Hola! This weekend we celebrate a very special occasion: Día de Muertos! While I don't build one of those amazing and colorful altars here in my home, at least we do keep the tradition of eating pan de muerto between November 1st and 2nd (or both, or the whole month heh). I remember participating in altar building back in school, and I know a lot of mexican families build big ones or small ones in their houses, so I guess it depends on each family whether or not to do it; I guess we were more into the food than chopping up paper flags and buying flowers. What I remember fondly is how, at least in my experience, it was a very contrasting tradition that on one side involved the altars, calaveras, parties, colorful decorations and such, and on the other side you also have that family reunion to share pan de muerto and hot chocolate, where you fondly remember those who went away before us.
I think that was my favorite part, we used to have a small gathering in our home, sometimes just my parents and sisters, sometimes some uncles and cousins, and just tell stories (mostly funny stories) about our grandpas and laugh together while sharing the bread. We still celebrate Halloween, though, but that's a different party altogether, and I like both of them for different reasons. And I tend to "celebrate" Halloween on Día de Muertos because that's when the Halloween candy is on sale. And by celebrate I mean eat all the cheap candy by myself.
PAN DE MUERTO
makes 8 mini breads or 2 large breads
- 3 cups flour
- 1/2 cup sugar (you can use a bit less or a bit more depending on how sweet you like bread)
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 cup milk (or 1/4 milk, 1/4 water; any kind of milk)
- 6 tbsp butter (softened)
- 2 tsp (1 packet) active dry yeast
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 tsp orange zest
- 4 pods star anise
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1 tbsp orange juice
- Sugar to sprinkle on top
- In a cup, warm up the milk and add the anise stars, let them steep for about 10 minutes (like making tea). Strain when milk becomes aromatic. If you can't find anise or don't like it, you can skip it.
- If the anise milk is too cold, warm it up a bit until it reaches a temperature between 105 and 110°F (40 to 43°C), which is not boiling or scalding, just warm enough to dip a finger in and not burn yourself. Add the dry yeast and a tablespoon of the sugar, if it's alive and healthy it should foam up. Let it sit and rise for at least 5 minutes.
- In a large bowl (or on a clean surface) mix the flour, sugar and salt. Add the eggs and vanilla extract. Mix everything together, then add the softened butter and yeast mixture, start kneading to form the dough.
- When everything is incorporated but stull sticky, add the orange zest and keep kneading until the dough is elastic, a bit bouncy, shiny and doesn't stick to your hands. It should take about 20 minutes kneading by hand, with a mixer and hook attachment it should take around 10 minutes.
- Form a ball and let the dough rest in a bowl covered with a damp towel or plastic wrap until it doubles (or more) in size. Depending on the weather it should take from 40 minutes to 2 hours. The warmer the better, so if your house is too cold turn on the oven and let the dough rest on top (not inside!).
- Punch the dough to release some of the air and form a long cylinder. If you want 8 small breads, cut it in 9 pieces (3 if you want 2 loaves); save one piece for the "bones" and form balls with the rest.
- To form the "bones":
- Roll a dough cylinder with the extra piece and cut it into 9 pieces again, reserve one and the other 8 cut in halves. You'll have 16 small pieces and a larger piece.
- Form 8 small balls from the larger piece and put them aside.
- Roll cylinders from each of the 16 pieces, make them as long as you can. Then roll them with your fingers a bit separated to form small "bumps" along the cylinder, forming the "bone" shape.
8. Use a pastry brush and brush some water on the loaves, then adhere the "bones" in the form of a letter "x" and a small ball in the center.
9. Cover the loaves with a damp towel or plastic wrap and let it rest for at least 30 minutes or until they puff their volume.
10. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C) while the loaves rest.
11. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown on top.
12. While they cool down a bit, prepare the glaze by melting the butter and mixing in the orange juice. You can add a swirl of honey if you want some extra sweetness.
13. Use a pastry brush to coat the top of the breads with the glaze, then sprinkle some sugar.
This was my first time baking pan de muerto and it was a lot more easier than I thought, but as any bread that requires yeast to rise it takes some time. It is soft and a bit dense, because you must dip in a cup of hot chocolate before every bite and enjoy with your loved ones, dead and living alike. So don't forget to make a toast in honor of those that have left, sharing bread and good times in their memory so they can be a bit alive again, through us.