Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a Mexican holiday that occurs on the first two days of November, when it’s believed that the consciousness—the veil—that separates life and death becomes thinner, more transparent, making it is easier to connect with loved ones who have passed on.
On Dia de Los Muertos, you light candles, and display a picture of the loved one that has passed on, typically on a fireplace mantle or even a little altar in the home. Decorating the display with marigolds is also a big part of the tradition. The Nahuatl (Aztec) word for cempasuchitl means flower of death. Scary word for such a pretty flower!
Making Pan de Muerto, or “Day of the Dead Bread” is also part of the celebration. Pan de Muerto is a slightly sweetened, moist, fluffy bread with a light cinnamon-sugar topping. A design is usually put on the top to signify a skull and crossbones. Our local panderia (Mexican bakery) carries a ton of it, and this year I decided to make my own for the first time. I was intimidated at first, but actually it’s pretty easy.
Start with mixing a little butter, milk, and water together to warm till almost boiling (about 120 degrees).
Meanwhile in a big bowl, mix together the dried, active yeast, anise seed, salt, sugar, and a bit of flour. Then mix together.
Next, add eggs, one at a time. You can opt to add orange blossom water, and that’s exactly what I did next. After, I added in the flour a bit at a time. I add it in half-cup increments. It was super sticky, so sticky in fact, that I was afraid of kneading it on the counter (even though it was lightly floured). Instead, I just kneaded it in my hands for about 10 minutes. When I finished, I put it in a big eight-quart salad bowl to rise. The photo below shows a nice ball, because I rolled it a bit in the bowl that was lightly sprayed with cooking oil. It helped it stay together.
I covered lightly with a bit of clear plastic wrap, turned on the oven to 200 degrees for TWO MINUTES, then turned it off. I was only trying to get the oven warmed up slightly to help the yeast rise. Then I put the bowl in the oven for two hours with the light on to make it slightly warm inside. (You can put in between 1 and 1 1/2 hours, but I was sidetracked and couldn’t get to it in that time frame.)
Point is, the dough had completed it’s “first rise” and was nicely doubled.
The dough was ready to form into loaves and decorated. I punched it down and kneaded it a bit. Then, I separated a small ball of dough aside to use for making the “bones” and “skull” decoration for the top of the bread. I made enough for two loaves. Then, I shaped the two loaves and added the decorations.
My “skull and crossbones” look a bit more like spiders or octopi. Oh the irony! (Neither of those creatures have bones.)
Then I set it aside for an hour or so to rise again.
During this “second rise,” I made the orange glaze and set aside to cool. I also made the cinnamon-sugar topping.
About an hour later, I checked on the bread. It doubled in size, so I popped it in the over at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. I took it out and thumped it a bit. It sounded hollow and done, but I put it back in for five more minutes.
When I took it out, my entire kitchen smelled like freshly baked bread. You could also smell the citrus and the slightly licorice aroma from the anise. And that was without the topping!
While the bread was still warm, I glazed it.
And immediately added the cinnamon-sugar topping.
I then took a bunch of pictures, hastily, because I was eager for the taste test.
The girls and I enjoyed our slices while still warm, plain, but you can serve Pan de Muerto with hot chocolate, tea, or coffee. You can toast and butter it as well. The mild flavors of orange, anise, and cinnamon really make this a treat to enjoy. I was surprised that it was easy to make, so much so that I’m pretty sure I’ll make this again before next Dia de Los Muertos.
- ½ cup butter
- ½ cup milk (I used 1/%)
- ½ cup water
- 4½ cups all-purpose flour (maybe even a bit more)
- 2 (1/4 oz) packets of active-dry yeast (or about 4 heaped tsps)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp whole anise seed
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 4 eggs
- 2 tbsp orange blossom water
- *orange glaze*
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 2 tbsp grated orange zest (about one navel orange)
- ⅓ cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
- *cinnamon topping*
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- ¼ cup cinnamon
- Add butter, milk, and water in a saucepan over medium heat. Warm until very warm, but not boiling (approximately 120 degrees). It can't be too hot because you'll add egg later and don't want the heated liquid to cook the egg.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine ½ cup of flour, yeast, salt, anise seed, and sugar. Slowly beat in the warm milk mixture until well mixed. If too warm let cool slightly before adding eggs.
- Add eggs, one at a time, mixing through with a whisk.
- Add 2 tbsp of orange blossom water.
- Slowly add in another cup of flour, and mix with a spoon or spatula. Continue adding additional flour until the dough is soft. It will be sticky.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead for at least 10 minutes or until smooth and elastic. It will be really sticky. I just kneaded in my hands (no touching the counter top) because it was so sticky.
- FIRST RISE "The Starter"--Form the dough in a large ball. Lightly grease a large bowl and place the dough in it. Flip the dough in the bowl so that the top and bottom of the dough ball are lightly greased. The dough won't be as sticky at this point.
- Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk, approximately 1 to 1.5 hours. (An oven works well for this. Turn it on to 350 for a minute or two, just until it lightly warms the oven. You should still be able to comfortably touch the sides.)
- After the dough has risen in the oven, take it out and punch the dough down. Pinch off a small ball of dough (about the size of a lemon) to make "skull and crossbones." Then divide the original, larger dough into two loaves.
- Decorate the tops of the loaves with shapes you'll make out of the smaller dough ball. Roll out rectangular dough ropes for the "bones" and a flat circle shape for the "skull" and decorate the tops of your bread.
- SECOND RISE--Place these two loaves on a lightly greased cookie sheet or pizza stone, cover with a clean kitchen towel, and let rise again in the oven (do not turn on the oven) or countertop. Let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
- Take out when dough has risen, and set aside.
- While the bread is baking, make the orange glaze. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar, orange zest and orange juice. Bring to just a boil to completely dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat and let cool.
- Then, combine the sugar and the cinnamon in a small bowl and set aside.
- Turn on oven to 350 degrees. Bake bread for about 25-30 minutes (check often). If tops of bread are getting too brown, cover with parchment paper or foil.
- When the bread is done baking, test it by "thumping" it. If it makes a hollow sound, it is done. (Or, use a digital thermometer. The temperature should be about 200 to 210 degrees if done.)
- Remove from oven when done.
- While bread is still warm, brush the tops of the bread with the orange glaze and sprinkle liberally with the cinnamon-sugar mixture.