Halloween has become a day for kids young and old to indulge in sweets and dress up in strange costumes and be spooky or funny or whatever. The ultra commercialized Halloween of today only represents a small blip in Halloween’s centuries-old history. It precedes the religious holidays of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. On those solemn days, the ancient celebration of the “Day of the Dead” also takes place, primarily in Mexico. During this celebration, families pay homage to deceased relatives. One of the traditions is to create an altar with photos of the deceased and place their favorite things at the foot of the altar, as well as this wonderful bread, “Dead Man’s Bread.” It’s a sweet bread that is decorated with cross bones. While my family succumbed to the temptations of Hershey and Nestle chocolates during Halloween, I was hoping to redeem myself with this solemn and festive bread. I researched for recipes and came across a wonderful cookbook filled with recipes for traditional Mexican desserts, one of which included this bread, pan de muerto. The book is My Sweet Mexico by Fany Gerson. The author encourages making this bread in remembrance of those family members who have passed away. When baking this bread, that is exactly what was going through my mind, and I am thankful for it.
On to the recipe. It took me two days to make this bread, but it was well worth it. The first thing to do is to get the eggs and butter out of the fridge and let them come to room temperature. Then prepare the yeast “sponge,” which is a combination of the yeast, warm milk, orange blossom water, and flour. It’s like the consistency of sour cream. Cover it with a kitchen towel and let it bubble up. I put it in a nice warm place–which was in my oven that I turned on for just a couple of minutes (and then turned it off) before I put the sponge in.
After I left the sponge alone so that the yeast could do its thing, I got together my other ingredients, like measuring out and mixing together the bread flour, sugar, and salt. I also got the eggs ready, and made sure the butter was soft to make it easier to incorporate into the dough later on. Finally, I grated the orange zest and kept it handy nearby. Here is the sponge after 20-25 minutes. I’m now ready to tackle the dough.
I put the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a standing electric mixer with the dough attachment and gave it a whirl. I added the eggs, zest, and sponge. I needed to keep mixing the dough until it came away from the sides of the bowl.
But this will change when the butter is added.
After the butter was added, I had to mix it for about 10 minutes. Thank goodness for standing mixers! Eventually, the dough nicely came away from the bowl. It was very, very soft, so I was worried that it would be too sticky and that I’d have to add some more flour–which would risk making the baked bread too tough. Luckily, it ended up being not so sticky, so I left the dough alone and did not add in extra flour. I transferred the dough to a large bowl (about 4.5 quarts) for it to rise. I bought this particular bowl many, many moons ago from a Pyrex outlet store. It has a matching plastic lid, so perfect for covering the bowl to let the dough rise. If your bowl doesn’t have a lid, use plastic wrap to cover the bowl. Let the dough rise for about 1-2 hours.
After 2 hours, I punched the dough down, flipped it over and reshaped it. I covered the bowl again and let the dough rise in the refrigerator overnight. According to Fany Gerson’s book, it is possible to use the dough after a 4 hour rise, but it was getting late in the day, so I didn’t try it. When I took the bowl out of the fridge the next day, this is what it looked like.
I left the dough alone for a couple of hours to let it come to room temperature, at least partly. Then it was time to divide up the dough in order to make 4 bread rounds, 8 “bones,” and 4 bone-balls. I first cut off a piece to make the bones, and then divided up the rest into four semi-equal pieces.
I then shaped these into discs and placed them onto parchment-lined baking pans. I made the balls and bones with the remaining piece of dough.
I placed two bones on each round making an X and pressed down a little bit on the ends.
By the way, I spaced the rounds on the baking sheet pretty far apart, and put the balls on the pan somewhere else where they would have space to rise.
After this, I covered the pans with a light kitchen towel and let the dough rise for an hour and a half or so until it doubled in size. Towards the end of the second rise, I turned on the oven to preheat. When ready to bake, the dough should spring back when lightly pressed with your finger.
When the oven was ready, I had to somehow attach the balls onto the crosses. I wet my finger with water and rubbed it on the side of the ball and then it stuck nicely to the bones.
The bread was ready to be put in the oven to bake. I let the rounds bake until they were a deep golden color. Then I covered them with foil and finished baking them. When to take them out of the oven was a bit of a guess. I gauged by the color of the crust. Total baking time ended up being 45 minutes.
I let the rounds sit in the pans for a few minutes while I melted the butter and got out some coarse sugar to sprinkle over them. Brushing on the melted butter is key to making them look a bit shiny.
But sprinkle the sugar immediately after brushing or the sugar won’t stick.
Here is a sample of the top of a bread round.
The orange blossom water makes the bread have an unusual flavor (for me), but I think just using orange zest would have worked as well. Other flavors can be used, such as anise seed or cinnamon. I cut a slice for a taste test.
It is very tasty with butter, though I am not so sure that is a traditional way of eating it!