In Mexican culture, Pan de Muerto is literally food for the souls…bread for the dead
Dia de los Muertos is such a special Hispanic holiday in my Mexican culture. It’s a time when the living and the dead celebrate together. It’s about the continuity of life and death. The holiday seems to have largely originated in Mexico and is now celebrated all over Latin America with religious ceremonies, marigolds, colorful sugar covered calaveras (candy skulls) and altars (ofrendas). Mexicans view it as a time to connect with family across generations. Because food is such a huge part of my Mexican culture, I’m excited to try my hand at one of Mexico’s most well known culinary traditions for the holiday, Pan de Muerto. It’s a pan dulce found in Mexico and is traditionally eaten during this celebration of remembrance. The bread is typically available from panaderias during the autumn weeks surrounding the holiday which is observed from Nov. 1 to Nov. 2nd. Families will make their ofrendas, and give this bread as an offering to those who have left this world. The belief is that it will nourish the spirits and souls of loved ones as they journey to the land of the living and back to the spiritual world. It’s also a time for families to visit cemeteries to honor and welcome the souls of their deceased loved ones for a brief reunion and celebration. I remember visiting cemeteries as a young girl and pulling weeds, cutting back grass and leaving fresh flowers at some of my ancestor’s headstones. Some of my family’s older gravesites in southern Texas were from ages ago and the family members at that time had no spare money to purchase or make a headstone. We only knew that family members were buried there through stories passed down that this plot was were “so and so” was buried.
Now, back to the traditional bread. It’s a a sweet and buttery bread, a lot like a brioche. Traditionally lard would have been used instead of butter for the recipe. The bread has hints of orange blossom and anise flavors which is what I think makes it so delectable! It’s something that we typically would purchase from a panaderia, but today I’m going to attempt to make my version.
Although it is truly a simple recipe with very few ingredients, the downside is, it takes A LOT of time. If you want to have it ready for this Hispanic holiday, you will most definitely want to get started on it a few days in advance of the holiday. The starter and dough literally need to rise four times, and one of them is overnight in the fridge. This will be a 2 day baking project! As I was making the recipe, my husband joked that the dough literally needs to rise from the dead 4 times. If I make it just right, I know it’s going have a delectable soft center with a buttery crust and neither of us (nor the dead) will mind how long it took to make!
Here are the ingredients and steps to make your Day of the Dead bread.
- 1/2 cup lukewarm whole milk
- 2 packages active dry yeast (1/4 ounce each)
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour plus 3 1/2 cups for later on
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter at room temp (plus a little extra to coat a mixing bowl)
- 2 tablespoons butter for melting and brushing on top of the bread
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar (1/2 cup additional for sprinkling on the bread. You can use colored sugar for this)
- 6 large eggs at room temperature
- 2 tablespoons orange blossom water (You can use plain water as well)
- 1 teaspoon anise seeds (optional)
- Pinch kosher or coarse sea salt
The first step is to make the starter to make the dough rise (the first rise):
In a small bowl, pour in the lukewarm milk. Slowly stir in the dry yeast packets. It’s very important that the milk is lukewarm so that the yeast will react. Let the mixture sit for a couple of minutes and then start to stir with a spatula until it’s evenly dissolved. Be patient and let the yeast sit in the milk, stirring it and pressing the yeast granules to mix it well.
Once it has dissolved, add in 1/2 cup flour. until it has no lumps. This final mixture will be very sticky. Cover it with a dishcloth and let it sit in a warm area of the kitchen for 20 to 30 minutes. My secret is to turn on my gas stove to the lowest baking temperature and put the mixing bowl on the top of the range to absorb all the heat. The starter will double or triple in size and have small little bubbles on top when it’s ready.
Next, we’ll make the dough:
In a large mixing bowl, set a mixer to medium/low speed and beat the 1/4 stick of room temperature, softened butter. Add the 1/2 cup sugar and beat until well combined. Add the eggs one at a time. Now start to add the flour 1/2 cup at a time until a full 3 1/2 cups has been blended in. The dough will become very heavy and sticky so make sure the speed stays at low.
Now for a little flavor!
Add the orange blossom water and the anise seeds. These are not necessary. You can just use regular water and omit the seeds. The dough is going to be very sticky at this point. Continue beating for another 5 to 7 minutes until most of the dough isn’t clinging to the bowl and it can hold itself together.
The 2nd rise:
Butter a large mixing bowl and place the dough into it. This dough will double or triple in size so make sure you use a large bowl. Once again, you want to cover the bowl with a dishcloth and put it somewhere very warm in your kitchen. You can use the same trick here of letting it set on top of a stovetop to absorb residual heat from the oven. Sometimes a warm windowsill or the top of a running refrigerator are also good spots. Now is the time to again be patient. The dough will need to be left to rest for 2 to 3 hours to puff up.
The 3rd rise:
When the time is up, the dough will have at least tripled in volume. Punch a fist into the dough and turn it over. Cover it with plastic wrap and let it sit in your refrigerator overnight for its 3rd rise.
We’re ready to remove the plastic wrap from the bowl and cover the bowl with a dishcloth to come to room temperature. Once ready, separate 1/3 of the dough and set aside to make the decorations You’ll make a 1 1/2″ to 2″ ball and the rest you can roll into 2 ropes or bone shapes. As the dough will still be very sticky, don’t worry about the shapes being so perfect.
Butter a baking sheet or pizza stone and shape the rest of the dough into a large ball. Place it in the center of your baking sheet and flatten it a little on top. Criss-cross the rope pieces across the flattened ball. If you have the patience, you can try to shape them to look like bones (as traditionally done in bakeries). The small ball can be placed right in the middle where the bones cross.
The 4th rise:
Time for some more patience. Cover your bread with a dishcloth and let it set for another 1 to 2 hours to rise again. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and bake for approximately 35 minutes.
The final steps:
Around halfway through the baking, you can cover the bread with foil to prevent it from becoming overly browned. Once ready, melt butter, brush it over the bread and sprinkle granulated sugar until the loaf is completely covered. I’m making mine a little colorful and festive with a rainbow of colored sugars.
Now the waiting is over! Make sure you enjoy a slice while it’s fresh out of the oven and is toasty and warm. It’s so good.
You can slice up your bread and enjoy it with a little Mexican hot cocoa. Enjoy the sweet taste and don’t mind the trail of sugar dust that you leave behind in your kitchen as it falls off while you eat it. That’s how you know it’s finished off properly.