Today marks the official beginning of Mexico’s most famous holiday, Dia de los Muertos, on which families across the country remember and celebrate their deceased relatives and loved ones. Over the next two days, Mexicans believe the spirits of their ancestors return to their earthly homes for all-too-brief visits and, most important, for pleasing whiffs of all they loved when they were living.
Like any other holiday, food plays an important role in Dia de los Muertos, and there is no treat more emblematic of this time of year than pan de muerto, a delicious sweet bread laced with anise, sprinkled with powdered sugar and decorated with dough rolled in the shape of bones. If that last part sounds a bit morbid, keep in mind what Octavio Paz, Mexico’s legendary Nobel Prize winning poet, once wrote: That death “burns the lips” of other cultures, but the “Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”
Pati Jinich, the Mexican-born host of PBS’ Pati’s Mexican Table cooking show, adds that such a whimsical attitude about something so serious is classic Mexican. “We have a sarcastic sense of humor and a knack for poking fun at things that are painful,” she says. “When it comes to Day of the Dead there’s even a defiant characteristic. We make rhymes known as calaveritas that tell funny tales related to someone’s death. We bake things in the shape of skulls and bones. In a way, we’re confronting and celebrating the topic in the most ‘digestible’ way we can.”
While many traditional families still make pan de muerto at home using generations-old recipes passed down from abuelas to mothers to daughter, in modern Mexico, where convenience is as in-demand as it is here, the bread is also widely sold at panaderias and mercados. Jinich remembers she and her sisters eagerly awaiting the end of October when they were growing up there, “because that’s when the panaderias brought out the breads. We had a our favorite places where we’d go to buy it.”
But when Jinich moved the US, married and had three sons of her own, she started making her bread at home. “I was having a hard time finding it at stores,” she says, “and I wanted my kids to have the same experience my sisters and I had. I wanted them to feel that anticipation we felt.”
On the surface, Day of the Dead may seem, as Jinich says, “spooky” to Hispanics who come from countries where it’s not celebrated, but in truth the holiday is about what so many Latinos already do: honor the ancestors who came before, and find meaningful ways to make them part of life today.
Pan de Muerto
½ cup lukewarm whole milk
2 packages active dry yeast (¼ oz each), or about 4 heaped teaspoons
½ cup all purpose flour, plus 3½ cups for later on
¼ cup unsalted butter at room temperature, plus more to grease the bowl, and 2 tablespoons to melt and brush on top
½ cup granulated sugar to make the dough, plus ½ cup for dusting the bread
6 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tablespoons orange blossom water, or plain water
1 teaspoon anise seeds, optional
1 teaspoon orange zest, optional
Pinch kosher or coarse sea salt
1. In a small bowl, pour the lukewarm milk — making sure that it is not hot nor cold or the yeast will not react — and stir in the dry yeast granules. Give the yeast a couple minutes to sit in the liquid, and stir with a spatula until it is thoroughly and evenly dissolved. Give it time: stir a little, pressing gently on the yeast that has not yet dissolved with the spatula, give it a bit more time to sit in the milk, stirring again, press again. Once it has completely and evenly dissolved, add ½ cup flour. Mix it, combining thoroughly, until it has no lumps. It will be gooey, runny and sticky. Leave it in the warmest area of your kitchen for about 20 to 30 minutes, until it puffs up (to about double or triple its volume) and has bubbled on top. I like to place a sauce pan or cup with boiling hot water right next to it, but it’s not necessary.
2. In the bowl of a mixer, over medium low speed, beat the butter until soft. Add the sugar and beat until combined and fluffy. Add one egg at a time. Once eggs are incorporated, add the milk and yeast mixture. Then adding ½ cup at a time, add the rest of the flour (3 ½ cups). Stir in the orange blossom water if using and if not, add plain water. Also add the anise seeds and a pinch of salt. The dough will look wet, runny and sticky, but continue beating anywhere from 7 to 10 minutes, until all the dough comes off the sides of the mixing bowl. It will be elastic and sticky, but it will hold itself together.
3. Butter a large mixing bowl that can hold the dough and will be able to hold it as it doubles or triples its volume. Place the dough in the bowl, cover it with a cloth or clean kitchen towel and leave it in the warmest area of your kitchen,that is draft free, making sure that it is not next to a window or door that gets opened. Leave it to rest and puff up anywhere from 2 to 3 hours, until it doubles its volume at least.
4. Punch the dough with your fist, flip it over, cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator over night. The next day, remove the plastic wrap, place a cloth or kitchen towel on top and let it to come to room temperature.
5. Take off a third of the dough to make the bread decorations: make a 1 to 2-inch ball and use the rest to make 2 ropes. They need not be smooth nor perfect, as the dough is quite sticky, and no need to worry — they will look beautiful once the bread is baked (and covered with sugar).
6. Butter a baking sheet or a bread or pizza stone, and make a ball with the rest of the dough. Place it in the center of the baking sheet and flatten it a bit on top. Place the dough ropes making a criss-cross — Mexican bakers usually shape the ropes to resemble bones, having thicker and thinner parts — and the ball on the top, right where they cross. Cover the bread with a cloth or kitchen towel, and let it rise and puff up again, for 1 to 2 hours.
7. Preheat the oven to 350. Bake the bread for for about 40 minutes. Halfway through baking, after about 20 minutes, cover the loaf with parchment paper or aluminum foil to prevent it from browning too much.
8. When they are ready, they sound “huecas,” or hollow, if you hit the bottom of the bread.
9. Melt the butter and brush all over the bread. Sprinkle sugar all over until completely covered.