One day in early October, signs popped up all over the university campus: Dile ¡no! al Halloween. It was the equivalent of a “Just say no” campaign against a day devoted to pagan witches and ghosts, and there would be no trick or treating at UAG, the Catholic university I attended in Guadalajara, Mexico. However, Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, was a highlight of the semester.
Although my heritage is Mexican-American and we kept a lot of the food traditions from the Mexican side of the family, my dad wasn’t really a practicing Catholic, and Día de los Muertos was never an occasion we celebrated while I was growing up. That long-ago autumn in Mexico, though, I loved taking part in the celebrations, which were a combination of wacky fun (macabre costume parades and coffin races across the campus), solemn food and drink offerings and cemeteries decorated with marigolds to honor departed loved ones, and all kinds of seasonal treats like amaranth and sugar skulls and the traditional pan de muertos, or bread of the dead.
I taught high school Spanish for a number of years, and making pan de muertos was one of the ways my students learned more about Día de los Muertos. Pan de muertos is a good fine-textured and somewhat dense egg bread, often flavored with a little nutmeg or anise seed. When I used to make pan de muertos with students in class, it was done in stages with the dough rising in the refrigerator to accommodate the schedule (although students always tried to convince me they could skip algebra or biology to hang out and watch the dough rise). The dough does need a good long rising period, so if you have errands that will take a couple of hours, mix the dough first and it will be ready to shape when you get back to it.
Update October 29: I forgot the butter when I sent this recipe to Kara to post, but I’ve added it to the recipe.
Pan de Muertos
- 2 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast (1 package)
- ¼ cup lukewarm water
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- ¼ cup flour
- 4 eggs
- 1/3 cup melted butter
- 3 cups flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg (some cooks make pan de muertos with anise seed instead of nutmeg)
- 1/3 cup sugar
- Up to ½ cup additional flour if needed
- Sugar for sprinkling
In a mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in the water. Stir in the sugar and ¼ cup flour and let it sit in a warm place until the mixture is risen and bubbly (20-30 minutes – by the way, this type of yeast-flour-water mixture is called a sponge).
Mix the 3 cups flour, salt, nutmeg, and sugar. Break one of the eggs into a cup and keep about a teaspoonful of the whites to use as a wash on the dough before baking. Blend the rest of that egg and the other three eggs into the sponge and then add the melted butter and the flour mixture (much easier if you have a sturdy stand mixer with a dough hook). Knead the dough with the hook or by hand until the dough is very smooth and elastic, adding some of the extra flour if needed. It is a heavy dough, so give it time and plenty of machine power or muscle, at least 15 minutes.
Place the well-kneaded dough in an oiled bowl, then turn the dough over so the exposed surface of the dough is oiled. Let it rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 2½ – 3 hours (I put mine in the oven, heated to about 100 F. and then turn the heat off).
Punch the dough down and divide it in half. For each pan de muertos, pinch off a small handful of dough and shape it into a ball. Take another piece and roll it out into a rope about 12-14 inches long and cut into 4-6 pieces (these shapes represent a skull and bones). Shape each large lump of dough into a round loaf; place the skull dough ball in the center with the bones radiating out from the skull.
Whisk the reserved egg white with a few drops of water or milk until frothy, then brush it over the shaped loaves. Sprinkle generously with sugar and let it rise for another hour, then bake at 375 F. until it is golden brown (once again, I forgot to look at the clock – you’ll know it is done when it smells fabulous and looks like the picture).
I only wanted one pan de muertos, so I made some little cheese buns with half of the dough. They are great, and I’ll definitely be making them again. I used chunks of emmentaler, about ½ inch thick and 2 inches across. Shape the buns by flattening the dough into circles about 4 inches across and place whatever kind of cheese you like in the center. Pull the dough up around the cheese and press to seal the dough; place seam side down on the baking sheet, brush with melted butter, and let rise and bake at 375 F. I had the cheese buns on the same baking sheet as the pan de muertos, but they got done sooner.
I mostly skipped the history/culture lesson this time. My former students would be shocked to read this because I always made them do real research rather than citing anonymous open source authors, but the Wikipedia article on Day of the Dead is quite informative and has some great photos.
One more update: a friend sent me this great New Yorker article on the Day of the Dead theme. Even though we are past the day now, it’s pretty darn funny (especially for teachers).
¡Ándale, ahorita! ¡Make pan de muertos!