While mainstream America is doing its best to make Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a Mexican Halloween, it is not, and there are many essays, rants, posts and bitter tweets all over the internet that will set you straight once and for all. This, however, is not one of those posts. In our home we celebrate both: Halloween with bowls of sweets, cocktail face painting parties and costumes, and we observe Día de los Muertos with altar building, platters of sweet bread, champurrado, pan de muerto, marigolds and, yes, we still do the cocktail face-painting party.
Día de los Muertos is not something we “celebrate,” but it is a day to remember and honor the dead. In death, as in life, food nourishes our souls and feeds our memories. Halloween may have celebratory foods, like candy, candy, candy and that awful candy corn, Día de los Muertos also has celebratory foods, albeit a little more traditional like: champurado, pan dulce, tamales, mole, ponche, pan de muerto and more. The idea is to make the favorite food of a deceased love one. The aromas of the food and hot drink, along with strong incense and marigolds is meant to help the dead find their way home and nourish them in the afterlife.
One week before the end of October I will start baking my Pan de Muerto, or Day of the Dead Bread. It is a sweet eggy bread flavored with fragrant anise, orange zest, spicy cinnamon and is decorated with bone shaped pieces of dough and dusted with sugar. It’s perfect with hot chocolate, coffee or champurrado. And it is also my favorite bread, I don’t understand why we only eat it during this observance. I think I’ll start a campaign to extend the season of this bread, along with capirotada.
Pan de Muerto is not hard to make, but, like most yeast breads, it will take some time. My suggestion is to make a night of it; play some of your favorite music or watch the Friday the 13th marathon and make loaves all night. There is a lot of resting while making the dough so multitasking is allowed. This recipe yields five loaves, but you’ll want to bake more for gift giving because the living like it as much as the dead.
The orange glaze is optional, however it can make your bread damn sexy. After brushing on the glaze sprinkle the bread with sugar. The most common breads use simple white granulated sugar, but you can use turbinado sugar or even colored sanding sugars. You can even just leave the glaze. If you decide to take a shortcut, skip the glaze and simply brush with melted butter before sprinkling with sugar. Either way, it’ll be killer.
Pan de Muerto (Day of the Day Bread)
Yields 5 loaves
½ cup whole milk, lukewarm
½ cup water, lukewarm
2 packages active-dry yeast
5 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 stick of unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more to grease the bowl
½ cup white granulated sugar, plus about ½ cup more for dusting
4 large eggs
Zest of two medium oranges
2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed orange juice
1 tablespoon whole anise seed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Orange glaze (optional)
½ cup white granulated sugar (vanilla sugar is great here)
Zest of 1 medium orange
1/3 cup freshly-squeezed orange juice
1. Make your starter: in a medium glass bowl, combine the lukewarm milk, water and packets of active-dry yeast. Allow it to activate in a warm spot in your kitchen for about 5 minutes.
2. Whisk in ½ cup of flour. Allow this to rest further until it doubles in size, about 25 minutes.
3. In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, on low speed, cream the butter and ½ cup sugar until fluffy.
4. Beat in one egg at a time until fully incorporated. Once fully mixed, change out the attachment for the dough hook and add your starter (milk, water and yeast mixture) and continue to mix on low speed until fully mixed, about 2-3 minutes.
5. Begin adding the flour incrementally, about ½ cup at a time, and mixing on low speed, and scraping down the sides as needed. (You may not use all of the flour, you’re just adding it in piece by piece until it pulls away from the sides and forms a dough. It may still be a little tacky.) This process takes about 5-7 minutes. Remember, you’re also kneading the dough.
6. Mix in the zest, orange juice, anise seed and salt. Continue to mix with the dough hook for about 7-10 minutes, or until the dough is less tacky and comes off the sides of the bowl easily.
7. Grease a large mixing bowl and place the dough in the bowl. Greasing the bowl will prevent it from sticking. Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel and allow it to double in size. Place the bowl in a warm place in your kitchen. Rising will take 2 – 2 ½ hours.
8. Punch it down in the bowl and flip it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes, until the dough comes together. (Here you can add tiny bits of flour if your dough is still too tacky. Simple knead the dough with flour to easily incorporate.)
9. Divide the dough into 6 equal pieces. This recipe makes 5 breads, the 6th piece will be used to make the decorations.
10. Roll 5 of the dough pieces in to balls. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and allow to rise in a warm spot until they about double in size, about 45-60 minutes.
11. For the 6th ball of dough, you will need to divide it onto 15 pieces. Roll 10 of those pieces into long finger-like pieces to place over the bread. Roll the remaining 5 pieces into little balls. Also cover these with a clean kitchen towel but place these in the refrigerator to slow down the rising.
12. Preheat your oven to 350°
13. Prepare your baking sheets by lining them with parchment paper and lightly spraying them with baking non-stick spray. Gently place the 5 loaves on to the baking sheets. Place 2 long finger like strips over the bread, like an “X” shape. Place the little balls in the center, applying gentle pressure to secure it. (If your bread decorations are not sticking, simply brush the bottoms of the decorations with some water, but be careful not to use too much.)
14. Bake until golden brown and they sound hallow when thumped, about 25-30 minutes. (Cover with foil if they begin to get too brown.)
15. Meanwhile make your glaze by combining the ingredients in a small sauce pot. Cook it over medium heat just until the sugar has fully dissolved. Remove from the heat.
16. Brush the orange glaze on the pan de muerto and sprinkle with sugar before enjoying.