The skeletons that surround me make me smile. Some hold cigarettes, others pet dogs (in skeletal form, of course), and more daring ones balance baskets of flowers on their hard heads. It’s the Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, here in Mexico: a holiday officially celebrated October 31 through November 2 to commemorate the lives of everyone’s loved ones who have passed away. For these three days gravesides become picnic areas as entire families join to rejoice and remember their loved ones, making sure to offer them their favorite treats, graveside. But the festivities begin way before that… “Calacas”, or skeletons, adorn every street vendor’s sidewalk offering. Bright orange cempasuchil (Mexican marigolds) flowers, used by the Aztecs to mourn their dead, are the official floral offering for the dead and are mandatory at every corner florist, and then of course, there is Pan de Muerto, or Bread of the Dead.
This sweet concoction begins to appear in early October and is seen in all sizes with all sorts of fillings in ever pastry store in town. Circular in shape with extra dough used on top to resemble bones, it is finished off with a hearty coating of crunchy sugar. Inside, you will find a rich, buttery dough, very similar to challah bread.
Pan de Muerto takes center stage in the offerings on altars that families make for their dead (who doesn’t love sweet dough?) alongside those beautiful flowers, packs of cigarettes and bottles of tequila. If you are lucky, you will be treated to one filled with chocolate, or better yet, dulce de leche. That is, if the dead feel like sharing it with you.
Pan de Muerto
Pan de Muerto
1/2 cup butter
1 1/4 cup warm water
6 cups flour
2 packets dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons orange zest
3/4 cup sugar
4 large eggs
glaze (see below)
In a large bowl, mix together butter, sugar, salt and 1/2 cup of the flour.
In a separate bowl combine the eggs and the water. Add the egg/water mixture to the first mixture and add in another 1/2 cup of the flour. Add in the yeast and another 1/2 cup of flour. Continue to add the flour 1 cup at a time until a dough forms.
Knead on a floured surface for about 1 minute. Cover with a slightly damp dishcloth and let rise in a warm area for 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Bring out dough and punch it down. Remove about 1/4 of it and use it to make bone shapes to drape across the loaf. Let the shaped dough rise for 1 more hour.
Bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes for smaller loaves and up to 45 minutes for larger loaves.
Making the glaze:
Bring to a boil- 3/4 cup sugar and 1/2 cup fresh orange juice. Brush on bread and then sift some additional sugar over the top.