Towns in Mexico, and other Latin American countries each celebrate the first of November differently. In Guatemala and Bolivia, “Todos Santos” (All Saint’s Day) is a time to gather at the cemeteries and leave flowers and food for the spirits of loved ones. In Mexico, “Day of the Dead” is celebrated in a similar fashion, resulting from a combination of pre-Hispanic beliefs merging with the Catholic holiday “All Saint’s Day.” One must-have food is the pan de muertos (day of the dead bread). Let’s learn the history, and then make our own!
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Why do people celebrate death?
In many places of the world, death is seen as a part of the natural life cycle: flowers that die leave behind seeds to sprout new life, and people who pass on leave many gifts for their families. Day of the Dead is a time to remember the people who have died. One of the most typical foods consumed during this first week of November in Mexico is a bread called Pan de Muertos, that is flavored with anise and orange blossom water. Most people in modern Mexico buy it from panaderías (bakeries) that begin to make the bread in the weeks leading up to the holiday. In fact, if you have a significant Mexican population near your city, you might be able to find some pan de muerto outside of Mexico! But in case you are an adventurous cook, below I’m sharing a recipe with you here to make this sweet bread at home.
History of Day of the Dead
Hundreds of years ago, the Aztecs invited the spirits of their dead relatives to visit them by playing music, lighting candles, and setting out hundreds of marigolds to lead the spirits to them. They would also make their favorite food for the spirits, hoping that they would be able to feast on it together. In the 1500’s the Spanish explorers spread throughout Mexico and brought with them Catholic celebrations such as Nov 1 (All Saints’ Day) and Nov 2 (All Souls’ Day), when the Spanish people would pray for people who have died. The Spanish tried to get the Aztecs to celebrate the same way, but the Aztecs held onto their beliefs. After a while the celebrations combined and became a Mexican holiday, and now most people celebrate from Oct 31- through Nov 2.Every city, town, and family celebrates a little differently.
Popular Foods for Day of the Dead
The most popular foods in Mexico for this holiday are: mole (a spicy sauce that includes chiles, chocolate, spices, and sometimes nuts), tamales (meat, cooked inside cornmeal flour, wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf), pan de muerto (Day of the Dead bread). Here is a recipe for pan de muerto, which can be shaped as a ball with bones on top, like a skull. This recipe comes from Patricia Quintana, an incredible chef from Mexico, author of many cookbooks and owner and chef of Izote in Mexico City. This recipe was originally printed in The Taste of Mexico by Patricia Quintana. Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1986.
Makes two round loaves, active time 1 hour, total time 14 hours.
1/2 cup warm water
3/4 to 1 ounce dry yeast
2 1/4 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 egg yolks
1 cup butter
1/2 cup lard
1 tablespoon orange peel, grated
3 tablespoons anise extract
7 1/2 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons Orange Blossom Water
For the Glaze:
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup water
2 egg yolks
Sugar to taste
1. Prepare the dough: Put warm water in a glass bowl. Add yeast, stirring to dissolve. Add 6 to 8 tablespoons flour to yeast and water to form a stiff dough. Set aside again in a warm spot until doubled in volume.
2. In a separate bowl, or on the counter, sift remaining flour and sugar. Add salt, 3 eggs, 7 egg yolks, butter, lard, orange peel, orange-blossom and anise extracts, and 6 1/2 tablespoons milk. Mix well, and knead briefly.
3. Before mixing the ingredients Add yeast mixture, and knead until dough is smooth and elastic. Place in a greased glass bowl, and spread a little butter on the surface. Cover dough with a dish towel, and set aside in a warm spot for 12 hours or until doubled in volume.
4. Knead briefly again. From the dough, pinch two 2-inch balls, 8 2-inch strips, and eight 1-inch balls. Divide remaining dough in half. Roll into 2 circles 6 inches in diameter. Place circles on a greased baking sheet.
5. Beat together 1 egg, 1 egg yolk, and 1 tablespoon milk. Brush circles with mixture. Place 2-inch ball in center of each circle, and decorate the circumference with 1-inch balls and strips. Allow bread to rise for 1 hour in a warm place.
6. Preheat oven to 375°F. Bake bread for 30 to 40 minutes.
Prepare the glaze: Put flour, water, egg yolks, and egg in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes or until mixture thickens to consistency of heavy cream.
Brush freshly baked bread with glaze. Sprinkle bread with sugar, and return to oven. Bake for five minutes. Remove from oven, and sprinkle with more sugar. Allow to cool. Serve with hot chocolate.
Here’s a nice video that shows a traditional kneading method: