By tomorrow Halloween will be but a pile of candy wrappers and a pumpkin rotting on the porch -- but the next holiday is right around the corner, and we're not talking about Thanksgiving.
Dia de los Meurtos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday celebrated on November 2. Despite the name, it has absolutely nothing to do with Halloween things or scary things and everything to do with life and love. The purpose of this holiday is to connect with loved ones and ancestors that have died - we all have them. The primary way people do this is through creating altars, upon which they place offerings, or ofrendas. No altar is complete without pan de muerto.
Now, you could go out and purchase a perfectly decent pan de muerto from Food City, but where's the fun in that? You're still alive, after all...
Despite being a first generation American -- my mother is from Mexico -- I don't have an old family recipe to turn to for pan de muerto, so I naturally turned to Pinterest. I was pleasantly surprised by the "pan de muerto" search results. After digging around I settled on a recipe that seemed the most simple and reliable... because this was my first attempt at making bread!
The recipe came from Serious Eats, which I've come to trust (a little too much, it turns out).
Here follows the gist of the experience:
Bread making is time consuming! Definitely plan ahead, some recipes require 12 hours or more rising time. The one I made took a total of about 5. If you want to get decent photos of the process start making your bread in the wee hours of the morning.
Trust yourself. "You have mad skills..." Tell yourself that over and over, because it's gonna look like a total disaster most of the time.
The dough will be mighty sticky. Is it supposed to be? I don't know. This is the point where I almost quit.
No matter what, just KEEP GOING. The dough is left to rise for several hours until it has doubled in volume. Magic!
At this point, you're almost done. Punch the dough down (it's a great feeling) and shape it. Try to make it nicer than mine. Then allow it to rise another hour. This is what it looks like after:
Finally and most importantly, be sure to choose a good recipe. The one I chose failed to describe when one is supposed to add the yeast. Even though I read the recipe several times through before I started, I too overlooked this critical step. I'm not used to making bread! Luckily I found a similar recipe on another site and was able to figure it out. Serious Eats is lucky they make people create an account before posting comments.
Now that you know what to expect, go for it! Invite your family and friends over and take the time to remember those that came before you.
Pan de Muerto adapted from Pan de Muerto by Serious Eats.
For the bread:
3 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast (from two 1/4 ounce packages) 5 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for counter 1/2 cup warm water (heated between 100-110 degrees) 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons orange blossom water finely grated zest of 1 orange 1/2 cup warm milk (heated between 100-110 degrees) 3 large eggs, lightly beaten 4 large egg yolks 4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened cooking spray or 1/4 cup vegetable oil
For the assembly:
1 egg yolk 2 teaspoons heavy cream (I used milk) 1/4 cup sugar
1. Adjust oven rack to lower middle position and heat oven to 200. As soon as oven reaches temperature, shut it off. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Combine yeast and 1 tablespoon flour in small bowl with warm water. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes.
3. Combine remaining flour, sugar, salt, orange blossom water, orange zest, and warm milk in bowl. Fit mixer with hook attachment and mix on medium speed until ingredients are combined, about 2 minutes (mixture will appear dry and crumbly). Add eggs and egg yolks and continue mixing until a smooth, shiny dough is formed, 8 to 10 minutes.
4. (Omitted from Serious Eats) Knead dough together with yeast mixture!
5. Add butter and mix until combined, 2 to 3 minutes. (I did step 4 and 5 with my hands)
6. Spray a large bowl with cooking spray or brush with oil. Transfer dough to bowl, lightly grease with additional cooking spray or oil and cover with a clean, damp kitchen towel. Let rise in (shut off) oven until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
7. Punch the dough down and transfer to a clean, dry work surface lightly dusted with flour.
8. Cut the dough in two, then, cut off 1/3 of each of the two and divide those pieces into 4 (these will be used to make the decorative top).
9. Shape the large pieces of the dough into large balls and place one on each of the prepared baking sheets.
10. Roll the rest out into 8-inch long cylinders.
11. Set the decorative dough pieces on the baking sheets. Lightly grease dough with cooking spray or oil and cover lightly with plastic wrap.
12. Allow dough to rise in (shut off) oven for 1 hour. To assemble:
13. Preheat oven to 350. Beat egg yolk and cream (or milk) in small bowl. Brush bread with egg wash then arrange decorative dough pieces and brush with egg wash again. Sprinkle with sugar.
14. Arrange both finished doughs on a parchment-lined baking sheets and bake until golden, 25-30 minutes.
15. Transfer to cooling rack and cool bread on sheet about 10 minutes. Transfer bread directly to cooling rack and cool completely, about 1 hour.