Dead Bread (Pan de Muerto)
It’s nearly Halloween in El Norte, which means it is nearly Dia de los Muertos in Old Mexico. There aren’t many similarities between Halloween and Day of the Dead–mostly because Halloween has been bludgeoned to death and has lost most of its original character in favor of fun size Snickers and sexy Little Bo Peep.
Day of the Dead remains more somber and less commercialized. This year, the extent to which my family celebrates it will be limited–mostly because my parents are freaked out by the idea of an altar and all their dead relatives got cremated and were given to the wind or the ocean–no tombs to clean here.
So, to keep my son in touch with Mexico while we are in California, he and I made Pan de Muerto. We used a Diana Kennedy recipe because she’s trustworthy and I’ve committed to making everything in this book of hers. This recipe is NOT a single rise and has no chemical leavening, so you will need time and I suggest you use an over whose hot spots and quirks you know.
- 1 lb AP flour (unbleached)
- 1/2 oz salt (1.25 tsp)
- 2 oz sugar (1/4 cup)
- 1.5 tbsp dry active yeast
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp water
- 3 large eggs, beaten
- Unsalted butter to grease bowl
- 1/2 lb sugar (1 cup)
- 7 oz softened unsalted butter (and a little more to grease your baking sheet(s)
- 1lb AP flour, (unbleached)
- 8 egg yolks, beaten with 2 tbsp water
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 tsp orange flower water (substitute grated rind of one orange)
- 4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
- 1/4 cup melted unsalted butter
- 1/3 cup sugar
- This is a multi-step bread, you will want to gather ingredients for your starter and the dough separately, keeping in mind that there is a 2 to 3 hour wait between them.
- Combine your dry ingredients (flour salt, sugar, and in this case, yeast). Lightly beat eggs and water in mixer bowl (or mixing bowl if combining by hand), add your dry ingredients on top of wet and knead to combine for about five minutes. You'll want a well-combined dough that is still very sticky and springy.
- Turn out starter onto a well-floured work surface and form into a round shape and then place in a greased (with butter) and floured bowl, cover with plastic wrap and a towel to rise to double its size. If you're in a cold place or have a drafty old house, you may need to seek out a warm nook for the rise. Yeast don't like to work when it's cold.
- Cut up your newly risen starter into about 16 pieces.
- Combine your starter dough, sugar and butter in a mixing bowl and beat in the flour and egg yolks slowly.
- Add your water and orange flower water.
- You are looking to make a dough that "just holds its shape" but isn't lumpy or too sticky. Add a bit of water or flour to get it workable.
- Put the new dough back in the bowl you used for the first rise.
- Cover it again.
- Let it rise to about double its size again
- Two rises into this process and now you get to build.
- Think long and hard. Do you want to make one or two of these. Two sounds reasonable. My four year old wanted to make one big one. Instructions follow for reasonable people.
- Grease up 4 baking sheets (2 for cooking, 2 for transfer).
- Divide dough in 2 equal sections, set aside half.
- On a well-floured board, remove one quarter of the dough and set aside.
- Take the other three quarters and roll it into a tight little ball. Tight, like a tiger.
- Take your dough ball and press it out into a disk (disc?) shape. It should be about 1 inch thick.
- To get the right shape upon the rise (yes there is another rise), press the outer inch of your disk to about half the size of the rest of the dough.
- Transfer to the baking sheet.
- The remaining 1/4 of your dough is for making three bones and a "skull".
- Separate the dough into four equal parts.
- Make a ball out of the first piece, set on the baking sheet.
- The remaining strips should be made into strips about the same length as the diameter of your disk (figure 8-10 inches).
- Set bones on the baking sheet along with the ball that will be the skull, cover with plastic wrap.
- Repeat with the other half of your dough.
- Wait. Again. For an hour. Seriously.
- Preheat your oven to 375F
- Time to build your dead bread.
- The goal here is to form skinny "bones" with knobby ends reminiscent of what you'd find on a skeleton. I suggest doing this without the help of a toddler.If you have trouble shaping the bones, a bit more flour in the dough can be helpful.
- Grab your bones and lay them across one another on top of the main dough, now risen.
- With the bones in place, you will place the final piece over the bones in the middle.
- Make two deep finger indentations in the ball to form eye sockets.
- Brush the whole bread with beaten egg yolks and bake.
- Cooking time will vary from 15-30 minutes for smaller breads. The bread is ready to remove from the oven when it is browned a bit past golden-brown-delicious.
- Remove from oven.
- Let sit for five to 10 minutes
- Brush with melted butter.
- Sprinkle with sugar.
- Allow to cool at least 1 hour before serving.
- If you find your bread to be darker in appearance than you find attractive, a nice smattering of powdered sugar will help tone things down.
That’s basically the stuff that you need. I don’t think you need a picture of yeast, and you definitely know how to separate eggs. This recipe has me tired out. I swear I’m going to turn the images that are sideways if they’re sideways.
Really though, you just need to form the starter, let it rise, and then make your first dough.
It will look something like this.
Just a note about the Orange Flower Water. In Mexico it is called Agua de Azahar and can be a little difficult to find in my experience. In the US you can find it at any well stocked beverage store like Total Wine or BevMo, where they keep the Angostura Bitters.
In addition to making the big dough ball, you need to set the skull and bones to rise, as well.
Once the final rise is finished. Thank God. Seriously, this recipe takes forever (forever ever, forever ever?)
Then build your dead bread.
Throw that jerk in the oven. The bread… not the kid.
As the bread rises, I suggest making some Mexican hot chocolate–not because it is traditional–because it is delicious.
Cool. That’s Pan de Muerto. Frankly, this came out a bit rustic looking for my tastes. You can throw a little more finesse at the build and get a prettier product. The texture and flavor of this bread has nice little notes of citrus from the Orange Flower water, and is more of a bread than the spongy knock-offs found in a lot of Mexican super grocery stores.
I’d love to see what you put together. Feel free to comment on your experience with this recipe!