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Dead-on Delicious

In Mexico, all souls celebrate Dia de los Muertos with this rich, sweet bread.

To honor loved ones departed, pan de muerto is sometimes formed into a skull shape. More often, round loaves are decorated with “bones” made from extra dough.
To honor loved ones departed, pan de muerto is sometimes formed into a skull shape. More often, round loaves are decorated with “bones” made from extra dough. (Photo by Jim Scherer, styling by Mary Jane Sawyer)

In Mexico, All Saints and All Souls days, November 1 and 2, are celebrated as Dia de los Muertos - day of the dead - an annual chance for the living to party with the spirits of their deceased loved ones who return to earth for a brief visit. No somber occasion, this - Dia de los Muertos is a fiesta! The living create elaborate altars, or ofrendas (offerings), to welcome the returning souls, and both streets and cemeteries brim with revelers.

Whimsical skeleton figures called La Calavera de la Catrina animate the celebrations, and, of course, food plays a central role. The living prepare the favorite dishes of the honored dead, often including tamales, a candied pumpkin sweet called calabaza en tacha, and skull-shaped candies. The most important symbolic food is an egg- and butter-rich, anise-scented sweet bread called pan de muerto, which translates to "bread of the dead." Sometimes the loaves are round and sometimes they are shaped like skulls, and they're always decorated with pieces of dough fashioned to look like bones. The loaves are taken to the cemeteries to share, symbolically, with the departed - almost like a picnic with the great beyond.

PAN DE MUERTO (BREAD OF THE DEAD)
MAKES 2 SMALL LOAVES

1/4 cup anise seeds
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons grated zest from 2 large oranges
1/2 ounce (2 packages or 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
3/4 teaspoon salt
5 cups flour, plus extra for work surface
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
4 egg yolks, with one of the whites reserved and refrigerated, plus 2 eggs, lightly beaten together
1/2 teaspoon vegetable, corn, or canola oil

In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring 2 tablespoons anise seeds and 3/4 cup water to a boil. Remove from burner, cover, and let steep about 10 minutes. Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer, reserving the water and discarding the seeds.

Meanwhile, in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the sugar and zest until sugar is moistened and fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of anise seeds, yeast, salt, and 3 cups of flour, and beat to mix, about 30 seconds. With the mixer on low, add the reserved anise water and melted butter and beat until incorporated, about 45 seconds. With the mixer still on low, add the yolks and beaten eggs and beat until incorporated and dough is sticky, about 1 minute. With mixer on low, slowly add the remaining 2 cups of flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until fully incorporated.

Lightly dust a work surface with flour, turn the dough (along with any scraps at the bottom of the bowl) onto it, and knead for 10 minutes until smooth and elastic. Coat the interior of a large mixing bowl with oil, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil, cover loosely, and place in a warm, draft-free spot. Let rise until it doubles in size, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Lightly dust a work surface with flour, turn the dough onto it, punch down, and divide into 2 equal pieces. Pinch off about 1/5 of the dough from each and set aside. Shape the rest of the dough into 2 round balls and use the heel of your hand to flatten into disks about 2 inches thick. Place the disks as far apart as possible on a large baking sheet. Roll and stretch the reserved small pieces of dough into a long strip about the thickness of your little finger. Break the strip into several pieces, form knobs at the ends of each piece so they resemble bones, and place on the loaves in the pattern of your choice. (If you are really ambitious, shape each large piece of dough to resemble a skull and use the smaller pieces to fashion eyes, a mouth, or "bones.") Cover the loaves loosely and place in a warm, draft-free spot. Let rise until they double in size, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

To bake, set the oven rack in the middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees. In a small bowl beat the reserved egg white with 2 teaspoons water and brush all over the loaves. Bake, rotating the baking sheet halfway through, until the loaves are well-browned and crusty, 25 to 30 minutes. Place the bread on a wire rack and cool to just warm or room temperature before slicing.

Crowning touches

If you like, finish your pan de muerto with something sweet.

Orange Glaze In a small saucepan stir the grated zest of an orange and 1/4 cup of sugar until the sugar is moistened and fragrant. Add 2 1/2 tablespoons orange juice and bring to a boil. Boil for 2 minutes, remove from heat, and allow to cool. Brush the glaze liberally over the baked loaves before you move them to the cooling rack. If desired, sprinkle with cinnamon sugar or colored sugar before the glaze dries.

Sugar Icing In a small bowl stir 3/4 cup confectioners' sugar with 1 tablespoon plus a drop or 2 of orange juice until the mixture is smooth and spreadable. When the bread is cool, spread the icing on the loaves; allow icing to harden before slicing. If desired, sprinkle with cinnamon sugar or colored sugar before the icing dries.

Cinnamon or Colored Sugar In a small bowl mix 3 tablespoons sugar with 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon until blended (or place about 3 tablespoons colored sugar in a small bowl) and set aside. Melt 2 tablespoons butter and allow to cool. Brush the melted butter all over surfaces of the loaves before moving them to the wire rack to cool. Sprinkle with either cinnamon sugar or colored sugar before the butter dries.

Send comments and suggestions to Adam Ried at cooking@globe.com.

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