Bread for Day of the Dead

Pan de Muertos

The Day of the Dead, particularly in the more indigenous communities of Mexico, is one of the most important and joyful holidays of the year, and is still celebrated much the way that it was centuries ago with the Spanish Catholic influence joining the ancient customs in reuniting the living with the dead. The souls of dead children, the angelitos arrive at mid-day on Oct. 31, and still into All Saints Day on Nov. 1. Later this day, the adult spirits return for a 24-hour visit through Day of the Dead, Nov. 2.

Over the years, I have attended these ceremonies in the homes and cemeteries of Oaxaca, Michoacán, Puebla, Veracruz and Tlaxcala, and while they all differ, there is the commonality of the traditional ofrenda (offering).

In the homes an altar is created with photos of the departed prominently displayed among lighted candles. These alters are laden with the favorite food and drink of the expected visiting spirits, and flowers, especially the strong smelling vivid cempasuchil (a type of marigold), as the aroma is thought to lead the dead back to their place among family and friends. In many communities, a pathway from the street to the home is marked by petals from this flower, aroma, being to the spirits what taste is to the living. Many also have told me that the dishes of food on the altar are lighter than when originally placed there, as the dead feast on the spirit of the food.

Pan De Muertos

Festive loaves of sweetened egg bread play an important role in the observances and are always included in the offerings to the departed. Often they are round with “bones” formed from dough on the top and a round top knot for a skull, or the whole bread made in the shape of a skeleton, or sometimes small painted porcelain heads are impaled in the bread. Definitely a soul-satisfying treat.

Recently, in our home in Gig Harbor, we prepared a similar altar, displaying photos of my husband’s younger brother who died last year, and our oldest son. Since there is not room to set out all their favorite foods, we just added what they liked to drink and the pan de muertes.

This recipe is adapted from recipes from my Cocina de la Familia and Mexico the Beautiful, cookbooks, along with some additional ideas I have learned from other Mexican cooks. Traditionally served with frothy bowls of hot chocolate for dunking the bread.

Makes 1 large round loaf, about 1 foot across, or 2 smaller 6-inch ones, serving 8-10

  • ¾ cup unsalted butter
  • 2 teaspoons aniseed
  • 1 ½ tablespoons dry yeast (1/2 ounce) or 2 packets
  • 4 level cups of unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 6 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
  • 1 teaspoon orange-flower water (optional), or 1 tablespoon finely grated, well-scrubbed orange peel

For the topping

  • egg wash (1 egg lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon water)
  • ¼ cup unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
  • 1/4 cup sugar

Melt the butter over low heat and cool.

Pour 1/3 cup of boiling water over the aniseed and steep until cool, about 15 minutes. Strain the aniseed and the cooled flavored water into a bowl. Dissolve the yeast in ¼ cup lukewarm water, stir in 1/3 cup of the flour and let rise until the mixture doubles in volume, about 30 minutes.

Place the remaining 3 ¾ cups flour in a large bowl mixing in the salt, sugar and nutmeg. Make a well in the center and gradually beat in the eggs, butter and orange-flower water or grated orange zest (It is easiest to use a standing electric mixer with a dough hook), and continue beating for about 5 minutes until the dough become elastic and shiny, but still sticky. Add the yeast mixture, combining it with the dough. Remove from the bowl and knead on a floured board for 15 minutes or until the dough no longer sticks to the surface, sprinkling on any needed flour if too sticky.

Place the dough in a buttered bowl, turn it around so all sides are coated. Cover with a piece of oil-coated plastic wrap or a tightly woven damp towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free area for 2 hours or until doubled in volume. It can be set aside to rise overnight in the refrigerator and brought to room temperature before proceeding.

If making two smaller loaves, just divide the dough in half, with the “skull and bones” also halved. Cut off about one-third of the dough and form into four 2-inch balls. Roll one into a smooth ball and stretch the others into round strips, about 8 inches long. Mold pieces of the rope to resemble little bones by pushing down in three places, making a knob at each end and two in the middle to resemble a bone. Set aside on an oiled or parchment-lined baking sheet.

Shape the remaining dough into a round loaf and put on another oiled or parchment-lined baking sheet. Cover all the dough with oil-coated plastic wrap and let rise for about an hour.

After the shaped dough has risen again, gently place the 3 “bones” diagonally in a spoke-like pattern. Put the rough ball in the center, as a “skull,” and carefully push in two holes for eye sockets.

Preheat the oven to 450F. Bake for 15-20 minutes in the upper part of the oven until toasty brown, lower the temperature to 250F and continue baking for another 10 minutes.

Brush with melted butter, sprinkle with sugar, and set aside to cool, then transfer to a round serving plate.

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