AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRIC MIXER)
BLOCK: Chef Pati Jinich has a brand new mixer.
PATI JINICH: I feel like I have a new car, let me tell you.
BLOCK: It's a rich persimmon color, a perfect match for her kitchen in the D.C. suburbs.
JINICH: OK. So I'm adding half a cup of flour.
BLOCK: Pati Jinich is a blogger, food show personality and author of "Pati's Mexican Table." She was born and raised in Mexico and she's teaching me two recipes for next week's holiday, Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. And she's breaking in her new mixer for the first one. It's a sweet, fragrant bread dough.
JINICH: It's incredibly powerful.
BLOCK: Oh, yeah. It smells like perfume.
We are making pan de muerto.
JINICH: The Day of the Dead bread is a necessity. You will not see a home or an altar without Day of the Dead bread.
BLOCK: For the Day of the Dead, the living remember the dead. Some believe they're actually communing with the deceased.
JINICH: It's actually a very joyous occasion where people get ready to welcome people, those that have deceased and that presumably have license to come visit just once a year. And the day before, what everybody here celebrates as Halloween, people start cleaning their homes. And I know it sounds a little bit morbid, but it's not, people go and clean the graveyards and put flowers and decorations and make it impeccable and gorgeous-looking.
BLOCK: Now, many Mexicans will buy their pan de muerto from a bakery. Pati is not one of them.
JINICH: This dough is capricious.
BLOCK: And it takes patience, with multiple rises. That means you have to get a head start at least a day before the holiday. Pati has several batches of dough going today in different stages. One is just about ready to bake, but it needs to be shaped and it is super sticky.
JINICH: It is very messy, but it's so much fun.
JINICH: It is so much fun.
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BLOCK: Death becomes whimsical on Dia de los Muertos. People joke about death. They display miniature skeletons in fancy clothes. Children eat sugar skulls and other spooky confections.
JINICH: And I'm going to make two ropes that are going to cross the bread, resembling bones.
BLOCK: Like the cross bones.
BLOCK: Pati makes a skull out of a small ball of dough and sticks it playfully on the top of the loaf. And while it may now resemble death, it smells heavenly.
Oh, it smells fantastic.
JINICH: And you can play with what you put in here. So I put rose water this time and a little bit of anise seeds. But you can put orange blossom water and some orange zest or a little bit orange juice or maybe a little bit of orange liquor. You can really take it places.
BLOCK: What's the significance of that? Why the flavors?
JINICH: So all the aromas and smells are meant to attract and to help those deceased coming back to visit find their way back home. And the foods are all very aromatic and intense.
BLOCK: OK. A final rise to the dough, then into the oven it goes. And 35 minutes later...
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BLOCK: ...the Day of the Dead bread is done. A quick brush with butter, a generous sprinkle of sugar, and then it gets the knife.
JINICH: Ooh. Oh, my gosh, you guys. It's really beautiful.
BLOCK: The grain of the bread is so light and fluffy, and it's a beautiful creamy yellow color.
JINICH: I couldn't resist myself.
BLOCK: How is it?
JINICH: You have to try it. It's so good.
BLOCK: OK. Oh, it's delicious.
JINICH: It is delicious. It's the signature food of Day of the Dead, and it reminds you of why you're celebrating and it's satisfying and gratifying. And it's what you want to greet your guests and the people who are coming from the underworld.
BLOCK: But you cannot feast on bread alone. Pati says there is another thing essential for a family's celebration.
JINICH: So when people make the meals for Day of the Dead, they usually make the most favorite thing of the people that have left, and it most always is a mole.
BLOCK: A mole, a thick sauce made by grinding ingredients together. And yes, you might be thinking of the ever-popular mole poblano with its rich, chocolaty flavor. That's what I was thinking. But Pati Jinich says there are plenty of other moles, some very complicated. Her favorite, the one she created for her family here in the U.S., is easy. It's a pumpkin mole made with ancho chilies(ph).
JINICH: They've been dried for a long time. We have to wake them up and bring them back to life.
BLOCK: Good plan for The Day of the Dead, don't you think? We toast the chilies on a comal, a griddle, then simmer them in a saucepan.
JINICH: And look what happens to them, beautiful and plump and meaty. And you have transformed this ingredient.
BLOCK: That's a lot of chilies.
JINICH: Yes, but they're not spicy at all. They're like a mildly spicy prune.
BLOCK: Pati's mole requires more stovetop alchemy. She toasts garlic, onions, almonds, cloves, a cinnamon stick, allspice berries, toasts them for just a few minutes, not long at all. She puts them in a blender with the plumped chilies...
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BLOCK: ...then pours that mixture into a pan of hot oil.
JINICH: OK. That's what you want.
BLOCK: You want to hear that sauce sizzle. It cooks and thickens. And three more ingredients are stirred in: brown sugar, pumpkin puree - yes, from a can - and chicken broth. Now, don't worry. We have the recipe at npr.org.
Now, hypothetically, I'm thinking, you could put a little chocolate in there. Yeah?
JINICH: You could, of course.
BLOCK: Why not?
JINICH: But I think there is no need.
BLOCK: Need is never the question. You know that.
BLOCK: A few more minutes on the stove and the mole is a warm shade of dark brown. It makes Pati's kitchen smell like a spiced-up pumpkin pie.
JINICH: My husband likes it so much, he would eat it as a soup.
BLOCK: Just eat it right out of the pot with a spoon?
JINICH: Eat it right out of the pot. But you can cook some chicken, shrimp, meat, fish, whatever you want in whichever way, boiled or baked, and just ladle a couple of spoonfuls on top of it.
BLOCK: She ladles the pumpkin mole over chicken enchiladas and I have to tell you, as a Day of the Dead meal, it's worth coming back for.
Oh, that's really good. It's got such a great nuttiness to it. And the spices are - it's powerful, but it's not overwhelming.
JINICH: Is it spicy for you (unintelligible)?
BLOCK: It's just got a nice buzz to it.
JINICH: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Would you add chocolate?
BLOCK: I think it couldn't hurt.
JINICH: Well, Pati Jinich, thank you so much for making these wonderful things.
Oh, thank you so much for coming.
BLOCK: Pati Jinich is the woman behind "Pati's Mexican Table," the book, TV show and the blog. You can get a head start on your Day of the Dead cooking with recipes at npr.org.