepared. Leave the Snickers bars for the neighbors; tamales, candied pumpkin, and pan de muerto, a soft yeasted sweet bread, are the preferred treats.
Panaderia La Espiga Real, a small Mexican bakery in Sunset Park, has been baking pan de muerto ($1.50-$3) all month. Entering the store releases a wave of olfactory euphoria of warm scented air, sweet, proofing rolls and baking breads. Stand and inhale. In the back, racks of sheet-trays are holding baked goods. Pull out trays from their slots to get a better view. There are conchas, of course, with their crackly sugar shells, cinnamon sugar-dusted monas, orejas shellacked with syrup, and chilindrinas stuck together with strawberry jam. The golden rolls topped with sesame seeds that are the building blocks for so many of the neighborhood restaurants' cemitas, are being tucked away into a box for delivery.
But you're here for pan de muerto, an eggy, fluffy bread, usually flavored with orange zest, cinnamon, or anise seed, that is demarcated by its decorative cross of bones baked into the top. The helmet-sized mounds are brushed with beaten egg so they emerge from the oven, bronzed and shiny. It's an agreeable bread, soft and yeasty, that you can leave on the counter all day and tear hunks from.
On your way out, the glass case up front holds a flan ($1.50), turned out onto a plastic cafeteria tray and cut into wedges like a cake. It's an incredible version of an everyday dessert; they've managed to turn a flat of eggs into sweet silk. Drag a forkful through the syrup of burnt sugar pooling at the bottom. One for you, another for a lost soul.
Panaderia La Espiga Real
5717 5th Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11220 (map)