Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. -Mark Twain

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pan de Muertos: Bread for Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead celebrations (Dia de los Muertos) in Mexico have only a nodding acquaintance with Halloween, though both celebrate the same event and both involve food. Dia de los Muertos takes place over two days, November 1 (All Souls Day) and November 2 (All Saints Day), and though the symbolism used for the celebrations may seem macabre to some of Mexico's northern neighbors, in reality it is far from a maudlin time.

Families spend a lot of time, energy, and money preparing for these two days.
Besides gussying up the graves of the dearly departed, they prepare fanciful altars to the dead in their homes, decorated with marigolds, incense and candles and mementos. Elaborate parties are held both in homes and at cemeteries, with upbeat music, singing and laughter filling the air. The belief that drives these celebrations is that Heaven opens up October 31st and allows the souls of children to reunite with their families for one day, November 1st (known as the Day of the Little Angels- Dia de los Angelitos). On November 2nd the souls of adults are allowed the same privilege. Gifts are brought to the cemeteries at night (small toys for children, tequila for adults), along with the favorite foods of the dearly deceased.

There is a lot of variation in the celebrations, each family having its own traditions and foods. Some families enjoy food right from the altar/shrine at the house, some eat at the cemetery, some do both. Some families wait until after the holiday to eat the food, and some families do not eat the food that was left out for the dead at all as a sign of respect.

But there are several items that are pretty nearly universal, showing up in some form or other at every home and every gravesite. Little highly decorated skulls made of sugar are favorites with children, who eat them with gusto. Dancing skeletons are everywhere, represented in art, toys, you name it. Among the foods that are most commonly served are tamales, mole, atole and pan de muertos, a sweet bread made in an endless variety of shapes and sizes that is unique to this celebration. There are many different recipes for this bread among Mexicans; they can be decorated with colored sugar, sesame seeds, frosting and other decorations, and most have a crossbones decoration on the top.

What I'm offering you today is a recipe for a traditional pan de muerto, sprinkled with sugar-- with a modern touch provided by the use of a bread machine. This recipe comes from Zarela Martinez, and I've used it many times. Do visit Zarela's website for more great recipes!

Pan de Muerto Tradicional
Makes 2 loaves

  • 1 1/4 pounds white flour
  • 1/2 oz yeast
  • 4 oz sugar
  • 4 oz lard (or you can use canned shortning like Crisco)
  • 3 whole large eggs
  • 7 egg yolks
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 Tbsp orange blossom water
  • 3 Tbsp strong anise tea
  • 1 Tbsp grated orange rind

Set your bread machine to the dough cycle and put in 3 whole eggs and 7 egg yolks.

Make the anise tea. Put 3 Tbsp of anise seeds in 6 Tbsp of water and microwave for 30 seconds. If the seeds soak up all the water, add 3 more Tbsp of water and microwave for another 30 seconds.

Add all the ingredients to the bread machine. Mix according to machine instructions. (A good, sturdy stand mixer with a bread hook attachment will work just as well.)

Take the dough out of the machine and nip off approximately 1/8th and set aside. Shape the larger amount of dough into two flattened rounds and place on a greased baking sheet.

Using the set-aside dough, shape two long 'femurs' and two small knobs. Arrange the 'femurs' in the shape of an 'X' and place the two small knobs in the center of each loaf. Use beaten egg yolk to glue the bones and knobs to the loaves. Allow to rise for two hours in a warm place.

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Bake the loaves for 30 minutes or until light golden brown. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with sugar if desired, and allow to cool on metal racks.

This is a wonderfully light, aromatic and flavorful bread. In most houses, it is not eaten until it is taken from the altar to the cemeteries, but it does go stale quickly. At my house, since we don't actually celebrate the Day of the Dead as Mexicans do, it is usually consumed as soon as it's cool enough to tear chunks from, slathered in butter. Any leftovers make a wonderful bread pudding!

Image courtesy of eHow

Buen provecho!

If you have a favorite recipe for a Mexican or Mexican-inspired dish, I'd love to add it to our recipe box! email (and put "recipe" in the subject box so I'll know what it's about)