Día de los Muertos is my favorite holiday in Mexico City. I love the orange cempasúchitl flowers that suddenly pop up in the street medians and parks, and the altars sprinkled with flower petals and candles. I love watching the seasonal fall foods finally arrive in the markets: pan de muerto, calabaza en tacha, tejocotes.
Sadly, the Día de los Muertos season pretty much passed me by this year. I was traveling in the States through most of October, and then I got home and promptly caught a head cold. I was too sick to visit the Sugar Skull Market in Toluca like I did last year, or wander around checking out ofrendas.
One thing I could do, though, was make my own pan de muerto. Last year I took a class on how to make the round, orange-flavored loaves, so I was already familiar with what the dough contained — basically flour and a lot of butter — and how to form the ropes on top to make “bones.” The bread has a delicate orange taste, which comes from a few spoonfuls of orange blossom water, known in Spanish as agua de azahar.
I wanted to use Fany Gerson’s Pan de Muerto recipe from My Sweet Mexico. But I had to tweak a few things, because I was too tired and/or I didn’t have enough time to seek out the proper ingredients. Watered-down orange blossom essence became my substitute for agua de azahar, because it was all I could find. I dipped into my abundance of mascabado — unrefined cane sugar — and used that instead of regular white sugar, even though it made the dough less sweet.
Once I started baking, more issues popped up. My yeast starter, made from instant yeast and not active-dry as the recipe had stated, didn’t bubble, sending me into a panic. I couldn’t tell if my dough was too sticky, or not sticky enough. The dough also rose sloooowly: three hours during the first rising, and a whopping five after the dough chilled in the fridge overnight. (Note to Future Lesley: Do not place buttery dough in an heated oven to speed things up, as it’ll turn it into a greasy, sloppy mess.)
While my loaves baked, I discovered my oven temperature was whacked-out. My first batch looked pretty and golden-brown. When I sliced into it, the insides were still doughy and chewy.
So yeah. What I’m trying to say here is that both of my pan de muertos turned out kind of flat and homely.
I didn’t care too much in the end. The bread was the centerpiece of my Día de los Muertos celebration this year, and I was going to enjoy it. I sprinkled one loaf with sugar and the other without, as an experiment. I actually liked the un-sugared one better — it was lightly sweet and perfect with a cup of hot chocolate. Crayton and I each had a wedge for dessert on Nov. 1, while the candles burned on our altar. (Yes, that’s a bottle of Coke below. It’s for Crayton’s relatives in South Carolina.)
Here are the shots of my flattish, but still tasty, breads.
For more pan de muerto adventures, check out Three Clever Sisters (she also used Fany’s recipe, resulting in these cute, plump little loaves) and Steven McCutcheon-Rubio’s post on Serious Eats. If you made pan de muerto this year, send me a picture of it and I’ll post it here.
UPDATE: Here’s a picture of reader Isabel’s pan de muerto…
And Don Cuevas’s bread:
Pan de Muerto
From My Sweet Mexico, by Fany Gerson
Makes two loaves
Note: You’ll see that the recipe calls for bread flour, which is higher in gluten than regular flour, and lends a certain chewiness to the crumb. I couldn’t find bread flour so I used regular all-purpose. Also, mascabado sugar did tone down the sweetness quite a lot, and it gave the bread a sort of light-brown color.
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons orange blossom water
2/3 cup whole milk
4 cups bread flour (see note)
1/2 cup sugar (see note)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup unsalted butter (226 grams), at room temperature
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
To make the dough, dissolve the yeast in the orange blossom water. Add 1/3 cup of the milk and 1/2 cup of the flour. Mix well and whisk — the dough should be sticky and smooth — and leave in a warm place, about 70 degrees F, until it begins to bubble and puff slightly, 20 to 30 minutes.
Put the remaining 3 1/2 cups flour in the bowl of a mixer with a hook attachment and mix in the sugar, salt and orange zest for about 30 seconds. Add the eggs, the remaining 1/3 cup milk and the yeast dough. Mix at low speed until the dough starts to come together. Add the butter gradually, in small pieces, while continuing to mix, and increase the speed to medium. The dough will look sticky, but resist the urge to add more flour. Continue beating for 10 to 15 minutes, until the dough is soft and comes off the sides of the bowl. If the dough is sticky after 15 minutes of beating, you can add a little flour — no more than 1/3 cup.
Lightly grease a large bowl and place the dough inside. Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place (about 70F) until doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Punch down the dough, gather the sides and flip over so that the bottom is now the top and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least four hours or overnight — chilling the dough will slow the fermentation process and make it easier to shape. When dough has been sufficiently chilled, remove from refrigerator, take off the plastic wrap and cover with a towel. Leave it in a warm place (70F) to rise again, about 1 hour.
Cut off — don’t pull — a piece of dough about the size of a large lime and reserve to make the “bones.” Divide the remaining dough in half and form 2 rounds, shaping them on a smooth surface and making sure the dough is compact. Place on 2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Lightly flatten the tops of the dough rounds with the palm of your hand.
To make the “huesos”: Form some of the reserved dough into two gumball-size balls and leave on the baking sheet for later use. Divide the remaining dough into four pieces. Roll out with your hands, from the center outward, making strips. Spread your fingers and press lightly, making knobs that resemble bones. Place two strips on top of each bread round, crossing the strips over each other. Cover lightly with a cloth and let rise in a warm place (70F) until doubled in size, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. The dough should spring back when pressed lightly with your finger — that’s how you know it’s done.
Preheat the oven to 350F.
Place the small “gumball” reserved balls in the center of the bread rounds, using a little water to make them stick. Bake until the dough is an even, dark-golden brown, about 20 to 30 minutes. Then cover loosely with foil and bake until the internal temperature is 190F or the bottom of the bread is browned, 10 to 15 minutes longer. Remove from the oven and cool on wire rack.
To make the topping: Melt the butter and brush on the breads, being sure to cover every inch. Hold each bread by the bottom — if it’s too warm, use gloves or a piece of cardboard to hold it — and sprinkle evenly with sugar on the top.
Who is Mija?
Mija is Lesley Téllez, a food writer and culinary guide in New York City. I spent four years in Mexico's Distrito Federal, which launched my deep love for Mexican food and culture. In 2010 I co-founded the tourism company Eat Mexico.
Be kind, ask permission!All photos on this site were taken by me, unless otherwise noted. If you'd like to use a photo, please email me.
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