Just in time for 'Days of the Dead' joyously celebrated in Latin America and by the Latino diaspora, Diana Kennedy's traditional recipe for Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead), used to help communicate with loved ones who have passed on. This recipe is the latest in an ongoing series featuring 'celebration breads' – traditional special-occasion breads from across the world.
“Home is where your graves are.”
It’s an idyllic spot, Elm Park Cemetery, the cemetery in the small Minnesota town I still call home, even though for four decades, I’ve not lived there, only visited. The namesake elms are long lost to Dutch elm disease but other trees reach skyward now, clumps of birch, tall straight ash, a few long-needled pines. Hills rise from the river, offering a certain privacy, pocket by pocket. The cemetery is a mile or so south of town, close enough that when a veteran is lost, the honor guard still walks the coffin there for burial.
When my sister and I were girls, before Memorial Day, my father took us along to help clean the graves, a solemn task. At the polished granite monument engraved KELLOGG, we clipped wayward grass at its foot, then washed its cold surface with sudsy water. The stone marks my grandparents’ burial place; nearby is a flat stone, the only physical memory of a sister who died before birth. Nearby are graves with familiar local names, Rassmussen, Robinson, Helgeson.
One year, I discovered an unmarked wooden cross in the oldest section. The next day, fresh flowers rested against the cross; the caretaker said no one knew who was buried there, only that flowers appeared throughout the year.
Many years later, my sister, her young sons and I visited the family graves, a pilgrimage of sorts. Six-year old Matthew took me aside. “I’d like to say a prayer for Grampa and Gramma.” Sure, I smiled, touched that he felt connection to these people he knew by name not memory. He knelt beside the grave and bowed his head, murmuring softly. A few moments later, he looked up, smiled and ran off to chase his little brother around a tall monument.
Memories of my hometown cemetery flooded back last year while baking a loaf of Pan de Muerto, ‘Bread of the Dead’.
The occasion was Días de los Muertos, Latin America's 'Day(s) of the Dead' – but a joyous celebration, not somber, not morbid!
Tradition says that on All Saint’s Day (November 1) and All Soul’s Day (November 2), it’s easier for those who have passed to communicate with the living. So families flock to cemeteries to remember their loved ones, bearing food and small gifts.
The practice dates back to the Aztec belief that death is not the end of life but a portal to another existence. Bread and sugar were the last request, to help on the journey.
Enter the modern-day Pan de Muerto in its many variations, both by culture and by family. Mine is adapted from Diana Kennedy, the doyenne of Mexican cuisine.
So what is the bread like? Like most celebration breads from across the world, it is barely sweet but rich with both eggs and butter. This version is flavored with a bit of citrus, either from zest or extract.
What is most distinctive about Pan de Muerto is its appearance. The dough is shaped into ‘bones’ or ‘skulls’ – it sounds creepy but when fashioned with yeast and flour is quite beautiful.
With any luck, all our loved ones will appreciate its beauty and special taste.
RECIPE for PAN de MUERTO
Time to table: about 6 hours
Makes 1 large loaf or 3 or 4 smaller ones
- 1-1/2 cups flour, fluffed to aerate before measuring or 225g
- 1 tablespoon yeast
- 3/4 teaspoon table salt
- 5 tablespoons tepid water
- 2 large eggs
- Oil, for bowl
Mix flour, yeast and salt in the bowl of standing mixer using the dough hook. Slowly add the water and eggs, continue beating until the dough becomes a single sturdy mass, about 5 minutes. Shape into a ball and transfer to a large lightly oiled bowl, rubbing the ball against the sides to coat with oil. Cover with a clean towel and let rise in a warm spot until the starter doubles, about 2 hours.
- Starter, torn into small pieces
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 7 tablespoons soft butter
- 1-1/2 cups flour, fluffed to aerate before measuring or 225g
- 4 large egg yolks
- 3 tablespoons water
- 1 teaspoon lemon extract (see TIPS)
- Oil, for bowl
Mix the starter, sugar and butter in bowl of standing mixer using the mixing paddle. Whisk together the yolks, water and extract. Slowly mix in 1/3 of the flour, half the yolks, 1/3 the flour, the remaining half the yolks, then the remaining flour. Mix well until a smooth, slightly sticky dough forms. Form a round ball and transfer to the same lightly oiled bowl again, rub the ball against the sides to lightly coat with oil. Cover with a clean towel.
OPTION 1: Let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 90 minutes.
OPTION 2: Refrigerate for 12 hours to let flavors develop. Return the dough to room temperature.
If making multiple loaves, cut dough into two or three or four pieces and repeat as needed. For visual cues on how to form the distinctive sections of the loaves, see the photo set below.
Lightly oil two baking sheets. For one loaf, cut off three-fourths of the dough to form the base; cut the remaining dough into four pieces, each one will become a ‘bone’. (See the left photo, below.) To form the base, place the large piece on a lightly floured surface. With your fingers, press the dough into a large round about a half inch thick. With your fingertips, flatten the outer edge. Transfer to a baking sheet. (See the center photo, below.) To form a bone, shape a cylinder from one of the four pieces. Pinch the center, then roll the center until the piece is long enough to span the base, leaving a bulb at each end; pinch each bulb to form the tip of the bone. Carefully transfer the bone to the second baking sheet, repeat with remaining pieces.
Cover both baking sheets with towels and let rise in a warm place for about an hour.
- 1 egg yolk, whisked with 1 teaspoon water
- 2 tablespoons butter, melted
- Sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 375F for one loaf, 400F for smaller loaves (see TIPS). (See the right photo, below.) Gently arrange the ‘bones’ across the top of the base. Brush the bread gently with the yolk-water mixture, being sure to get into crevasses but not allowing the mixture to pool. Bake for about 15 minutes until the bread is well browned and springy. Turn off the oven, open the door and let the bread sit for another 5 minutes. Remove from the oven, brush the bread with melted butter, then dust generously with sugar.
When cool, cut into slices. Bread best on first day but keeps for a second day and is delicious toasted afterward.
How to Form the Distinctive "Bones"
in a Loaf of Pan de Muerto
Center - To form a bone, shape a cylinder from one of the four pieces. Pinch the center, then roll the center until the piece is long enough to span the base, leaving a bulb at each end; pinch each bulb to form the tip of the bone.
Right - After rising, gently arrange the ‘bones’ across the top of the base.
Is There a 'Celebration Bread' Traditional In Your Family?
It's likely a recipe passed down at least one generation, some times several generations. It's likely a bread that you make once a year, for some special occasion, often a religious holiday. Share the story and if you'd be willing to share the recipe, too, that would be lovely but sure isn't required.
In my family, the 'celebration bread' is Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday. Watch my collection of celebration breads grow over the next few years. I haven't baked from it yet but I'm learning lots from Celebration Breads: Recipes, Tales, and Traditions by Betsy Oppenneer.
Of course, there's also the perspective that hot bread from the oven, any day, any bread, is just cause for celebration. :-)
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