Guest Author - Valerie Aguilar
In Spanish, the phrase pan de muertos means "bread of the dead," and is the traditional sweet-bread baked for Día de los Muertos, or "day of the dead." Día de los Muertos is actually not just one day but a festival that lasts at least two days celebrating the living and the dead. Families prepare for the festivities days and even weeks ahead. They create altars in their homes to honor their dead. The altar is decorated with flowers, candles, photographs of the deceased, and papél picado. Once the family altar is decorated the family places ofrendas or offerings on the altar.
The typical ofrendas include the favorite dishes of the deceased, liquor, cigarettes, calaveras de azucar, or sugar skeletons and pan de muertos. As a significant facet of the ofrendas and Day of the Dead altars, pan de muerto can be traced back to the ancient Aztec practice of placing food offerings on the graves of those who died. They believed that the path to the underworld was long and difficult with nothing to eat along the way. The food offerings were meant to sustain the spirits on their arduous journey to their underworld called Mictlán.
Pan de muertos dates back to the days of the Spanish conquest. Sugar, butter and wheat flour were unknown in Meso-America prior to the conquest. After the Spanish conquest, the culture of the Aztecs was permeated with the beliefs of the Catholic Church. Accordingly, the Day of the Dead corresponds with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. Priests concentrated on converting and saving souls as well as restyling the natives’ dependency on corn. Wheat was a dire necessity since it was the only grain that could be used for communion wafers. The skills of milling flour and baking were taught to the Mexican locals. Gradually wheat became a part of the Mexican diet. Today Mexico is renowned for thousands of sweet and savory baked goods.
After days of preparation, it is not unusual for families to spend the Day of the Dead cleaning and decorating the grave of a loved one. They also may erect an altar on the grave and place the ofrendas there. In a celebratory picnic atmosphere, the family eat, drink and share their memories and stories of their dead loved one. Some even spend the entire night visiting with the souls of their loved ones, beside their graves. Some of the food that the family shares are tamales, from the Aztec word tamalli which means "wrapped." This food consists of a corn-meal dough and some type of filling that is wrapped in either corn husk or banana leaf, and steamed. They also enjoy calabaza or pumpkin baked with brown sugar and cinnamon.
The most significant food item for Día de los Muertos is the pan de muertos. Every family makes ofrendas of pan de muertos and enjoys eating it at the graveside. Markets, bakeries and road side stands flood the market with pan de muertos during this season. Here is an easy pan de muertos recipe for you to try at home.
Pan de Muertos
½ cup sugar
1 Tbsp. Salt
1 tsp. anise seeds
2 packets active dry yeast
4 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup milk
½ cup water
1 stick of butter (1/2 cup)
In a medium bowl mix the first four dry ingredients. Do not add flour.
In a saucepan on medium heat stir in the milk, water and butter, stirring until the butter melts.
Pour the liquid mixture over the dry mixture beating well with whisk. Add 4 large eggs and whisk until incorporated. Add 1 ½ cups flour whisking well. Continue to add flour a little at a time use a spatula or spoon to continue mixing until the flour is well incorporated.
Turn out dough on a lightly floured surface and knead the dough until it is no longer sticky.
Place dough in a lightly greased large bowl and cover with a dish cloth and allow to rise for 1 ½ hours.
An hour and a half later, place oven rack in the center of oven and preheat to 350F.
Punch bread down and place on clean flat surface. Cut off 1/6 of bread and set aside. Cut the remaining dough in half and shape into two circular loaves. Take the remaining dough and separate into 10 pieces to decorate the loaves. Shape eight pieces to look like bones and crisscross two of the bone shapes across each loaf. Shape the last two pieces into balls and place in the center of the loaves.
Place both loaves on a cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes.
½ cup orange juice
1 cup sugar
Grated peel of one orange
In saucepan mix ½ cup of orange juice with 1 cup of sugar and grated orange peel. Cooking over medium heat, stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.
Remove loaves from oven, and coat well with the orange mixture. Sprinkle sugar lightly over bread.
Now you have your beautiful and delicious pan de muertos.
Disfrute con mis saludos!