For the first ten years or so of our togetherness The Professor and I didn’t do much for Día de los Muertos. We were young and carefree, childless, and mortgageless. We were in that stage of our lives when death was more of an abstract idea than this blurry line between the concrete and the confusing. Over the years we’ve lost relatives and struggled with illness in the family and this one day of the year, Day of the Dead, when we get to embrace those loved ones who have passed, has gained more and more significance and has become one of the most celebrated days of the year in our home.
Día de los Muertos is when we celebrate with the dead—if not in reality than surely in our hearts. That means we get to eat their favorite foods, drink their favorite drinks, dance and sing their favorite songs, tell our most treasured stories and ensure their lives live on in the memories of their grandchildren and great grandchildren and others for generations to come.
One of my favorite parts of the celebration is making Pan de Muerto or Bread for the Dead. The traditional loaf is a buttery brioche flavored with orange flower water and topped with two crossed links of dough meant to symbolize crossbones. If you want to make that version you can find the recipe here or I also have a tropical fruit version you might want to try. This year I wanted to honor my grandmother, a tried-and-true chocolate lover, with a pan de muerto filled with cocoa and studded with chocolate chips.
If you have any experience with yeasted dough, this one is not much different but it does have a fairly long rising time, so let’s get started!
The first step is to mix the warm milk, a little bit of the flour, and the yeast together, then let that mixture sit for 30 minutes. This wakes up the yeast and makes a very quick starter dough.
Then you add the remaining ingredients (except the chocolate chips) and mix to make a smooth, springy dough.
Remove the dough to a clean surface, flatten, and sprinkle the chocolate chips over the top. (I used semisweet chips but you could use bittersweet or even white chocolate chips if you’d like.) Fold the dough over to enclose the chips and then knead the chips into the dough until well distributed, about 2 minutes.
Form the dough into a ball and place in a large greased bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in size, about 2-3 hours.
Now its time for cutting and forming. First remove a little less than a quarter of the dough.
Take the larger piece of dough and form into a ball. Try not to use any extra flour if possible so the dough doesn’t dry out and stays dark in color. Place the ball on a parchment-lined baking sheet and brush it with beaten egg.
Cut the remaining dough in half, then cut a nickel-sized piece off each half. Form the larger pieces of dough into bone shapes and criss cross the bones over the top. Brushing each with egg as you go.
Combine the two nickel-sized pieces of dough and form into a skull shape.
Arrange the skull where the two bones intersect on the top of the loaf. Brush with egg and sprinkle the whole loaf with 1 tablespoon granulated sugar.
Cover with a clean towel and let rise another 30 minutes to an hour. Bake at 350°F until the loaf sounds hallow when you tap on the sides and bottom, about 40 minutes. It is traditional to bake the bread on the days leading up to Day of the Dead which is November 1st but everyone should wait until November 2nd when you can share it with the visiting spirits of your loved ones.
The prep and cooking times are not that long, but the bread does need about 3 hours to rise, so plan ahead.
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 2 cups bread flour, divided
- 2 1/4 teaspoons (1 package) dried yeast
- 1 teaspoon anise seeds
- 4 tablespoons softened butter
- 5 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs, divided
- 1/4 cup cocoa powder
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/3 cup chocolate chips
- Heat milk until just warm (105°F-115°F). Pour into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add 1/4 cup of flour and yeast and mix to combine. Let sit 30 minutes.
- Place anise seeds in a dry frying pan and toast over medium heat until fragrant, about 3-4 minutes. Remove from pan and cool.
- Add butter and 4 tablespoons of the sugar to the yeast mixture and beat until smooth. Add 3 eggs, one at a time, letting the first one incorporate completely before adding the next.
- Add remaining flour, cocoa, anise seeds, and salt. Switch to the dough hook attachment and knead on medium speed for 8 minutes.
- Remove dough to a clean work surface and flatten. Sprinkle chocolate chips on top and fold dough over to enclose them. Knead dough to incorporate chocolate chips, about 2 minutes, then form into a ball. Try not to use any extra flour if possible.
- Grease a large bowl, place dough in bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 2-3 hours.
- Heat oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in the lower third of the oven. Remove dough to a clean work surface and cut off 1/4 of the dough. Form the larger piece of dough into a ball and place on a baking sheet covered in parchment paper.
- Cut the smaller piece of dough in half then remove a little bit from each half for the skull. Roll the remaining pieces into bone shapes keeping the ends a bit bigger than the middle.
- Beat the remaining egg and brush the large round with egg wash. Criss-cross the 'bones' over the top and brush those with egg as well, pressing gently to attach. Place the 'skull' on the very top of the loaf where the bones cross and brush with egg wash. Sprinkle loaf with remaining tablespoon of sugar. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise 30 minutes.
- Bake until bread sounds hollow when you tap on the side and is firm to the touch, about 40 minutes. Remove to a wire rack and let cool at least 30 minutes before slicing.