On the days leading to Nov. 1, pan de muerto is traditionally placed on Dia de los Muertos ofrendas, or Day of the Dead altars, along with foods, flowers and mementos of a family’s ancestors. Writer Adriana Velez adapted this sweet, soft bread recipe from Mexico City native and Austin resident Janet Kushner’s popular YouTube channel Jauja Cocina Mexicana. Velez adjusted the traditional method, which calls for 45 minutes of hand kneading and produces a lighter, more feathery loaf. It now calls for only 15 minutes of kneading. Each loaf serves four living humans or an infinite number of ancestors. Serve with Mexican hot chocolate, or champurrado.
Variations: Flavoring with orange blossom water is traditional, but vanilla extract may be substituted. Fany Gerson of La Newyorkina Bakery mixes in chopped Mexican chocolate. You could also add ground cinnamon to the sugar glaze.
Storage Notes: Leftover bread can be stored at room temperature, tightly wrapped, for up to 2 days.
Yield: (makes 2 small loaves)
- For the sponge
- 1 packet (7 grams) active dry yeast
- 1 tablespoon bread flour
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1/3 cup (80 milliliters) whole milk, warmed to 110 to 115 degrees (hot enough to have your pinkie in without burning)
- 1 teaspoon orange blossom water
- For the dough
- Scant 3 cups (360 grams) bread flour, plus up to a scant 1/2 cup (50 grams) more, as needed
- 1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar, plus about 1/4 cup (50 grams) to sprinkle on top
- Finely grated zest from 1 medium navel orange (about 2 teaspoons)
- 1 teaspoon ground star anise
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature
- 6 tablespoons (85 grams) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, plus 2 tablespoons (30 grams) melted and cooled to brush over the finished loaves
- 1 tablespoon canola or another neutral oil
Make the sponge: In a small bowl, using a fork, mix together the yeast, flour and sugar until combined. Add the milk and orange blossom water and gently mix to combine. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it aside in a warm place until the sponge is foamy, about 10 minutes.
Make the dough: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, combine the 3 cups (360 grams) of bread flour, 1/2 cup (100 grams) of sugar, orange zest, star anise and salt and mix on medium speed until well combined. Add the eggs and the foamy sponge and continue to mix on medium-high speed until a rough dough has formed.
Raise the mixer speed to high and add the 6 tablespoons (85 grams) butter, a couple of pieces at a time, kneading until the butter is fully incorporated into the dough and no bits of butter are visible, about 5 minutes. Stop the mixer and, using a silicone spatula, scrape down the sides of the bowl. Return the mixer speed to high and continue to knead the dough in the mixer on high speed until it pulls away from the sides of the bowl and starts to climb up the hook, about 10 minutes. The dough will be very soft and a bit tacky. If after 10 minutes the dough has not started to pull away from the sides of the bowl, or looks extremely soft, add a bit more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, up to an additional scant 1/2 cup (50 grams), and continue to knead the dough for an additional 5 minutes.
(If making pan de muerto by hand, whisk together 3 cups (360 grams) bread flour, 1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar, orange zest, star anise and salt in a bowl and form a well in the center. Whisk the eggs and then pour them, with the sponge, into the center. Knead in the bowl with a plastic scraper until combined, then mix in the butter a few pieces at a time and knead for 10 minutes. Dust a clean, cool countertop with a 1/4 cup (50 grams) flour, turn out the dough, and knead until the flour is incorporated, an additional 5 minutes.. Do not add too much flour as you knead the dough or the final bread will be dry and dense.)
Grease a large bowl with 1 tablespoon of oil. Transfer the dough to the bowl and roll it around to grease all over. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Shape the dough: Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
Turn the dough out onto a clean, dry counter. Cut off a roughly baseball-size (200-gram) piece of dough and reserve. Divide the remaining, larger piece of dough in half. Shape the two larger halves into smooth rounds by cupping your palms around them, rolling and dragging them gently toward you. Lay each round on the lined baking sheet, at least 3 inches apart.
Make the “bones”: Divide the reserved dough into 5 pieces, with four equal-sized pieces and one piece slightly smaller. Roll the four equal-sized pieces into ropes long enough to cross over each loaf, about 5 inches long. Spread out your index, middle and ring finger and use them to roll and press indentations into each short rope of dough, so they resemble bumpy bones. Lay two “bones” across each loaf, forming a cross in the center on the top. Gently tuck the ends under each loaf. Divide the fifth, smaller piece of dough in half and roll each half into a ball. Using your index finger, gently press into where the crosses intersect to form a dimple. Place one of the dough balls into each dimple, pressing gently to adhere it. Cover the loaves loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Bake the bread: Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees for at least 10 minutes.
Remove the plastic wrap from the risen loaves, and transfer them to the oven. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until deep brown. Transfer the bread to a wire rack and let cool until easily handled, about 30 minutes. Brush each cooled loaf with 1 tablespoon of the melted butter and sprinkle the sugar evenly over the loaves, letting the excess roll off.
To serve, slice the bread into wedges, or tear it apart with your hands.
Adapted by Adriana Velez from Janet Kushner’s recipe on Jauja Cocina Mexicana on YouTube.
Tested by Daniela Galarza.
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