This is the first Christmas 4-year-old Adán Cuauhtémoc Anderson won’t get to linger in the South Central Los Angeles apartment kitchen of his abuela, eating cinnamon-flecked, sugar-crusted pan dulce bread and drinking steaming mugs of hot cocoa.

This holiday, Adán and his parents will stay put in their Munjoy Hill two-family. After Adán opens his presents, they’ll pack up not just the Christmas ornaments but all their stuff to move to North Deering come January, so Adán can properly learn his mother tongue in the new full-Spanish immersion kindergarten at Portland’s Lyseth Elementary School, the first public school program of its kind in Maine.

“I’ve been using Spanish with him more than I thought I would, but it’s just sprinkled here and there,” says his mother, Esmeralda Ulloa, my Spanish profesora.

As the cold set in this fall, Adán started begging his mother for pan dulce, longing for those warm memories of home. But where would Ulloa and Adán find pan dulce in Maine? They couldn’t just walk to a Mexican panadería from their Munjoy Hill home. No one ever thought to make pan dulce in Ulloa’s family – it’s ubiquitous in Los Angeles bakeries.

“The first time we ventured to make it ourselves, it was out of necessity,” says Ulloa, who now has her sisters and grown nieces baking it in LA, after trading recipe notes in Facetime chat sessions.

Ulloa had been trying to cook more with Adán anyway. Flexing the handle of his great-grandmother’s vintage sifter, cracking and beating eggs with an equally antique hand-cranked mixer and kneading dough help develop his fine motor and sensory integration skills.

I was captivated when Ulloa talked about shaping the pan dulce buns with her son during our Day of the Dead celebration in the Spanish 101 class she taught at Bowdoin College this fall. I am ashamed I couldn’t keep up with the homework in the class I audited, but I learned to comprehend much spoken Spanish nonetheless. As the class concluded this holiday season, Ulloa imparted even more valuable lessons about how to be a more attentive, engaged mother. I haven’t lived in the present all fall, fantasizing about the past and fearfully forecasting future transitions.

Ulloa, 38, whose grandfather came to California from Zacatecas, grew up picking crops like peaches, oranges and plums with her migrant worker family all over the Central Valley until they settled in Los Angeles when she was 11. All of the possessions of her family of seven had to fit into a green Ford van at a moment’s notice. Even today, Ulloa maintains that “migrant mindset,” focusing on only the most pressing issues at hand.

That resilience saw her through the ordeal after Adán was born as a micro-preemie weighing only 1 pound, 14 ounces, and his miracle survival. He arrived three months early on the couple’s annual Christmas visit to California. Ulloa and family got stuck there for three months, not returning to Maine until the neonatal intensive care unit finally released Adán on March 23. (The family celebrates his “got out of NICU,” or GOON day, as much as his actual birthday). He turns 5 on Dec. 28.

All those unsung hero nurses who cared for them through Adán’s hospital stay inspired Ulloa to earn her nursing degree at the University of Southern Maine. Now, in addition to teaching college Spanish, she moonlights three days a week as a nurse at Gosnell Memorial Hospice House. She has a traditional Mexican embrace of death as a part of life embodied by Dia de Los Muertos, which she taught to Adán recently as they put down their cat, who was suffering from cancer, and held a ritual burial.

Theo and I had much to learn from Adán and Ulloa’s example. She graciously invited us to join them in their kitchen one Tuesday morning.

I feel like a fraud of a farm-to-table mom for not baking with Theo more, but he’s more into beating drums to music and kicking soccer balls. We never got one of those $200 wooden ladder-like Learning Towers so many moms who routinely bake with their kids seem to have, so I was cheered to see Adán wearing a kiddie apron and standing on a step stool to help his unfussy, practical mother. Theo stood on a dining room chair to join him at the countertop.

“All right, Theo can go first, and then you,” Ulloa says to Adán. “I like how you share. Theo holds the sifter while you pour it in. Can you do it over the bowl, guys? Sift away, Theo.”

Adán and Theo took turns measuring powdered sugar for the colorful pan dulce crust, then rolled the dough into balls and worms.

In my quest to do more sensory activities at home with Theo, baking is a good place to start. After an erratic summer and fall, I’m recommitting to the routines of hearth and home for 2015. Teaching my spirited, willful son to cook will give him more confidence and self-reliance. And the more we cook together, the more natural it will be for both of us. It’s a practice, a reflex and a reminder – with help from new friends – to live more fully in the present, in the process.


Esmeralda Ulloa’s sister Alma in Los Angeles stresses to never use ground cinnamon, only flecks grated from a stick for “that fresh burst.” You’ll only use half of the cinnamon stick in the dough, but the larger piece gives you a “handle,” so you don’t grate the tops of your fingers. You could use a local pig’s lard in place of the shortening, but Ulloa reserves lard for the tamales her family makes once a year, at Christmastime.

Mixing the food coloring into the sugar crust that tops the buns is the fun part. But Theo and Adán were somewhat reluctant to handle the Playdough-like topping. “Go for it, Theo!” cheered Ulloa. “Just get your hands in there. This is messy work.”

“It’s so much fun to make pan dulce,” said Adán, patty-caking dough balls into the “topping tortillas” that he then cut with decorative patterns.

Makes 1 dozen buns


1 package active dry yeast (2¼ teaspoons)

1 cup lukewarm water

1/4 cup vegetable shortening, at room temperature

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract (preferably “the good stuff” from Mexico)

4 eggs, beaten and at room temperature

1 teaspoon salt

1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick

4 cups all-purpose flour


1/2 cup vegetable shortening

1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon cocoa powder (optional)

Red and yellow food coloring (optional)

Preheat oven to 200 degrees F (this will provide a warm place for your dough to rise).

To make the dough, empty yeast into small bowl, stir in ½ cup of warm water and place on top of warm stove to activate, about 10 minutes.

Add the shortening, sugar and vanilla to a mixing bowl. Using a stand- or hand-mixer, mix on medium to high speed until creamed, 1-2 minutes.

Incorporate the eggs, salt and remaining ½ cup of warm water until well-mixed. Pour in the yeast-water mixture, mixing on medium speed for about 30 seconds, until the ingredients blend together.

Using a micro-planer, grind half the cinnamon stick (save the rest for another use). Place the flour in a large bowl, whisk in the grated cinnamon and make a well in the middle (you can also just make a mound of flour on a clean work surface or counter top where you will do your kneading).

Pour the combined liquid ingredients into the well of your flour mound, a little at a time, kneading it until the dough forms.

The dough will be very, very sticky. Knead it on a lightly floured work surface for about 10 minutes until it forms a cohesive ball of dough.

Turn off preheated oven. Place the dough in a greased bowl and cover with a damp towel. Let dough rise for 1 hour. Remove dough from oven, and again preheat oven to 200 degrees F for 5 minutes for the second rise.

Divide dough into 12 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball and place on a lightly greased baking sheet (you will need 2 to 3 sheets, as the dough balls will rise and spread).

Put the trays in the oven, which should be turned off but warm. Let rise for another hour.

With about 20 minutes left in the rising time, start the topping. Mix the shortening, sugars, flour and extract together on medium-high speed for about 1 minute, until crumbly.

Divide topping among 3 bowls. Add a bit of red coloring to one bowl to make beautiful pink buns, and duckling yellow to another. Start with 2 to 3 drops of each, adding more as needed. Or keep 1 bowl white. Add cocoa powder to the third bowl.

Knead each bowl with hands until color is mixed in. The topping will be very soft and slightly crumbly.

Remove risen buns from oven, and preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Roll the 3 topping mixtures into a total of 12 small balls. Flatten out each little ball with your hands; the topping will be a little crusty, but should still cooperate. Pat your flat “topping tortilla” lightly on top of each bun so that it conforms to the round shape of the dough.

Gently slide a butter knife through the topping to create designs, making superficial indentations, not cutting all the way through the topping. A common pattern is lines of a shell (“conchas” in Spanish). Or let the topping create an interesting cracked design on its own.

Bake the pan dulce for about 15 minutes, until they are golden brown and their scent permeates the house.

Let them cool slightly and enjoy with hot chocolate.

Laura McCandlish is a Brunswick-based food writer and radio producer. Follow her on Twitter @baltimoregon and read her blog at

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