Top | The Art of Mexican Cooking
Pan de Muerto
(recipe, Diana Kennedy)
For the religious and agnostic alike, observance of All Saints and All Souls — the Days of the Dead, as they are commonly called in Mexico — is one of the most important events of the year. People travel hundreds of miles to take flowers and food to the graves of their departed relatives, but it is no morbid affair, as they eat and celebrate together. In some homes, an altar will be set up and decorated with yellow flowers, cempasuchil (Tagetes erecta), candles, candied skulls and fruits, tamales, mole, chocolate, and pan de muerto. In and around the capital the breads are of varying sizes, round and decorated with stylized "bones" and a round topknot representing the skull. In parts of Oaxaca, the bread is formed into human shapes, and in Michoacán, monos, small figures of animals or people, are made.
- 1 lb. (450 grams; 4 scant cups) unbleached flour, plus extra for the bowl and working surface)
- ½ oz. (15 grams; 1¼ tsp.) sea salt
- 2 oz. (60 grams; ¼ cup sugar)
- Scant 1 ounce (25 grams; 3 scant Tbsp.) crumbled cake yeast or 1½ scant Tbsp. dry yeast
- ½ cup (125 milliliters) plus 2 Tbsp. water
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
- Unsalted butter, for greasing the bowl
- ½ lb. (225 grams; 1 cup) sugar
- 7 oz. (200 grams; 14 Tbsp.) unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing the baking sheets
- 1 lb. (450 grams; 4 scant cups) unbleached flour, plus extra for the board and bowl
- 8 egg yolks, lightly beaten with 2 Tbsp. water
- ¼ cup (65 milliliters) water, approximately
- 1 tsp. orange-flower water and/or grated rind of 1 orange
- 4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
- ¼ cup (65 milliliters) melted unsalted butter, approximately
- ⅓ cup (85 milliliters) sugar, approximately
- Make the starter: Put the flour, salt, sugar, and yeast into the bowl of a stand mixer and gradually beat in the water and eggs. Continue beating until the dough forms a cohesive mass around the dough hook, about 5 minutes; it should be sticky, elastic, and shiny. Turn out onto a floured board and form into a round cushion shape. Butter and flour a clean bowl. Place the dough in it and cover with greased plastic wrap and a towel, and set aside in a warm place (ideally 70 degrees) until the dough doubles in volume, about 2 hours.
- Make the dough: Tear the starter into small pieces. Put the starter, sugar, and butter into a mixing bowl and mix well, gradually beating in the flour and egg yolks alternately. Beat in the water and flavoring — you should have a slightly sticky, smooth, shiny dough that just holds it shape (since eggs, flours, and climates differ, you may need to reduce or increase the liquid). Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and form into a round cushion shape.
- Wash out the mixing bowl, butter and flour it, and replace the dough in it. Cover with greased plastic wrap and a towel, and set aside in a warm place (ideally 70 degrees) for about 1½ hours, until it almost doubles in size, or set aside overnight in the bottom of the refrigerator.
- Form the bread: Liberally grease 4 baking sheets. Bring the dough up to room temperature before attempting to work with it. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and divide the dough into two equal pieces. Set one aside for forming later.
- Take three-quarters of the dough and roll it into a smooth ball. Press it out to a circle about 8 inches in diameter — it should be about 1 inch thick. Press all around the edge to form a narrow ridge, like the brim of a hat, and transfer to one of the greased baking sheets. Cover loosely with greased plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place (about 70 degrees) to rise about half its size again, about 1 hour.
- Taking the remaining one-quarter of the dough, divide it into four equal parts. Roll one of the parts into a smooth ball. Roll the other three into strips about 8 inches long, forming knobs as you go for the "bones." Transfer the four pieces to another greased tray, cover loosely with greased plastic wrap, and set aside to rise for about 1 hour.
- Repeat these steps to form the second bread with the other piece of dough that was set aside.
- Assemble the bread: At the end of the rising period, carefully place the strips of dough forming the "bones" across the main part of the bread, place the round ball in the middle to form the "skull," and press your finger in hard to form the eye sockets. Brush the surface of the dough well with the beaten yolks.
- Bake the bread: Heat the oven to 375 degrees. When the oven is ready, bake the bread at the top of the oven until well browned and springy, about 15 to 20 minutes. Turn off the oven, open the door, and let the bread sit there for about 5 minutes more. Remove from the oven, brush with melted butter, and sprinkle well with sugar.
The starter can be made ahead or the day before. (Any left over can be frozen, but is best used right away.) The final mixture can be kneaded and then left overnight in the refrigerator — which I do to help it develop a better flavor — and brought to room temperature before forming and the final rising.