This was a post I wrote on November 1, 2010 and is still as relevant as ever. The weather begins to turn, I think of Oaxaca, and I begin to crave a cup of Chocolate and Pan de Muerto to dunk in it. Making this is so worth the effort both for the amazing bread, and for the comfort of joining in an age-old ritual and art of remembering and honoring those who have gone before us.
In México, los Días de los Muertos is a holiday rich in tradition. My sister Emily and I were studying in Oaxaca during fall semester of 1999 when we experienced it for ourselves, November 1st and 2nd. One of the most vivid memories I have from those two days were at dusk in la Ciudad de Oaxaca. Thousands of candles were flickering throughout the Zócalo, and there was color everywhere … sand sculptures formed the most vibrant skeletons you have ever seen, with a border of bright orange marigolds. It was the kind of experience that made me realize, I can only be here, in Oaxaca.
Retrato del Muerto by Adam R. Dickerson, (c) 2007
For over the past 2,000 years, the Aztec people of this area had been celebrating and honoring their dead. With the arrival of the Spanish early in the 16th century, these ancient traditions became blended with the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day to become what we now know as los Días de los Muertos. Oaxaca remains very traditional due to its geographic location and terrain, and due to a healthy state pride for their culture. On this holiday, families build altars for their dead to include photographs, favorite foods and drinks, and memoribilia, and then they throw a party and remember. Often, Pan de Muerto is included in the shrine.
As it so happened, our university was located directly across from a bakery. By peering into the windows during the days leading up to this holiday, we had our introduction to Pan de Muerto- translated to Bread of the Dead. This is a yeasty egg bread flavored with canela and anise that has a touch of sweetness and is regularly served (even dunked) with Mexican hot chocolate. The bread is formed in several shapes such as angels or bones or made as rolls, and then sometimes decorated. I remember the first morning of Los Días when I sat down at the kitchen table of my host family, and a large cup of steaming hot chocolate was placed before me with a fresh roll of Pan de Muerto. I experienced one of the comfort foods I never knew I had always been missing.
So, with fond memories made and stored away, I went on with my life and always thought of this bread with nostalgia. It wasn’t until my brother Adam painted the skull, pictured above, that my Oaxacan memories were stirred back to life, and with them the desire for Pan de Muerto. As the story goes, Adam painted this, and I fell in love with it. But I thought, who can hang a skull on the wall? Too morbid, too scary … right? Wrong. I obsessed over this painting for over 3 years before I decided that I needed it to be mine! I happily became one of Adam’s patrons, and have been biding my time, waiting for this holiday to make the bread at last.
The recipe I chose was from Zarela Martinez’s book: The Food and Life of Oaxaca. This gift from my dear friend Nicky is the kind of book that makes me want to stop everything, curl up to read and reminisce of my time in that enchanting land. It was published in 1997, just a couple of years before I was there, and the recipe is from “Gabriel Cruz Aguilar, a master baker in the town of San Antonio in the Valley of Oaxaca, who bakes up to a thousand loaves a day for the celebration.” I couldn’t think of a better recipe to try. The home-made attempt was better than I dared to hope for. It is light, rich in flavor, and just like I remembered it. Muchas gracias to the people of Oaxaca for the tradition and the inspiration.
Pan de Muerto (Pan Resobado)
by Gabriel Cruz Aguilar, adapted by Zarela Martinez
Notes from Stephanie:
- For good canela/Ceylon cinnamon, try The Spice House.
- Pay special attention to the amount of flour you add. I used the minimum amount required by the recipe and it was nearly too much. Flour differs according to origin, so start with less and add more as needed during the kneading phase.
- I recommend using large bowl for the first step with the infusion, yeast, sugar, and flour as it grows quickly…I found myself with a lava flow over the side of my bowl!
- For asthetic purposes, I brushed my loaves and rolls with egg white left over from the recipe.
- Watch your baking time on this, if the rolls have risen properly, they will bake quickly, and for me, even several minutes less than the recipe states. I did use foil to tent my loaf. The loaves are ready when they are golden and sound hollow when you tap them.
- One 3-inch piece canela
- 1 tsp. anise seed
- 1 ounce dry yeast
- 8 1/2 to 9 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, or as needed
- 3/4 c. granulated sugar
- 1 tsp. salt
- 3/4 c. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and kept slightly warm
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 4 large egg yolks, at room temperature
- 1/2 c. dark raisins
- Place the canela and anise seed in a small saucepan with 3 cups water and boil rapidly until reduced to 1 1/2 cups. Strain the infusion; place 1 cup in a medium-size bowl, reserving the rest. Let cool to warm (110 F). Dissolve the yeast in the liquid. Stir in 1 cup of the flour and 1/4 cup of the sugar; mix to a smooth batter. Let stand in a warm place until foamy, about 10 minutes.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine 7 cups of the remaining flour with the remaining 1/2 cup sugar and the salt. Make a large well in the center. Stir down the prepared yeast mixture and add along with the melted butter. Add the whole eggs, egg yolks, raisins, and reserved spice infusion to the well. With the fingers of one hand, break the yolks; begin combining the liquid ingredients in the well and gradually working in more of the flour from around the sides until you have a uniformly mixed dough. At this stage it will be very loose and sticky.
- Use some of the remaining flour to generously flour a work surface. Turn out the dough and begin kneading it, working in more flour as necessary to produce a soft, yielding, but kneadable consistency. Knead for about 20 minutes, until the dough is silky and elastic. Place in a greased bowl and let stand in a warm place, covered with a damp towel or plastic wrap, until doubled in volume, about 30 to 40 minutes.
- Punch down the dough and shape into three 6-inch round loaves or about 22 to 24 rolls. Place on greased baking sheets and let stand in a warm place loosely covered with damp cloths or greased plastic wrap, until doubled in volume, about 45 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 375 F.
- With a very sharp small knife or razor blade, make 3 parallel slashes across the top of each loaf or roll. Bake about 35 to 40 minutes for the loaves, 15 to 20 minutes for rolls. Check after 10-15 minutes and tent with aluminum foil if the crust is darkening too quickly.
From Stephanie: If you want to decorate your bread, try using about 1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed orange juice mixed into a cup of powdered sugar (or so) for a nice glaze. I had some handy sparkly cake decorating tubes on hand which I used for the skull and cross bone art.