Halloween is great. My daughter simply adores it. She told me this morning that it was the second best day of the year, her birthday being the first……which was Halloween themed. Both kids are going to be skeletons this year which reminded me that I was missing out on a perfect opportunity to share with them another reason they should be thrilled to be Mexican….Dia de los Muertos, otherwise known as Day of the Dead, also know as Awesomely Spooky Skeleton Day (and All Saint’s Day).
You don’t have to be Mexican to celebrate (hey, I’m not) in fact November 1st is a holiday all around the world and it’s not half as creepy as it sounds. It’s the one day of the year where all our loved ones who have passed get to come back and visit us here on earth and in Mexico it is traditional to make very aromatic, intensely flavored food to rouse them from their graves (okay, that part sounds a little weird).
Heavenly moles (pun fully intended), chile-laden stews, blood sausages, and masa cakes are all traditional foods made on this day but the most popular offering is a sugar-dusted pan de muerto. As the bread rises it symbolizes our ancestors that are rising up to greet us, wakened by the sweet smells of fresh bread baked with anise and orange.
A traditional pan de muerto is made with orange flower water but I couldn’t find any of that here in these parts so I used orange juice but if you can get your hands on some I highly recommend it—it makes for ethereal bread. Also, start early (there are several hours of rising ahead of you) or you can make the dough half-way through and finish the next day. Oh, and tell your deceased I say ‘What’s up?’
Orange-Anise Pan de Muerto
Adapted from Pati's Mexican Table
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 4 heaping teaspoons dry yeast (2 packages)
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus 2 tablespoons melted for brushing
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- Juice and zest from 1 large orange
- 1 teaspoon anise seeds
- 1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- Plain or colored granulated sugar, for decorating
- Heat milk to 110°F-115°F. Pour into a small bowl and whisk in yeast. Give the yeast a couple of minutes to soften then use a rubber spatula and press gently on the yeast that hasn't dissolved. Let sit a few more minutes, then stir until completely dissolved.
- Add 1/2 cup of the flour and stir until combined. Let sit in the warmest area of your kitchen for about 20-30 minutes, until it puffs up to about double its volume.
- Place butter in the bowl of the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium until fluffy. Add sugar and beat for 3-4 more minutes. Add eggs one at a time, letting the first one incorporate before adding the next. Then add the remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time. Add the remaining ingredients and continue beating on medium for 7-10 minutes or until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and is elastic and sticky.
- Grease a large bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl. Cover with a clean kitchen cloth and leave it in the warmest area of they kitchen until it doubles in size, about 2-3 hours. Punch the dough down with your fist, flip it over, cover and let it rise again for another 1-2 hours. (At this point you can also cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it rise overnight in the refrigerator. Just let it come to room temperature before proceeding.)
- Cut about a third of the dough off to make the decorations: make a 1-2 inch ball and use the rest to make 2 ropes. Grease a baking sheet and knead the rest of the dough into a ball. Place it in the center of the baking sheet and flatten it a bit on top. Place the dough ropes across the top making a criss-cross pattern and shaping into bones if desired. Shape the small ball into a skull and place where the two ropes cross. Cover the bread with a clean kitchen cloth and let rise again, another 1-2 hours.
- Heat the oven to 350°F. Brush the loaf with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for about 35 minutes then cover with foil and bake another 20 minutes or until bread is firm and baked through. The loaf should sound hollow when you tap on the bottom. Let rest at least 30 minutes before slicing.