Traditions associated with Halloween and All Saint's Day seem to be country specific. Most of Europe views Halloween as a bother and further evidence that American culture and advertising is tainting their own. Prior to the 1950's, only English and Spanish speaking countries truly observed the day, though I'm told that in some areas of Germany knives were put away to thwart returning spirits who might wish to do the household harm. All Saint's Day is another matter. It is a religious holiday in most countries of the world, and while most traditions associated with the day are subdued, those observed in Peru and Mexico are especially interesting. I first wrote about pan de muerto in 2009 and I thought this would be a great time for it to make an encore performance.
From the kitchen of One Perfect Bite...The Day of the Dead, or Dia de Los Muertos, represents the melding of an old Aztec tradition with the religion of the Conquistadors. The celebration is actually a two day feast that coincides with the Catholic observance of All Saint's and All Soul's days. The first day of the celebration occurs on the 1st of November. It's called the Day of the Little Angels and it is set aside to remember children who have died. The second day is set aside to honor adults who have passed to the next life. It is important to understand that these are days of celebration rather than days of mourning. In homes that observe Dia de los Muertos, altars are built containing symbols of the four elements: fire, water, wind and earth. They are beautifully decorated and, because many believe that the deceased visit their homes during this celebration, food is placed on the altar to entice them to stay for the festivities. Feasting is an important part of both days of celebration. Good food, and clean homes are thought to entice the dead. Toy skeletons and skulls are welcome features and "dead" bread may even have a small skeleton, promising good luck, baked inside it. The second day of the celebration is usually spent outdoors with picnics in graveyards. It is a joyous time and seen as an opportunity for families to come together to honor the memories of those who have passed to the next life. It is hoped that the laughter and mention of the deceased will bring their spirits back to earth to visit with the assembled family members. To many, the Day of the Dead is a strange observance, but Mexican tradition views death as an important part of life, a natural consequence of living and one not to be feared. It's their belief that these celebrations connect families to each other and their deceased relatives, a proof, if you will, that the ties of love cannot be broken - even by the grave.
The Aztecs believed that death was a portal to another existence. Oral tradition tells us that the request of the dead before burial is, "Give me bread and sugar to help me on my journey." The bread of the dead, pan de muerto, is made only for the Dia de los Muertos celebration. It is a sweet, egg-rich bread and it can be found throughout Mexico, though its form differs vastly from one region to the next. The bread is supposed to resemble a skull and it is adorned with bones and sometimes tear drops.
I've chosen a very simple recipe for the bread and have opted for bare bones - forgive the pun - adornment. While this recipe appears in many places, I believe that its original source is "Look What We Brought You from Mexico." I actually had trouble with the first loaf I tried to make. I found 3 cups of flour produced a loaf that was heavy enough to be a door stop. The loaf you see in the photo was made with 2-1/2 cups flour. I've changed the flour measurement to reflect a range, but I strongly advise you mix with the lesser amount and use the last 1/2 cup for kneading. Here's the recipe, just in time for Dia de Los Muertos.
Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead)...from the kitchen of One Perfect Bite
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup (half a stick) butter, cut into 8 pieces
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2-1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup very warm water
2 eggs, divided use
2-1/2 to 3 cups all-purpose flour, unsifted
1/2 teaspoon anise seed
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons sugar
1) Bring milk to boil in a small saucepan; remove from heat. Stir in butter, 1/4 cup sugar and salt.
2) In large bowl, mix yeast with warm water until dissolved and let stand 5 minutes. Add the milk mixture.
3) Separate yolk and white of one egg, reserving white for glaze. Add yolk and 1 whole egg to yeast mixture. Stir in flour, blend until a dough ball is formed.
4) Flour a pastry board or work surface. Knead dough until smooth. Return to large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in warm place for 90 minutes.
5) Grease a baking sheet. Punch dough down. Knead again on floured surface. Divide it into fourths and set one piece aside. Roll remaining 3 pieces into "ropes."
On greased baking sheet, pinch 3 rope ends together and braid. Finish by pinching ends together on opposite side to form a circle. Use remaining dough to form bones. Place them on the baking sheet.
6) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cover bread with plastic wrap and let rise for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix anise seed, cinnamon and 2 teaspoons sugar together. In another bowl, beat egg white lightly.
7) Brush top of bread and bones with egg white, sprinkling only the loaf with sugar mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes. Cool. Yield: 1 loaf.
If you have enjoyed your visit here, I hope you'll take a minute to...
One Year Ago Today: Crock-Pot Chinese Hacked Pork
Two Years Ago Today: Pumpkin-Pecan Squares with Cinnamon Chips
Three Years Ago Today: Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Soup
Four Years Ago Today: Patatas Bravas