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Pan de Muertos

In celebration of Mexico's Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead - All Soul's Day or All Saint's Day), this pan de muerto (Bread of the Dead) bread is shaped into skulls or round loaves with strips of dough rolled out and attached on top to resemble bones. Posted on tomzap.com by solutionsbarra.
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Recipes for this bread vary tremendously depending on the financial situation of the family or the predicaments of the bakers. I have found no better than this one, given to me when I was apprenticed - rather informally - to one of the leading bakeries in Mexico City some years ago. The quantity will make one large one - about 11 inches in diameter, which is impressive - and about three small ones, which are always good as little presents or for hungry Halloweeners.

The oven temperature is given for a large bread, it should be increased to just about 400F/200C for the smaller ones.

The starter can be made ahead or the day before. (Any leftover can be frozen but is best used right away.) In fact, the final mixture can be kneaded and then left overnight in the refrigerator - which I do to help it develop a better flavor - and brought up to room temperature before forming an the final rising.

I am giving an exact translation from the metric weight, knowing that with bread dough a little variation here and there does not change the end product significantly........Diana Kennedy

    THE STARTER:
    1 pound (4 scant cups) unbleached flour, plus extra for bowl and working surface
    1/2 ounce (1 1/4 teaspoons) sea salt
    2 ounces (1/3 cup) sugar
    Scant 1 ounce (3 scant tablespoons) crumbled cake yeast or 1 1/2 scant tablespoons dry yeast
    1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
    3 large eggs, lightly beaten

    THE FINAL DOUGH:
    The Starter torn into small pieces
    1/2 pound (1 cup) sugar
    7 ounces (14 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing baking sheets
    1 pound unbleached flour, plus extra for board and bowl
    8 egg yolks, lightly beaten with 2 tablespoons water
    1/4 cup water, approximately
    1 teaspoon orange flower water and/or grated rind of 1 orange

    THE GLAZE:
    4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
    1/4 cup melted unsalted butter, approximately
    1/3 cup sugar, approximately

THE STARTER:

Put the flour, salt, sugar and yeast into a mixing bowl and gradually beat in the water and eggs. (Mexican bakers do not bother to cream the yeast, knowing that it is fresh - do it if you wish.) Continue beating until the dough forms a cohesive mass around the dough hook; it should be sticky, elastic and shiny - about 5 minutes. Turn out onto a floured board and form into a round cushion shape. Butter and flour a clean bowl. Place the dough in it and cover with greased plastic wrap and a towel and set aside in a warm place - ideally 70F/21C - until the dough doubles in volume, about 2 hours.

THE FINAL DOUGH:

Liberally grease 4 baking sheets (for both breads while proofing). Put the starter, sugar and butter into a mixing bowl and mix well, gradually beating in the flour and egg yolks alternately. Beat in the water and flavoring - you should have a slightly sticky, smooth, shiny dough that just holds its shape (since eggs, flours and climates differ, you may need to reduce or increase the liquid). Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and form into a round cushion shape.

Wash out mixing bowl, butter and flour it, and replace the dough in it. Cover with greased plastic wrap and a towel and set aside in a warm place - ideally about 70F/21C - for about 1 1/2 hours, until it almost doubles in size, or set aside overnight in the bottom of the refrigerator.

Bring the dough up to room temperature before attempting to work with it. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and divide the dough into two equal pieces. Set one aside for forming later. Take three quarters of the dough and roll it into a smooth ball. Press it out to a circle about 8 inches in diameter - it should be about 1-inch thick. Press all around the edge to form a narrow ridge - like the brim of a hat - and transfer to one of the greased baking sheets. Cover loosely with greased plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place (about 70F/21C) to rise about half its size - about 1 hour. Taking the remaining one-quarter of the dough, divide it into four equal parts. Roll one of the parts into a smooth ball. Roll the other 3 strips about 8 inches long, forming knobs as you go for the "bones." Transfer the four pieces to another greased tray, cover loosely with greased plastic wrap, and set aside to rise for about 1 hour.

Repeat these steps to form the second bread with the other piece of dough that was set aside. Heat oven to 375F/190C.

At the end of the rising period, carefully place the strips of dough forming the "bones" across the main part of the bread, place the round ball in the middle to form the "skull," and press your finger in hard to form the eye sockets. Brush the surface of the dough well with the beaten yolks and bake at the top of the oven until well browned and springy - about 15 to 20 minutes. Turn off the oven, open the door, and let the bread sit there for about 5 minutes more. Remove from the oven, brush with melted butter, and sprinkle well with sugar.

Source: The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy (Bantam Books, 1989)

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