Catholic Recipe: Bread of the Dead — Pan de Muertos
- 1 scant tablespoon or 1 (1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast
- 1/4 cup warm water (about 110°F)
- 1/2 cup milk
- 3 large eggs, beaten
- 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
- 2 teaspoons orange flower water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon anise seeds
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 4 to 4 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
Yield: 1 large loaf
Prep Time: 3-4 hours
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Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, Mexico's festive annual celebration of life —and death — takes place on November 2. The modern celebration, now an official Catholic holiday, owes its roots to the Aztecs, who devoted two full months of the year to honor the dead and assist departed souls to their final destination. During and after the Spanish conquest, the culture of the Aztecs became infused with the beliefs of the Catholic Church. Consequently, the Day of the Dead coincides with All Souls' Day, the day after All Saints' Day.
The Day of the Dead is a time of smiles, not tears. During the day, children dress in ghost and goblin costumes and parade gaily through the streets of towns and villages. Many special candies and foods are prepared for the day, such as skulls and skeletons made from marzipan, chocolate, or sugar. Bakers make sweet breads in the shape of bones, humans, flowers, and animals.
Along with formal religious ceremonies (three requiem masses), people attend more personal rituals with their families. In honor of the dead, families create brightly decorated shrines both in their homes and at cemeteries. The shrines or altars are covered with pictures, favorite items of the deceased, flowers, candies, mescal or tequila, and food, especially loaves of decorated bread.
The breads are placed on shrines and altars as offerings for the deceased and are given to visitors arriving for the celebration. Bread is sold in large quantities on the streets of towns and villages and shared with family and friends. So great is the demand for the Bread of the Dead that big-city bakers call on smalltown master bakers to meet the demand. Bread of the Dead is shaped into a wide variety of death-related shapes and figures but is most commonly decorated with dough in the shape of human bones.
The orange flower water used in this recipe is available in many large supermarkets and specialty food stores. It gives a subtle orange flavor. One teaspoon of finely grated orange zest can be substituted, but the bread will have a bolder taste.
By hand: In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast in the water to soften. Heat the milk to 110°F and add it to the yeast along with the eggs, butter, orange flower water. salt, anise seeds, sugar, and 2 cups of the flour. Beat vigorously for 2 minutes. Gradually add the remaining flour 1/4 cup at a time until the dough begins to pull away from the side of the bowl. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface. Knead, adding flour a little at a time. until the dough is smooth and elastic.
By mixer: In the mixer bowl, sprinkle the yeast in the water to soften. Heat the milk to 110°F and add it to the yeast along with the eggs, butter. orange flower water, salt, anise seeds, sugar, and 2 cups of the flour. Using the mixer paddle, beat on medium-low speed for 2 minutes. Gradually add the remaining flour 1/4 cup at a time until the dough begins to pull away from the side of the bowl. Change to the dough hook. Continue to add flour 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough just begins to clean the bowl. Knead 4 to 5 minutes on medium-low.
By Food Processor: In a large measuring cup or bowl. sprinkle the yeast in the water to soften. Heat the milk to 100°F and add it to the yeast along with the eggs, butter, and orange flower water. In a bowl, combine the salt, anise seeds, sugar, and 4 cups flour. Put the dry- ingredients in the bowl of the food processor fitted with the dough blade. Add the liquid ingredients and pulse 9 or 10 times until the ingredients begin to come together in a ball. Check the liquid-to-flour ratio. Once the dough begins to come together, process exactly 60 seconds.
By bread machine: Put the water, milk, eggs, butter, and orange flower water in the bread pan. Add the salt, anise seeds, sugar, and 4 cups flour to the bread pan, then sprinkle with the yeast. Select the Dough cycle and press Start. While the dough is mixing, check the liquid-to-flour ratio. The machine stops after the kneading cycle. You may let the dough rise in the bread machine or a bowl.
First Rise: Put the dough in an oiled bowl and turn to coat the entire ball of dough with oil. Cover with a tightly woven towel and let rise until doubled, about one hour.
Shape: Turn the dough out onto a lightly oiled work surface. Remove a tennis-ball-sized portion of dough and set aside. Shape the larger piece of dough into a smooth ball and place on a parchment-lined or well-seasoned baking sheet. Flatten the dough into a 1-inch-thick disk. Divide the remaining dough in half and roll each piece into an 8-inch rope. Lay the ropes on top of the loaf parallel to each other about 3 inches apart. With scissors or a knife, cut into the end of each rope about 3/4 inch and spread the ends apart slightly to resemble bones.
Second Rise: Cover with a tightly woven towel and let rise for 45 minutes.
Preheat Oven: About 10 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 375°F.
Prepare topping: Beat the egg and sugar until the sugar dissolves, then brush the mixture on the top and sides of the bread.
Bake and Cool: Bake for 30 minutes until the internal temperature of the bread reaches 190°F. Immediately remove the bread from the baking sheet and place on a rack to cool.
NOTE: This bread freezes nicely for up to 6 months. To serve, first thaw the bread, then reheat on a baking sheet or directly on the oven rack in a 375°F oven for 7 to 10 minutes.Recipe Source: Celebration Breads: Recipes, Tales, and Traditions by Betsy Oppenneer, Simon and Schuster, 2003
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