Honor the Dead with Bread
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a festival observed in Mexico and certain parts of the United States. It marks the day – All Saints Day, Nov. 1 – that departed souls return to earth. Celebrations are held each year to honor the memory of loved ones, with elaborate decorated altars, candles and even a feast.
Usually there is a night vigil, as entire families congregate around a loved one’s gravesite, and mariachi bands perform the deceased’s favorite songs. Food is the center of the celebration and often saved until after the spirit has had a chance to eat. The air is thick with the aromas of food, flowers and candles.
Some of the popular foods served are moles (mo-lays) and tamales, traditional Mexican celebration dishes. But one item that is a must and can be found in Latino bakeries across the Bay Area is a sweet, egg-enriched Pan de Muerto, or “Bread of the Dead.” The most common shape of the bread is round, but sometimes it varies regionally. It’s not uncommon to see the bread in the shape of a rabbit, or even humans. Some Pan de Muerto has anise seed. Other times, it might be sprinkled with sugar. Often, there are little knobs and strips of dough on top that represent bones and skulls – the symbols of Day of the Dead.
There’s tremendous pride in this special cultural holiday. It is overwhelmingly beautiful – and delicious. Preparing the altars and cooking special food is a wonderful way to honor the people in your life who have passed.
Here is a recipe the kids can help prepare and the entire family can enjoy.
Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead)
- 1/4 cup whole milk
- 1/4 cup (half a stick) margarine or butter, cut into eight pieces
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 package fast-acting dry yeast
- 1/4 cup very warm water
- 2 eggs (Separate the yolk and white of one of the eggs.)
- 3 cups all-purpose flour, unsifted
- 1/2 tsp. anise seed
- 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 2 tsp. sugar
Bring milk to a boil and remove from heat. Stir in margarine or butter, 1/4 cup sugar and salt.
In a large bowl, mix yeast with warm water until dissolved and let stand five minutes. Separate the yolk and white of one egg. Add the yolk to the yeast mixture, but save the white for later. Now add flour to the yeast and egg. Blend well until a dough ball is formed.
Flour a work surface very well and place the dough in the center. Knead until smooth or in an electric mixer with a dough hook for at least seven to 10 minutes. Return to a large, lightly greased bowl and cover with a dish towel. Let rise in a warm place for 90 minutes. Meanwhile, grease a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
After the dough has expanded, carefully knead the dough again on a floured surface. Now divide the dough into fourths and set one fourth aside. Roll the remaining pieces into “ropes.”
On a greased baking sheet, pinch three rope ends together and braid. Finish by pinching ends together on the opposite side. Divide the remaining dough in half and form two long “bones.” Cross and lay them atop the braided loaf.
Cover the bread with a dish towel and let rise for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix anise seed, cinnamon and 2 teaspoons sugar together. In another bowl, beat egg white lightly.
When 30 minutes are up and the bread has had time to rest and rise, brush the top of the bread with egg white and sprinkle with the sugar mixture, except on cross bones. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.
¡Feliz Día de los Muertos!
Gigi Gaggero, a mother of two, is a former dean of students at the California Culinary Academy and the founder of Kids Culinary Adventures, which offers cooking classes and summer culinary camps. For more information, visit kidsculinaryadventures.com.