Pan de Muerto #TwelveLoaves

Happy Cinco de Mayo! Here at Casa de Dough, we are marking the occasion with a bread for…the Day of the Dead? Yup, Dia de los Muertos. On Cinco de Mayo. Yes, I know Dia de los Muertos is in late October/early November. And no, I'm not confused (well, confusion is my usual state, but not in this case). So why, you may ask—and with good reason—am I baking the “wrong” bread? Well, because the May posting date for TwelveLoaves happens to fall on Cinco de Mayo and our host Heather over at Girlichef chose Mexican breads as our theme. Ta da! See how neatly that wraps up? Work with me, people. Cinco de Mayo breads are hard to come by.

Mexico, as it turns out, has a rich history of wonderful breads—far beyond tortillas—and pan de muerto is one of the best. Dia de los Muertos is an important celebration that dates back to the Aztecs, a holiday when family and friends gather to remember and honor the departed and celebrate life. Pan de Muerto, the holiday's signature bread, varies by region—some top the bread with anise, some with sesame seeds—but this version is one of the best known. Rich and buttery—think Mexican brioche—orange scented, dusted with sugar and decorated with "bones," it truly is a bread that does great honor to the departed.

About the Recipe

As luck would have it, I already had a book in my library that was perfect for the TwelveLoaves theme: My Sweet Mexico by Fany Gerson, owner of La Newyorkina and Dough here in New York.  (See? There's a reason I collect cookbooks obsessively. Because you never know…) I actually bought My Sweet Mexico quite a while ago, after I happened to catch Fany on an episode of Chopped. She didn't win, darn it, but she was so flipping NICE (like, really nice, not "Nice Guy" nice) that I looked her up and immediately bought My Sweet Mexico and her other book, Paletas, as well. And shortly after THAT, I stopped by her cart on New York's High Line for a paleta and I was hooked.

If the title didn't give it away, My Sweet Mexico is all about Mexico's sweet treats, from pastries to breads to candies to beverages, and if your mouth isn't watering just thinking about it, then I don't know what I'm going to do with you. I actually started out making the pan de muerto in the book as my test bread and by all accounts—thank you Official Shaggy Dough Taste Testers—it was fantastic and definitely blog-worthy. Me? I couldn't taste it because I was deep in the throes of a gluten-, sugar-, soy-, dairy-, fun- and everything else-free cleanse (don't even ask). Torture, I'm telling ya. Not so much the cleanse, which wasn't awful, but not being able to taste what you're baking? Tor. Ture.

Now fast forward 10 days and when it came time to bake my official bread, something went majorly wrong. Not with the taste, but looks-wise? Noooo. Half of the bread exploded, while the other half sunk*.  Clearly, the fault was mine, since my test bread was a winner, and panic ensued. I didn't want to bail at the last minute (I don't think the old "the dog at my homework" excuse would have worked here) but there simply wasn't time to bake another, given the bread's long rise and 4-hour-minimum chill in the fridge, so I sadly went in search of another recipe, not necessarily a pan de muerto, just anything that fit the theme. But guess what I found? Fany had also authored a pan de muerto recipe for Fine Cooking, and this one was much faster from start to finish. Wheee!

Things, as they say, happen for a reason, because it turns out that I actually like this recipe better than the first. Both are excellent, make no mistake, and the flavor is quite similar, but the Fine Cooking bread has a lighter texture that I preferred, whereas the book recipe is a bit denser and more cake-like. I'm going with the Fine Cooking version here but I definitely recommend that you check out Fany's books and try the other version for yourself.

pan de muerto

Ingredients

Bread

  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 2-3/4 oz. (5-1/2 Tbs.) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • Two 4x1-inch strips of orange zest (peel only, no white pith)
  • 1 Tbs. orange blossom water
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/4 oz. (1-3/4 tsp.) active dry yeast
  • 15-3/4 oz. (3-1/2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour; more as needed
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • Vegetable oil as needed

Topping

  • 2 oz. (4 Tbs.) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar

Directions

  1. Add the milk, butter and orange zest strips to a microwave safe bowl and microwave in 15–20 second increments at until the butter melts. Keep an eye on things when the butter is almost melted so you don't overdo it. (You can also do this in a pan over medium heat if preferred.) Let the mixture cool until warm, then remove the orange zest. Whisk in the eggs, add the orange blossom water and set aside.
  2. Stir the yeast into 1/4 cup of warm water, no hotter than 110°F, then let it sit until bubbly.
  3. Add the flour, sugar and salt to the bowl of a stand mixer. Stir together to combine, the make a well in the center. Add the both the milk and the yeast mixtures to the well, then mix together on low speed with the paddle attachment of your mixture for a minute or two.
  4. Change to the dough hook and mix at medium speed until the dough is very smooth and slightly sticky. You can add more flour if necessary if you think it's too sticky.
  5. Form the dough into a ball and place it in a lightly oiled bowl, cover, and set aside in a warm spot until doubled in size, approximately  1–1 1/2 hours.
  6. When the dough has risen, turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface, deflate it gently, then cut off a small piece of dough (about the size of a lemon), cover and set aside.
  7. Divide the remaining dough in half and shape each half into a round. Place the rounds onto a baking sheet lined with parchment and flatten each round slightly.
  8. Cut two small, marble-sized pieces from the reserved dough, roll into balls, cover and set aside. Cut the remaining reserved dough into 4 pieces, then roll each piece into a rope slightly longer than the loaves. To make the bones, press down with your index and middle fingers, placed about 1" apart, and roll. Criss-cross two ropes over each loaf, overlapping in the center. Cover the loaves lightly and set aside to rise in a warm place, about 45 minutes or until doubled in size.
  9. While the dough is rising, preheat the oven to 350°F with a rack in the middle.
  10. When the dough has risen, dot some cold water on the top center of each loaf and press the reserved dough balls on top of the bones, making sure they adhere.
  11. Bake the loaves for 30–45 minutes, rotating the pan so they bake evenly. (If needed, cover loosely with foil and bake another 10 minutes more.) When done, the loaves should be golden brown and register an internal temperature of 190°F. Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack for a few minutes.
  12. While still warm, brush each loaf generously with melted butter, then sprinkle with sugar to coat. You may need to tilt the loaves to get even coverage.
  13. Serve at room temperature, best within a day of baking. Enjoy!

Notes (not many)

A vegetable peeler is great for getting long strips of orange peel.

My dough did seem a bit sticky so I added about 3 tablespoons more flour.

My breads baked in about 35 minutes and didn't need to be tented. Other commenters on Fine Cooking also noted that their cooking times were much shorter than recommended. So keep an eye on things!

I used waaay more sugar than the recommended 1/4 cup to coat the breads. Either I'm incredibly sloppy or I just suck at sugaring dough but it took me more like 3/4 of a cup to do the job.

*I had a little bit of an exploding problem with this dough as well but nowhere near as bad as before (sugar covers a multitude of sins and we'll all pretend we don't see the missing bones on one bread, okay? Okay.) But I think I MAY have figured out why things went phlooey. First, I think I totally miscalculated rise times, since it was very warm this weekend and I didn't want to over proof. And second, I used SAF Gold yeast, which is formulated for rich doughs, for my second and third bakes which may have given things a bit more ooomph than needed. I used regular active dry for my test bread and that one turned out fine. Who knows? I got to eat the mistakes and they were grand.

Thanks for a great theme, Heather!

Adapted from Fine Cooking

    About #TwelveLoaves

    #TwelveLoaves is a monthly bread baking party created by Lora from Cake Duchess and runs smoothly with the help of Heather of girlichef, and the rest of our fabulous bakers.

    Our host this month is Heather from girlichef, and our theme is Mexican Breads. For more bread recipes, visit the #TwelveLoaves Pinterest board, or check out last month's mouthwatering selection of #TwelveLoaves Cheese Breads!

    If you'd like to bake along with us this month, share your Mexican Bread using hashtag #TwelveLoaves!