I first heard about Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Spanish 3 Honors class with Mr. Leehan – oh Mr. Leehan – one of the nicest men you’ll ever meet but he had a penchant for wearing the same shirt EVERY DAY to class.
November 1st and 2nd are the dates for Dia de Los Muertos, and as the name suggests, it is a day to celebrate family, friends and loved ones who have died. This is a big holiday in Mexico, and usual activities include building altars and offering the favorite food and drink of the deceased. Aside from altars, toys and an abundance of skulls, a requisite for this holiday is a dish known as Pan de Muerto or “bread of the dead.”
For my final exam in Spanish class, I had to bake a Pan de Muerto from scratch and then present my recipe and dish to the class. I love to eat, and I am an avid cook, but I am no baker. I think it is because I cook through intuition and taste. I do not measure, I taste and add ingredients as I go, pairing ones that seem to mesh well together. I’ve learned through many failed attempts that you cannot have such an approach with baking. Those precise measurements actually mean something! Having to bake pan de muerto for a grade (I got an A by the way) made me appreciate just how tough it is to get the right consistency in one’s bread. I had to wait for the yeast to rise (an aggravating process if you ask me) and by the end of it, my bread was more similar to a cake with a sticky orange glaze on top.
In honor of this holiday and my lack of baking skills I am leaving out the recipe I used and bringing in one from the experts at Chow.
- Combine sugar, salt, anise seed, and yeast in a small mixing bowl. Heat milk, water, and butter in a small saucepan over medium heat until butter is just melted; do not allow it to boil. Add milk mixture to dry mixture and beat well with a wire whisk.
- Stir in eggs and 1 1/2 cups of the flour and beat well. Add remaining flour, little by little, stirring well with a wooden spoon until dough comes together.
- Turn dough out onto a lightly floured wooden board and knead until it is smooth and elastic, and no longer sticky, about 9 to 10 minute . Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a clean kitchen towel, and allow it to rise in a warm area until it has doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
- Heat the oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Punch down dough and divide into 2 pieces. Cut 3 small (about 1-ounce) balls from each half and mold them into skull-and-bones shapes. Shape large balls of dough into round loaf shapes, and place skull-and-bones on top. Place breads on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and let rise another hour.
- Brush loaves with egg yolk mixture and bake. Halfway through baking, about 20 minutes, remove loaves from oven and brush again with egg wash and sprinkle lightly with granulated sugar. Return to oven and bake until loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped, about another 20 minutes.
Note – this recipe will take you 3.5 to 4 hours so plan ahead if you want to attempt it.