Día de Muertos, a trip back to the past and pan de muerto
Since pre-Hispanic times, festivities related to the dead are rooted in Mexican culture, involving different types of rituals that have been incorporated in contemporary Mexico.
Like in many other cultures, Mexican culture takes a time during the year to remember their dead. Many people place altars in their homes with candles, flowers, pictures and the favorite foods and items of their dear ones who have passed away, believing that on October 31–November 2, the spirits of their dear ones come back to enjoy them.
Something unique to Mexican culture is the use of sense of humor in all facets of life. By nature, we laugh to make life less tragic. We make jokes about life: the good, the bad, the ugly, and even the dead. Many make “calaveritas,” a form of poetry with sarcasm and satire, about death and life as a way to express their feelings in a funny and creative way.
During the fall season the smell and vibrant colors of “cempasuchil flowers” (a type of marigolds) fill the cemeteries all over the country. In the past, indigenous tribes believed that the vivid orange and yellow colors of the flowers resembled the brightness of the sun illuminating the journey of the dead.
Though, for personal beliefs, I do not participate of the celebrations to the dead, I have a profound respect for my culture, my people, and appreciate the different expressions of art and folklore.
And one thing that I absolutely love about this season is Pan de Muerto (the bread of the dead).
Pan de Muerto, is a soft, sweet, citric, extremely aromatic bread that - of course - goes well with any hot drink. It gets its name from its round shape that resembles a skull and bones on top. There are other versions depending on the region of the country, but that is the most common.
If I could eat it all year ‘round, I would! This is one of my favorites and I wanted to share my recipe with all of you!
Pan de muerto (Bread of the dead)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup bread flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup of warm milk
2 1/3 teaspoons of dry yeast (10 1/2 - 11 gr.)
3 large eggs + 3 egg yolks
10 teaspoons of cold butter cut in pieces about 1/2 inch (150 gr)
zest of 2 oranges
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoon orange blossom water
1. In a medium bowl: Add yeast, about 4 tsps of your all-purpose flour, and 1 tsp of sugar. Mix with a fork and add your warmed milk. It should be around 110°F (43°C). Try not to warm it too much; you don’t want to kill the yeast because it is too hot.
2. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest in a place with circulating air (I recommend using an oven – not turned on) for about 30 minutes.
With mixer: Using the hook attachment, add the fermented yeast and turn on low-medium speed. Follow step 3.
Without blender: Make a volcano with the flour and add the ingredients to the center (in the order indicated in step 3).
3. Add the eggs, one by one, alternating with a cup of flour, giving space and time for everything to blend together.
4. When everything looks blended (it will look very sticky no worries), add the butter one piece at the time, giving time to blend well.
5. Once it has absorbed all the butter, add the orange zest and the orange blossom water. Using blender: Let it mix for about 25 minutes at the same speed, or until the dough no longer sticks to the walls of the bowl.
By hand: It will take about 35 minutes of constant kneading. It is ready when it no longer sticks to your hands.
6. Oil a large bowl and place the dough inside. Cover with plastic wrap and place the bowl in a warm spot with no circulating air and let it rest for about 1 hour. (Depending on your location, it may take longer or shorter to rise about twice its original size).
7. Once the dough has risen, sprinkle some flour on a clean, smooth surface and place your dough on the surface and knead a little bit. Make a uniformed rectangle shape and divide into 7 equal portions.
8. Shape 6 of the portions into round loaves. Place on greased baking sheets (or with parchment paper).
9. With the 7th portion of dough, make 6 small balls and 12 strips (2 for each bread). To stick the shapes to the dough, brush, with water, the areas on each loaf where the decorations will be attached – in the shape of an X, with the ball on top. Use dabs of water to stick the pieces onto bread dough.
10. Cover all the breads with a towel and keep the trays in a warm unventilated place. Let rest for about 1 hour, or until they double in size.
11. Preheat your oven to 350°F (About 176°C). Bake between 15-20 minutes or when a toothpick comes out clean.
If your bread is browning too early - before it bakes completely - quickly cover with aluminum foil.
12. Take them out of the oven and let them cool down.
13. Before your loaves cool down completely, Melt about 1 teaspoon of butter and brush loaves with the butter and sprinkle with a generous amount of sugar.