Dia de Muertos or the Day of the Dead is a traditional Mexican holiday that before this year I knew very little about. Celebrated between October 31st and November 2nd, it’s a holiday to honor and remember the deceased.
Relatives eat favorite foods of the departed, build altars and leave gifts, tokens, and orange marigolds at grave sites. These rituals are meant to summon the dead and encourage them to visit with the loved ones. Families will even leave out water or tequila along with food in case the souls visiting are thirsty or hungry after their journeys.
I’d never been exposed to this holiday before recently, though I had seen some of the imagery around Halloween. I love the colors and the La Calavera Catrina makeup and costumes and I find the sugar skulls that can be bought as gifts beautiful. So this year, I was more than up for the challenge when my friend said I should make a traditional pan de muerto, the traditional bread of the dead eaten on this holiday.
Having no reference point for this bread and having only googled images and recipes of them… I decided to take a little adventure to the authentic Mexican bakery , Guadalupana, in Bed-stuy (not too too far from my house) to taste the real thing.
This family-run bakery has been in business for 16 years and makes homemade pan de muertos that many customers order well in advance of the holiday! They also make sugar skulls by hand, and I picked up both of these traditional holiday accompaniments.
This sweetened yeast bread is usually made into a round bun with decorations on top such as skulls or bones. Some have colorful icing while others have a simple dusting of sugar. I saw several recipes with orange flavoring or anise seed, which is traditional.
The above pan de muerto is from Guadalupana. It’s light, fluffy and sweet with a hint of cinnamon. While it looked a bit different than what my recipe produced, both were delicious! I even tried to make the traditional designs on top but alas while baking they kind of collapsed into the dough.
This bread would be great as a breakfast snack with hot chocolate or coffee with a little spread of jam or even nutella. As my friend Meghan pointed out, it tastes strangely like an Entenmann’s danish dough which I would have to agree with. It’s a strange reference point but it works! I can’t say I’m upset that I now have 3 loaves of this bread at home! Who wants some?
- ½ cup granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ ounce (2 packets) active dry yeast
- ½ cup whole milk
- ½ cup water
- 1 stick unsalted butter
- 4 large eggs
- 4½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the work surface
- Vegetable oil, for oiling the bowl
- 1 egg yolk beaten with 2 tsp water
- Combine the sugar, salt, anise seed, and yeast in a small mixing bowl. Heat the milk, water, and butter in a small saucepan over medium heat until the butter is just melted; do not allow it to boil. Add the milk mixture to the dry mixture and beat well with a wire whisk.
- Stir in the eggs and 1½ cups of the flour and beat well. Add the remaining flour, little by little, stirring well with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured wooden board and knead it until it’s smooth, elastic, and no longer sticky, about 9 to 10 minutes. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a clean kitchen towel, and allow the dough to rise in a warm area until it has doubled in size, about 1½ hours.
- Heat the oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Punch down the dough and divide it into 2 pieces. Cut 3 small (about 1-ounce) balls from each half and mold them into skull-and-bones shapes. Shape the large pieces of dough into round loafs and place the skull-and-bones on top. Place the breads on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and let them rise another hour.
- Brush the loaves with the egg yolk mixture and bake. Halfway through baking, about 20 minutes, remove the loaves from the oven and brush again with the egg wash and sprinkle lightly with granulated sugar. Return to the oven and bake until the loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped, about another 20 minutes.