Pan de Muerto - Bread of the Dead
When we traveled for the first time to the Yucatan, I wanted (of course) to try some typical Mexican breads. The bakeries in Cancun and Tulum had beautiful displays, and we were very eager to purchase a selection of those pretty little breads and pastries.
But what a disappointment! The attractive exterior was misleading - everything we bought tasted more or less bland and sweet.
Bakery in Tulum - a pretty disappointment!
I couldn't believe that this was all there is to Mexican breads. Moreover, I remembered having seen once a ghoulishly decorated bread for Halloween, and, back at home, consulted with my trusted advisers on all things food - "Fine Cooking" and "Cook's Illustrated".
Fany Gerson's recipe for Pan de Muerto  in "Fine Cooking" seemed promising, and had already some good reviews.
This Bread of the Dead is traditionally baked during the last weeks of October, before the Dia de los Muertos (November 1 and 2), and eaten at the cemetery, at the grave of a family member. The bone decoration is a reminder of the deceased, and the little roll on top represents a tear of grief.
I made some slight changes to the original recipe, substituting 10% of the white flour with whole wheat, and changing the technique to my preferred stretch and fold (S&F), with a slow overnight rise in the refrigerator.
Since other reviewers of the original "Fine Cooking" recipe warned that the actual baking time was shorter than stated in the instruction, I checked early, and found that my breads were done in approximately 36 minutes.
PAN DE MUERTO (adapted from Fany Gerson's recipe in "Fine Cooking")
127 g/4.5 oz whole milk, (1/2 cup)
78 g/2.75 oz unsalted butter (5 1/2 tbsp.), cut into small pieces
2 4x1-inch strips orange peel
1 tbsp. orange blossom water (or more)
3 eggs, lightly beaten
6 g/0.2 oz instant yeast (2 tsp)
400 g/14 oz all-purpose flour
47 g/1.75 oz whole wheat
50 g/1.65 oz sugar (1/4 cup)
2 g/0.1 oz salt (1/2 tsp)
14 g/0.5 oz butter (1 tbsp) melted, for brushing
22 g/0.8 oz sugar (1/8 cup) for sprinkling
Peeling the orange with a vegetable peeler is easy.
1. Put milk, butter, and orange peel in small saucepan over medium heat; stir until butter melts, 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool until warm. Discard orange peel, add orange blossom water, and whisk in eggs.
Melt butter in milk with orange peel
2. In mixer bowl, stir together flour, yeast, sugar, and salt. Add milk mixture, then mix at low speed until dough comes together and all flour is hydrated (1-2 minutes). Let dough rest for 5 minutes.
3. Resume kneading at medium-low speed for 6 minutes, dough should be smooth but still slightly sticky. (Resist the urge to add more flour, it is not necessary!)
4. Place dough on lightly oiled work surface. With oiled hands, stretch dough into a square and fold it in thirds like a business letter. Repeat this folding from both sides. Make a ball, pulling edges underneath, and place it in lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for 10 minutes.
5. Repeat S&F 3 times, in 10 minute intervals. After last fold, place dough, tightly covered, in refrigerator overnight. (Remove from the fridge 2 hours before using.)
6. Cut off lemon-sized piece (100 g/3.5 oz) of the dough and reserve. Divide remaining dough in halves and shape pieces on lightly floured surface into 2 rounds. Place rounds on parchment lined baking sheet and flatten tops with your hands.
7. With some of reserved dough, form 2 small rolls (à 7 g/0.25 oz), cover with plastic wrap and set aside.
8. Divide rest of reserved dough into 6 equal pieces. Roll into ropes (slightly longer than width of loaves.) Starting in the middle, press and twist ropes with your index and middle fingers about 1 inch apart to make knobs (the pinched parts should be really thin, too keep the pattern when the bread rises.)
Pinched into knobs to resemble bones
6. Arrange 3 ropes on top of each dough round, overlapping in the center and tucking ends under a bit. Mist with baking spray, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in warm place, about 45 - 60 minutes, or until breads are doubled in size. Poke dough gently with your finger, the indentation should not fill back again (if breads don't rise long enough they will burst in the oven and destroy the pattern!)
Decorated breads (without the "tear" on top) before rising
7. Preheat oven to 350°F. Adjust rack in oven middle.
8. Dab a little cold water on top of each round where ropes meet, and put reserved dough balls on top, pressing slightly so that they stick.
Ready for the oven
9. Bake breads for 18 minutes, then cover loosely with tin foil, and continue baking for another 18 minutes, or until they are golden brown (internal temperature at least 190ºF.)
10. Let breads cool for a few minutes on wire rack. Then brush them all over with melted butter. Holding loaves from the bottom, sprinkle sugar over the top, tilting them slightly to help coat them evenly.
Variation: Use 147 g/5.2 oz whole wheat and reduce all-purpose flour to 300 g/5.6 oz. Adjust with a little more milk, to keep the dough a bit sticky.
Orange blossom scented Pan de Muerto - better enjoy it while you are among the living!