Pan de muerto, bread of the dead, is an integral part of an ofrenda, an alter built to welcome back the dead. While pan de muerto can come in all sorts of sizes and shapes, classic pan de muerto has a cross of bones laid over the top. It used to be sold at bakeries only for the day of the dead, but it’s now found year-round at some panaderías. In her cookbook My Sweet Mexico, Fany Gerson calls for bread flour. I used Guisto’s Peak Performer flour, which has a protein level between an all-purpose and a bread flour (about 12 percent). I also added some medium-ground whole-wheat flour to add a bit of textural difference. I made the bread over the course of two days, leaving it in the refrigerator overnight in between rises. Refrigerating the rich, buttery dough makes it easier to shape.
Pan De Muerto
adapted from My Sweet Mexico, by Fany Gerson (Ten Speed Press, 2010)
Makes 2 round loaves
- 3 2/3 cup / 455 grams all-purpose or bread flour
- 1/2 cup / 60 grams whole-wheat flour
- 2 1/4 teaspoons 1 packet rapid rise yeast
- 2/3 cup / 160 grams whole milk at room temperature
- 1/2 cup / 95 grams sugar
- 1 teaspoon / 4 grams salt
- 1 teaspoon / 1 gram orange zest
- 1 teaspoon / 5 grams orange extract
- 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 cup / 230 grams (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cubed and left at room temperature
- 1 egg, beaten with a splash of water
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
- Sugar for sprinkling on top
In a bowl, whisk together the flours. In the bowl of a stand mixer, make a sponge: whisk together the yeast, 1/3 cup / 80 grams milk, and 1/2 cup / 60 grams of the mixed flour. The sponge will be sticky and stiff. Leave it in a warm corner of the kitchen until it puffs up slightly, about 30 minutes.
In the bowl that contains the remaining flour, whisk in the sugar, salt, and orange zest. Pour the flour mixture into the sponge. Fit the paddle attachment on the stand mixer and mix the dough briefly on low speed.
Add the remaining 1/3 cup / 80 grams milk, the orange extract, and the eggs and mix on low speed until just incorporated. With the mixer on low speed, add the butter in small pieces. Continue to mix until the dough starts to come together, about 5 minutes.
Remove the paddle attachment, cover the bowl loosely with a towel, and let the flour hydrate for 20 minutes.
Attach the dough hook to the stand mixer. Mix the dough on medium speed for about 10 minutes or until the dough looks soft and satiny and starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl and wrap around the dough hook. If the dough is still suck to the bottom of the mixer, add a tablespoon or two of flour and continue to mix for a few more minutes.
Lightly oil a large glass or ceramic bowl. Using a dough scraper or your hands, transfer the dough to the oiled bowl, cover with a lid or plastic wrap, and let rise on the counter until nearly double in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Punch down the dough, folding the top parts over the center to form a tight ball, and flip the ball over so the bottom is now facing up. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature, 2 to 3 hours. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Using a bench scraper or knife, cut off a piece of dough roughly the size of a large lime (about 60 grams). This will be used to make the “bones.”
Cut the remaining dough in half, with each half weighing roughly 1.2 pounds / 550 grams each. For each half, place the cut sides of the dough facing down. Cup both hands around the dough and rotate clockwise, tucking the edges of the dough under with the sides of your palm until a taut ball forms. Place each ball on the prepared baking sheets and press the tops down lightly to flatten slightly.
With the remaining lime-sized ball of dough, cut off two pieces the size of gumdrops and roll into small balls. These will go in the center of the cross of bones. Divide the remaining dough into four pieces. With the tips of your fingers, roll the pieces into thin dowels about 7 inches long, using a little flour if needed to keep the dough from sticking. Pinch the dough in a few places to make the dowels look like bones.
For each round, drape 2 “bones” over the top to form a cross. Put the gumdrop-sized ball in the center. Cover the dough with kitchen towels and let rest until the rounds have nearly doubled and feels light to the touch, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. (If you plan to bake one round at a time, refrigerate one of the rounds while the other one rises. When ready to bake the first round, remove the second from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature as the first one bakes.)
About 20 minutes before baking, preheat an oven to 350ºF.
Uncover the rounds of dough. Brush lightly and evenly with the egg wash. Bake until the crust takes on a deep golden color, about 45 minutes.
Remove the bread from the oven and brush gently with melted butter. Sprinkle sugar over the surface and return to the oven for 10 more minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely.