|Elements of an alter: marigold leaves, cut paper for banners and bread|
UPDATE 11/1/13: Today I made my pan de muertos the same as always, but added an orange glaze, as they do in some parts of Mexico. Wow! It is soooo good! Super simple: 1/2 cup sugar and 1/3 cup orange juice boiled together for 2 minutes. When the loaf comes out of the oven, brush the glaze all over and sprinkle sugar over all. (also please note: I have clarified the baking times in the recipe below. For 2 medium loaves, it should take about 30 minutes; for 1 large loaf, it might take about 40. Watch it carefully and when you tap it and it sounds hollow, it's done!)
Today is foggy and cold, and feeling very much like November.
I've been thinking about the Pan de Muertos, which is so popular across Mexico and parts of the U.S. during Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities November 1st and 2nd. This holiday pre-dates the arrival of Christianity in Mexico and was celebrated by the Aztecs. It is called mihcailhuitl in the Aztec language, Nahuatl.
Far from being a somber and mournful occasion, Day of the Dead is a celebration of life and the lives of those who have gone before us. It is an invitation to the spirits of our beloved deceased to come for a visit, to stay and rest awhile and to hear our prayers for and stories about them, to know that they are not forgotten.
Prevalent in these celebrations is the bread of the dead. I make some every year and it is simply delicious, sweet with a slight taste of anise. While the bread can be shaped into animals or angels (for instance), we make the round loaf decorated with dough bones.
My little Dia de los Muertos alter, on my mantle, has reminders of those I have loved who have left the earth. To name a few: a red rose and ceramic bird for one friend, a Maria doll and jar of mole for another (see here for that story), a tiny glass ring box from one grandma, one of the whisks my other grandma used. And this year, I have added a tube of red lipstick to honor my beautiful aunt who died just a few weeks ago. We will enjoy the bread with happy memories of them in mind.
Here is the recipe, from the Mexican state of Puebla, via Karen Hursh Graber. I have used it for years:
Pan de Muertos
makes 1 large bread or 2 medium
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon of anise seeds
2 packets yeast
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup butter
3 - 4 1/2 cups flour
Mix the first five dry ingredients in a large bowl.
In a small pan, heat milk, water and butter, just until butter is melted. Add this liquid mixture to the dry mixture and beat well.
Mix in eggs and 1 1/2 cup flour; beat well. Add some flour, little by little, until the dough holds together and can be poured out onto a floured surface. Knead for 5-10 minutes or until the dough is pliable and elastic.
Put the dough in a greased bowl and let rise until doubled. Punch dough down. Pull off a small part of the dough and reserve. Shape the remainder into a ball. With the reserved dough, form some bone shapes and place these on top of the dough ball.
Let rise another hour.
Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes for 2 medium loaves or about 40 minutes for one large loaf. After baking, sprinkle with confectioner's sugar and colored sugar.*
* I prefer to use coarse sugar.
If you are interested in learning more, here is an excellent and lovely explanation of Dia de los Muertos from mex.com: Dia de Muertos And, while my little alter is humble, there are truly some magnificent ones being built right now. If you would like to make your own alter, here is a great resource: Day of the Dead Alters Of course, there are many helpful online resources.