It's Day of the Dead season in Mexico City, meaning pan de muerto has suddenly appeared in all the bakery windows. The light, sugary loaves taste faintly of orange, and they're criss-crossed with doughy ropes meant to signify "bones." After trying them on my last Concha Taste Test, I wanted to learn how to make my own pan de muerto. So I trolled around the Internet and found a four-hour class at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Santa Fe. I hesitated signing up at first, worried that I might not understand Spanish baking terms. Or, heaven forbid, that we'd have to stand in front of the class and introduce ourselves. Would I say I was an ama de casa, or an escritora? What if we had to say why we're taking this class? "Me gusta hacer panadería" would probably sound really lame. Then again, fearing something means you should probably jump right in. So on Tuesday, I arrived at the class kitchen with an apron and two dish towels tucked into my bag. The kitchen ended up being a huge room, with three stainless steel stoves attached with grills, fryers and broilers; six stainless steel ovens, and three industrial-size sinks. A round woman in chef's whites introduced herself as the instructor, Boris. (Pronounced BORE-eese.) She looked about 60, and her little button nose and slightly protruding ears reminded me of Fievel from An American Tail. She told us, firmly, that we'd all learn how to make "riquísimo" pan de muerto. And we'd learn lots of tips (pronounced "teeps" in Spanish) that would help us along the way. She explained a little bit about yeast and gluten, and described a mise-en-place. Then she told us to get started. All of the other students were women, and we split into three groups of four people. My group included Jeanette, a forty-something ama de casa; Rosario, a young mother of two who'd studied gastronomy and wore a kick-ass black apron jacket; and Michelle, a student at Ibero who wore lots of black eyeliner. Michelle had forgotten a pen, so I lent her one of mine. She also forgot a hair-tie, so I gave her one of those too. We got to work preparing our mise-en-place, placing mounds of flour, salt and butter on separate thin sheets of plastic. I loved the feeling of working in a professional kitchen, but not being in my own space made me feel a little unsettled. I like to use glass bowls for my mise-en-place, for instance. I also use real teaspoons and tablespoons, instead of the cereal spoons the kitchen provided. [Me, eyeing the salt on the spoon: "I guess this is 1/4 teaspoon…"] Adding to my feeling of anxiousness, Boris jumped around the recipe, telling us not to prepare the sponge, then, no wait, yes do prepare the sponge, but set it aside. I kept asking Rosario and Jeannette, "Is this right?" They answered my questions patiently. Finally, our dough came together, and we turned it out onto the stainless steel workspace to begin kneading. Not surprisingly, Rosario kneaded like an expert. She pushed into the dough with her palms, and then picked it up and slapped it on the table. Whap. She pushed a few times more, and slapped a few times more. Whap. Whap. I'd never heard of slamming your dough on the table before, but it looked fun. So I started to slap mine too. Boris came by and watched me. "Sí, hija," she said, nodding. "Amásala." We let the dough rise, and then divided and shaped it. We curved our palms, and gently pressed the dough in a circular motion, almost like playing an old trackball arcade game. Then we added the "huesitos," which everyone but me seemed to know contained exactly five joints, or the little bumps on the bones. "Why five?" I asked Jeanette. "Because that's the way it's always done," she said. (During our break, by the way, Jeanette bought me a Coke, because I'd accidentally left my purse in the kitchen. And Rosario shared her chili-doused cucumber slices with me.) We placed our loaves carefully in the oven. Unbeknownst to me, I'd placed mine in the oven that didn't work. After about 10 minutes, I sniffed the air. "Is something burning?" I asked my teammates. My poor panes had been blasted with intense heat, instead of the gentle, 150C oven they required. They came out dark brown and kind of lumpy. This photo below shows what pan de muerto is supposed to look like, by the way. This is from VIPs in Monterrey: Before we left the class, Boris pulled out a digital camera and insisted we take a group picture with her. We all crowded together and smiled, and then I cleaned my work station, packed my loaves into brown paper bags and said goodbye to Rosario and Jeanette. We exchanged email addresses, to maybe take a class together in the future. Boris had hugged and kissed a few other students on the cheek as they left, and surprisingly, she did the same to me. I'm not sure why I thought she wouldn't... maybe because I still felt like the foreigner in the class, even though I'd understood pretty much everything she'd said. "Gracias, hija," she said in my ear. She said the same thing to everyone, no doubt. But to me it felt grandmotherly and sweet. As I walked to the cab stand in front of the school, I realized that I really didn't care that my bread burned. I'd torn off a piece and tasted it, and it was fine. (Maybe a wee too much orange blossom water, but whatever.) Churning out a perfect product wasn't the point. It was just getting out. Meeting people. Learning a little more about this tradition, which I've been fascinated with for years. On those objectives, I did pretty good.