Every year, on november the second, in Mexico, we celebrate the “dia de muertos” (day of the death), which is a traditional celebration, with mesoamerican origins, that honors people that have passed away over time. The altar must be arranged in a specific way. One of the most important elements of the altar is, precisely, the “pan de muerto”.
Pan de muerto goes all the way back to prehispanic times. Back then you couldn´t call it that, since it wasn´t edible; it was made with ground toasted amaranth and dipped in human blood that came from sacrifices honoring Izcoxauhqui or Huehuetéotl gods. Then, when the spanish arrived, pan de muerto started to be done using wheat flour, then painted red and srpinkled with sugar; and this one was edible.
As time went by, pan de muerto has been modified until it is what we know now today, but it still holds the same ancient meaning; the little ball in the middle represents the skull, the four limbs are the bones of the body that point out the universe directions, and the orange blossom is meant to make us remember the dead.
I was a bit scared when we decided to make this bread, I found tons of recipes but none convinced us. I wanted this to be memorable, and I can assure you that this recipe is.
As I see it, the tipycall pan de muerto must have a strong orange flavor to it, so this was our main goal. If i´ve learned anything about bread is that almost all breads have a similar base of ingredients, so those small touches of flavor are, precisely, what make the difference; that and having good kneading skills or a good mixer.
As you will see in the recipe, kneading is key to acomplish that softness and fluffiness so particular to this bread.
For the dough:
- 1/4 C whole milk, lukewarm
- 1 C granulated sugar
- 2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast
- 3 3/4 C + 1 tbsp all purpose flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 whole eggs
- 3 egg yolks
- 90 gr unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 30 gr vegetable shortening, at room temperature
- 1/4 C natural orange juice (the juice of 1 orange)
- The zest of 2 oranges
- 1/4 tsp anise seeds
- 1/4 tsp orange blossom extract or orange blossom water
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
For the sugar coating:
- 45 gr melted butter
- 2 tbsp granulated sugar
- 2 tbsp natural orange juice (the juice of half an orange)
- Enough granulated sugar for coating
- In a small bowl, place the milk, a tablespoon of sugar (taken from the cup of sugar) a tablespoon of flour and the yeast. Stir a little and let it sit for the yeast to activate.
- On the working surface place the rest of the flour, the rest of the sugar and the salt and mix.
- Make a hole in the middle of this flour and add in there the eggs, the yolks, the butter and the shortening. Mix by hand working from the inside out, to start forming a dough.
- Add in the orange zest and juice, the anise seeds, the orange blossom extract and the vanilla extract. Knead for 5 min, until you get a soft dough.
- Strech a little the dough and put in the inside of it the yeast mixture. Fold the sides to the center so that the yeast mixture stays in there.
- Start kneading again, this time for 20 minutes. The dough will feel sticky but it´s important not to add more flour and to knead by hitting it against the working surface and using a kitchen cornet to help the dough not stick to the table. (All of this kneading process can also be done using a doguh hook in a standing mixer).
- Grease the dough with a little vegetable oil, place it in a bowl and cover it with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel. Let it rise in a warm spot for about 2 hours until it doubles its size.
- Then, place it on the working surface, cut a quarter of it and set aside (this will be shaped to be the skull and limbs).
- Divide the rest of the dough into 8 or 9 pieces, and make balls with each. Place them in a previously greased baking sheet.
- Take the quarter of dough we had set aside and cut a piece of it, this will do for the skulls. Cut the rest of the dough into 16 or 18 small pieces to make the bony limbs (each bread needs two limbs). Make dough strings with each piece and then using your fingers press while rolling the dough in such a way that the dough string remains thicker between the fingers.
- Place two of these resulting bony dough strings on each dough ball. Then, with the dough we had set aside for the skulls, make small balls, one for each bread, and place them in top of each one.
- Now cover all of them with plastic wrap and let them rest for 2 hours until they rise and double their size again.
- Preheat the oven at 350° F, and then bake them for 20 minutes exactly.
- As they´re baking, for the coating, melt the butter and set aside.
- Put the sugar and orange juice together in a pan and cook at medium heat for about 2 min. until the sugar dissolves completely and we end up with a sort of light syrup.
- Once the bread is baked, take the sheets out of the oven and let them cool for 5 min. Then, using a kitchen silicone brush spread some butter and then syrup on each and rapidly coat them with sugar.