Pan de muerto is a sweet bread prepared for the Day of the Dead celebration on the 1st and 2nd of November. The bread is used as part of the altars or ofrendas that are made to honor the lives of the dead and is also eaten in the days on and around the celebration. Depending on the region or state in México, there are tons of variations of this traditional ceremonial bread.
This recipe was taught to me by my friend Jesús who I met recently in a course I took about the culture and history of Mexican cuisine. Jesús is a chef and baker and is currently one of the organizers of a culinary festival in the Estado de México that will take place in Tepotzotlán, Estado de México during the month of November (See below for more information).
This particular version of pan de muerto is from the central region of Mexico. It has a rounded form, with decorative strips of dough layered on top to represent bones. The bread is flavored with orange zest, orange blossom water and topped with butter and sugar.
In less than a week I have now made this recipe 4 times and given samples to all of my neighbors as well as the mechanics that work below my apartment. This was a slightly intimidating endeavor for me because I don’t bake very much, and my oven is a little temperamental. That being said, I think that the recipe has come out really well even though my bread doesn’t look nearly as pretty as Jesús’.
- 20 grams of fresh yeast or 12 grams of dry yeast
- ¼ cup of flour
- A pinch of sugar
- ½ cup of lukewarm water
- 4 ¼ cups of flour
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup of sugar
- ½ teaspoon of orange blossom water
- Zest of 1 orange
- Pinch of salt
- 2 sticks of unsalted butter (180 grams) at room temperature
- 4 tablespoons of unsalted melted butter
Mix the yeast, flour, sugar and water in a bowl breaking up the lumps by gently stirring. Let sit for about 20 minutes or until doubled in size.
Put the flour in a large bowl. Make a well in the middle of the flour and fill it with the eggs, half the sugar, half the butter, orange zest, orange blossom water and a pinch of salt. Begin by mixing the wet ingredients with one hand while sustaining the bowl with the other. As the wet ingredients start to blend together, you can begin to pull in more flour from the edges of the bowl until all the ingredients are mixed together well. Add the rest of the butter and sugar, mixing by hand, and then incorporate the yeast.
Continue kneading the dough in the bowl. When it has become less sticky you can start kneading it on a table or large cutting board. At this point the dough will still be somewhat sticky. Jesús recommends kneading with one hand and using the other to scrape up the bits that stick to the table with a plastic spatula. Knead the dough for about ten minutes more.
Jesus says that you know the dough is ready when it has reached a “punto de calzón.” Literally translated this means underwear point which sounds ridiculous in English, but what it means is that if you grab a small ball of dough and stretch it out, you should be able to stretch it to a very thin width without any holes (See photo).
Butter a large bowl, put the dough inside, cover with a cloth towel and let sit in a warm place for between an hour and two hours or until the dough has doubled in size.
When the dough has risen, divide into 4 parts. Set aside about a fifth of each ball of dough for decoration.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
You will need either two baking sheets or you will have to bake two rounds of bread.
Place two of the balls of dough on a buttered and floured baking sheet. With your fingertips press down the edges to spread out the balls of dough. Now take the dough reserved for decoration, add a little flour to make it drier and roll out into long strips. Divide into 5 parts – four strips for the bones and another for the ball that goes in the middle on top. With your pointer, middle and index fingers slightly opened, roll the strips back and forth forming the doughy decorative ropes (yes: doughy decorative ropes) used to represent bones. Using a little bit of water with your finger, trace the lines along which you’ll then place the four strips on the balls of dough as seen in the photos, adding the final ball to the middle. This will make the dough sticky so the strips will then adhere well and the decorations won’t melt into the base of the bread.
In my oven, which doesn’t work that well, it takes about 40 to 45 minutes to bake to a golden brown, but from what I’ve seen from other recipes it can take about 20 minutes. So you’ll have to experiment with the time because maybe you have a properly functioning oven and are not at an altitude of 7,000 ft like I am in México City.
When fully baked and beautifully browned, brush on the butter and sprinkle with sugar.