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Treats, not tricks: Pan de Muerto

28.October 2010

At this time of year, when the air becomes crisper, the leaves change color, and ghouls and goblins are everywhere you don’t dare to look, we turn our minds to dead and dying things.  The summer’s bounty dwindles and plants and vines shrivel and go to seed, the insects die out and we bring in our air conditioners, shutting the windows tight against the chill in the air.  At times like these, it’s easy to focus on the dark outline of the trees’ branches foretelling the barrenness of winter than the brilliant leaves still clinging on.  And the all-important decision of what to be looms large in the minds of school children and parents (and grad students) across the country.

Halloween sprung from a number of different sources, including the Christian All Saints and All Souls Day, the Celtic festival of samhain, and maybe even the Roman festival of Pomona, but today it’s all about costumes bought or concocted, candy, and the occasional roll of toilet paper tossed over a tree while one of the angrier ones smashes a nearby Jack-o-lantern.  At Halloween, it’s best not to mess around with spirits – they might be out to get you.

What’s curious is that our Halloween shares its roots with other, less menacing traditions that, instead of frightening school children with stories of dead women whose heads are held on by a strip of ribbon or headless horsemen or vengeful ghosts, welcome the return of beloved spirits. Other traditions lay a welcome mat for the dead instead of banishing them to the realm of fairy tale.

It’s fascinating to think about the ways in which we confront death and the hereafter – and to compare our own reticence and repression with more exuberant, markedly un-squeamish traditions.  It seems that here, in the US, when someone dies we mourn for a certain, shortish period, and then we get back to normal life, more or less, maybe thinking frequently about the person who is so suddenly gone, maybe trying desperately to think about anything else.

My family was never much of a cemetery-going family.  Well, that’s not strictly true, I guess.  My grandparents reserved their mausoleum places when my sister and I were pretty young and took us to visit their future home more than once.  In retrospect I realize that they must have been proud of that purchase – it’s a pretty swanky place, after all – and, though it seems really weird looking back, then it didn’t strike me as odd when they took us there to see where they would be … well … not buried.

And maybe it comes with the whole pastor/pastor’s wife territory that you come to appreciate what my grandma would refer to as “a good funeral” and maybe as the granddaughter of a pastor and his wife it’s not that unusual to grow up crashing strangers’ weddings and funerals alike, if only as an excuse to get dressed up.

This is all to say that I grew up with a certain comfort talking about death and dealing with its trappings.  At some point that all changed – maybe I can date it to when my dad’s mom died, which was the first time someone I loved died, or maybe it started when my mom’s mom (the one who always appreciated a good funeral) started to decline and I realized once and for all that death is inevitable.  But now I’m really squeamish about these things.  It just seems like, here at least, death is inextricably tied up with sadness.  Maybe that sounds flippant or overly obvious, but when you think about it, isn’t there something to be happy about?

The New York Times ran an article a few weeks ago about a tradition in Madagascar called famadihana, a celebration in which “ancestors are periodically taken from their tombs, and once the dancing stops and the bundled corpses are put on the ground, family members lovingly run their fingers across the skeletal outline protruding through the shrouds. Bones and dust are moved about in an effort to sustain a human shape.”  Just imagine how much more comfortable we might be if we grew up knowing that death isn’t something that has to be put away and not discussed and to be felt bad about?  And to know that your family would keep throwing you lavish parties after you were gone?  (In fact, it would be cool to have someone throw me a lavish party before I die, too.)

And then there’s Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos. I’ve never been to Mexico and have never experienced one of these celebrations, but it seems like there is a lot of dancing, a lot of partying, and a time carved out to remember, celebrate, and dwell on the dead.  Altars are built in the home to commemorate the dead and to provide a place to spend time dwelling on the dead.  Maybe that’s what I feel like is missing here.  Rather than having a designated time and place to really focus on the ones we continue to mourn, we carry it with us and often seem ashamed to express it.

The less earnest side of me is also drawn to the seemingly matter-of-fact belief that the dead do come back and visit on that day – things are set out for them in people’s homes and their arrival is anticipated and celebrated.  And to the aesthetic of the celebration: there are special decorations which look like a giddy cross of Cinco de Mayo and Halloween with grinning skeletons dressed in festive clothes.  The skeletons aren’t there to scare anyone, but seem rather to embody the joyful return of those we miss most.

Of course, there’s also food! Lots of treats are associated with Dia de los Muertos – candied pumpkin, various liquors, and sweets are offered at graves and on family altars; skulls and skeletons and the Virgin Mary are all formed from sugar and chocolate; and then there’s Pan de Muerto, a sweet bread decorated with the symbols of the day – skulls, bones, and so forth.

I spent a few hours yesterday baking up my own Pan de Muerto and was very pleased with the results!  I decorated two of mine with a traditional bone pattern and the other two with skulls and crossbones.  This bread is startlingly delicious – spongy and light with a hint of orange and a crusty dusting of sugar on top.  I made a few tweaks to the recipe (It called for orange blossom water, which, first of all, I couldn’t find readily and second of all is too floral for my taste – the only place I want something floral is in … well … flowers.) and it came out just exactly how I had hoped.  I took my bone decoration tips from Fine Cooking (where I also found the recipe) and simply winged it for the skulls and crossbones.

This bread is supposedly delicious with hot chocolate (or on its own!), dipped in melted butter, spread with unmelted butter, with jam, toasted, hot or cold.  It should be eaten quickly – it goes stale sooner than you would expect – but really there’s no reason you wouldn’t eat it quickly, is there?

(recipe after the jump)
Pan de Muerto

adapted from Fine Cooking

The Bread

  • 1/2 c whole milk
  • 5 1/2 T unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • Two 4×1-inch strips of orange zest (use a vegetable peeler; avoid the white pith)
  • 1 t finely grated orange zest
  • 1 t vanilla extract
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1-3/4 t active dry yeast
  • 3-1/2 c unbleached all-purpose flour; more as needed
  • 1/4 c granulated sugar
  • 1 t kosher salt
  • Vegetable oil as needed

The Topping

  • 4 T unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/4 c granulated sugar
  1. Warm the milk, butter, and orange zest (both strips and grated) in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the butter melts, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool until just warm.
  2. Discard the orange zest strips (leave the grated zest!), add the vanilla and whisk in the eggs.
  3. Dissolve the yeast in 1/4 c lukewarm water and let stand until the mixture slightly thickens and begins to bubble, about 10 minutes.
  4. Mix the flour, sugar, and salt on a work surface. (I found a board scraper to be a good tool for mixing the dry ingredients.  If you’d prefer, you can make the dough in a bowl just as easily.  I haven’t tested, but I have a feeling the dough hook on a stand mixer would work fine.)  Make a well in the center.
  5. If you’re wearing any hand-jewelry, take it off.  This bit is tricky: Pour the yeast mixture and the milk mixture bit by bit into the well while mixing with your hand (I poured with my left and mixed with my right, stopping the pouring every once in a while to make sure things weren’t getting out of hand.) Knead until you have a smooth, but still slightly sticky dough, about 10 minutes. If you feel like the dough is too sticky, add a little flour.  Be careful – adding too much flour will make the bread tough.
  6. Oil a large bowl and place the dough in it.  Cover with plastic wrap and leave it to rise in a warm place until it’s doubled in size – that took mine 1 hour and 15 minutes.  (My warm place was on top of the stove with the oven set at 200 degrees.
  7. To shape four small loaves: cut off about 1/8 of the dough and save it for your decorations.
  8. Divide the remaining dough into four equal pieces and shape them into round loaves.  I found that flattening the dough slightly and tucking the edges under was the easiest way to make a nice looking round.
  9. Prepare your baking sheet(s):  Either oil a baking sheet or line it with parchment or silpat.  Place the dough rounds on it.
  10. To make traditional bone-style decorations, check out the audio slide show at Fine Cooking.  (Basically you roll out cylinders of dough, but roll from the center toward the edges to create the knobby look of bones.)  For my skulls and crossbones, I roughly shaped two discs of dough and cut slits for the eyes.  I then used my fingers to shape the slits into open holes, then used a sharp knife to carve out cheekbones and then cut the bottom for teeth.  Place the decorations on top of your dough rounds, then press lightly to make them adhere.
  11. Cover the loaves with plastic wrap and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 45 minutes
  12. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350.
  13. Bake until the loaves are golden in color, 30 to 40 minutes. The original recipe suggested covering them with foil and continuing to bake for another 10-15 minutes (until the bottoms are browned), but mine were DONE after 40 minutes in the oven.
  14. Remove from the oven and cool for a few minutes on a wire rack.
  15. While they’re still warm, brush the loaves generously all over with the melted butter. Then, sprinkle them all over (on all sides) with sugar.  This is  easiest if you tilt them up – using a towel to protect your hand, tipping them up with a spatula or a piece of cardboard.
  16. Cool to room temperature before serving. The bread is best eaten within a day of baking.
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3 Comments leave one →
  1. jljones permalink
    29.October 2010 11:12

    The bread is awesome! That little hint of orange is simply the best thing. They remind me of one of these sweet and savory olive oil cakes that I had one time: http://www.inesrosales.com/
    But you can’t put the crispy little tortas in the toaster like you can this bread!

  2. 29.October 2010 22:57

    I would like to see a Bagel des Muertas, so that you could eat the bread but still have a skull and crossbones on the top as you do so. But bagels are too lively.

    But is the bread as nutritionally healthy as the practice of having a Day of the Dead is psychologically?

  3. wjh permalink
    30.October 2010 14:40

    fc st pauli brot!!!!

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