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Dia de Los Muertos, The Day of the Dead, is celebrated in Mexico October 30 through November 2. A combination of ancient harvest festivals celebrating the cycle of life, combined with Catholicism’s All Souls/All Saints days (October 31-November1), Dia de Los Muertos celebrates and remembers loved ones who’ve died. Food--particularly the favorite foods of those being honored--is a big part of the celebration.
Mexican culture (and food) varies widely from region to region, but Pan de Muerto, a rich, sweet, golden egg bread often scented with anise or orange, is a constant across the country. Even those who don’t ordinarily include wheat bread in their diet will be sure to obtain Pan de Muerto during Dia de Los Muertos. Often fancifully shaped into human figures or animals, the bread is also fashioned into a simple round, which can then be decorated with extra pieces of dough shaped to symbolize bones and skulls--or not, as you like.
Like all rich egg breads (think brioche), this loaf makes delicious French toast or bread pudding, if there’s enough left to become stale. The anise and cinnamon combination might sound peculiar, but trust me, it works very well.
1/2 cup (4 ounces) lukewarm milk
1/4 cup (1/2 stick, 2 ounces) butter, cut into 8 pieces; or lard (traditional)
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 large eggs
3 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/2 teaspoon anise seed
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons sugar
To make the dough: Combine all of the dough ingredients together, and mix and knead them--by hand, mixer, or bread machine--to make a smooth, soft dough. Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, and allow it to rise for 90 minutes; it may not double in size, but will become quite puffy.
Break off a piece of dough about the size of a large baseball (7 1/2 ounces or so, if you have a scale). Divide this smaller piece into three pieces; two of them should be large, and one small (about half the size of one of the larger pieces). Place these dough pieces in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate.
Shape the large piece of dough remaining into a smooth ball. Flatten it to a 6 x 3/4-inch tall round. Place the shaped loaf on a lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheet, or into a lightly greased 9-inch round cake pan. Cover the loaf, and allow it to rise at room temperature for 90 minutes; it will become puffy, though it won’t double in bulk.
Just before the loaf is fully risen, remove the smaller pieces from the fridge. Shape the smallest into a round ball. Roll the other two into 10-inch ropes.
To make the topping: Mix together the anise seed, cinnamon and sugar.
To shape and bake the loaf: Brush the top of the bread with an egg white beaten with 1 tablespoon water, or spray it with Quick Shine. Sprinkle with the topping mixture.
Drape the two ropes across the loaf at right angles, so they form a cross over the bread. Use your fingers to flatten the ropes in places, and at the ends, to give them a “gnarled” appearance. Take the ball, flatten it slightly, and set it in the very center of the loaf, atop the spot where the ropes cross. Pinch it onto the ropes to help hold it in place.
Bake the bread in a preheated 350°F oven for 30 to 35 minutes, tenting it lightly with aluminum foil after 20 minutes to prevent over-browning. The interior of the finished loaf will register 190°F on an instant-read thermometer when it’s done. Remove the bread from the oven, and cool it on a rack. Yield: about 12 servings.
October 22, 2003