Well, Halloween has FINALLY passed. Everyone gets so whipped into a frenzy over cocktails with eyeballs in them, cookies in the shape of dismembered digits and cupcakes with brain-colored frosting- it's kind of a relief when we can get back to enjoying delicious, non-themed fall food! However before we get entangled in the typical Thanksgiving frenzy, I would like to tell you about another November celebration that I love.
Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican celebration that happens to coincide with the American celebration of Halloween, but has a more "down-to-earth" feel about it (get it?).... On this day, families gather together to pray for the souls of family and friends who have died. The celebration occurs on November 2, which is the Catholic holiday "All Souls Day". On this day families visit cemetaries to clean the graves of loved ones, and build altars to honor the dead. These altars can also be found in many homes, as an incentive to souls to visit and hear the prayers of their families. Altars, or ofrendas, typically include favorite foods of the deceased, including various fruits, beverages such as beer and tequila, marigolds, sugar skulls, candied pumpkin and Pan de Muertos. All of these are gifts to welcome the deceased home, but are also eaten by the living participants. This day is not meant to be a day of mourning, but rather a celebration of life and the return of loved ones- feasting and partying accompanies the praying. (If you'd like to learn more, go here.)
I have always loved Day of the Dead, ever since I learned about it in some long-ago Spanish class. It's a party to celebrate life, and to keep loved ones with you always- plus there is a lot of feasting and fun that goes along with it! And I love the beautiful, colorful Day of the Dead art, like the sugar skulls that are given as gifts. The colorful little skulls in my altar were purchased at an AMAZING store in Austin, TX that was absolutely filled to the brim with Day of the Dead art. Luckily we flew and I had to carry on, or I would have appropriated a LOT more... Last year SW and I even planned to go as Day of the Dead skeletons for Halloween, until I came down with the plague. We ended up just carving some Day of the Dead themed pumpkins instead. The two on the left are clearly the handiwork of SW, as demonstrated by their superior carvings.
However, this year I went on the hunt for some festive Day of the Dead celebrations in my neck of the woods. It was nigh impossible! No one seems to be celebrating sufficiently in the DC/MD/VA area, and if they are they aren't advertising it. I did manage to find a huge, awesome Day of the Dead altar at the Mexican Cultural Institute. I ran right over there to snap some pictures, interrupted some private tequila tasting on the basis that "I came all the way from Virginia!!", then ran back home to build my own ofrenda and begin my preparations for Pan de Muertos or "Dead Bread" (recipes and photos after the jump).
Pan de Muertos
Pan de Muertos is a sweet-but-not-too-sweet yeast bread, laced with anise seed and injected with lots of delicious butter. It is very similar to brioche, one of my fave breads to bake.
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon anise seed
- 1/2 ounce (2 1/4 oz packets) active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1/2 cup water
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
- 4 large eggs
- 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 egg yolk beaten with 2 teaspoons water
- Combine sugar, salt, anise seed, and yeast in a small mixing bowl. Heat milk, water, and butter in a small saucepan over medium heat until the butter is just melted; do not allow it to boil. Add the milk mixture to the dry mixture and beat well with a wire whisk.
- Stir in the eggs and 1 1/2 cups of the flour and beat well. Add the remaining flour, little by little, stirring well with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured wooden board and knead until it is smooth, elastic, and no longer sticky, about 9 to 10 minutes. Don't worry if the bread seems like it will NEVER become unsticky, just keep kneading patiently and you will be rewarded with a beatuiful lump of dough.
- Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a clean kitchen towel, and allow the dough to rise in a warm area until it has doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
- Heat the oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Punch down the dough and divide it into 2 pieces. Cut 3 small (about 1-ounce) balls from each half and mold them into skull-and-bones shapes. Shape the large balls of dough into round loaf shapes and place the skull-and-bones on top. Place the breads on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and let them rise another hour.
- Brush the loaves with the egg yolk mixture and bake. Halfway through baking, about 20 minutes, remove the loaves from the oven and brush again with egg wash and sprinkle lightly with granulated sugar. Return to the oven and bake until the loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped, about another 20 minutes.
And that's that. Remember to make your Pan de Muertos for next year's celebration or you'll have hell to pay when you meet up with your friends and fam on the other side...