BY ALEJANDRA BORBOLLA
The celebrated ‘Pan de Muertos’ serves as a poignant reminder of the intricacies embedded within Mexican culture, each intricate detail carrying with it a tale of the nation’s rich history and traditions. What might appear as a mere culinary delight at first glance is, in essence, a cultural touchstone, a reflection of a people’s reverence for their ancestors and a testament to the interconnectedness of life and death.
As legends echo through the ages, the origins of ‘Pan de Muertos’ reveal tantalizing snippets of ancient sacrificial rituals intertwined with vibrant folklore. Tales whisper of hearts offered to deities, of symbols crafted in flour and sugar as offerings to the departed. From the symbolic blood-like red sugar to the meticulously designed bone-shaped decorations, every element speaks to a profound connection with the spiritual realm, a nod to the sacred bond between the living and the dead.
In the heart of Mexico’s bustling towns, the anticipation for Día de Muertos begins long before its official arrival, with the sweet aroma of freshly baked ‘Pan de Muertos’ wafting through the streets. Families, bound by tradition, gather in reverence and celebration, honoring the memory of their loved ones with these delectable offerings. The circular arrangement of the bones, carefully crafted by skilled hands, symbolizes the eternal cycle of life, reminding all who partake in this age-old custom of the delicate balance between existence and beyond.
While the practice of wearing protective wristbands has faded into obscurity, the spirit of the ‘Pan de Muertos’ continues to thrive, transcending borders and capturing the hearts of individuals far beyond the Mexican terrain. Its timeless appeal has not only found its way onto the shelves of Mexican grocery stores across the United States but has also woven itself into the cultural fabric of communities worldwide, embodying the enduring power of tradition and remembrance.
The allure of ‘Pan de Muertos’ is not merely confined to its taste or aroma; it is a conduit that bridges the tangible with the intangible, inviting all to partake in a celebration that transcends the constraints of time and space. As the spirits of the departed are welcomed back to Earth, this treasured bread acts as a vessel, carrying the essence of love and kinship, serving as a symbol of unity that echoes through generations and continues to resonate with those who embrace its timeless significance.
Bread of the dead usually has skulls or crossbones representations on it. It is believed the spirits do not eat, but absorb its essence, along with water at their ofrenda, after their long journey back to Earth to visit their loved ones who made an altar for them. There are many different types of pan de Muertos across the country; here’s a short list of some of them:
-Pan de ánimas:
Ánimas translates to souls. This bread is typical in the Mixtec region south of Puebla, made with the same dough as bolillo but dressed with cinnamon and piloncillo. The dough is formed into human shapes and sprinkled with white sugar for infants and minor altars and red sugar for adults.
-Pan de Sirena:
This bread is originally from the Papaloapan region which circles around Puebla, Oaxaca and Veracruz. It was created from the union of Spanish and chinateco beliefs, dedicated to the lords of the water which is why it’s shaped like a mermaid and decorated with crosses and other religious shapes. It is very common to appear in altars to guarantee a good fishing season.
A very traditional bread from the Tehuantepec area and not exclusively prepared for day of the dead, but also for weddings and big religious celebrations. Marquesote is usually a soft crumb bread, square with white frosting which is also used to pipe on the name of the deceased and sprinkled with red sugar. It is said to be named in honor of Hernan Cortés, who was the “Marqués” of the Oaxaca Valley.
-Pan de ofrenda:
Traditional pan de Muertos from Michoacán, especially from the Santa Fe de la Laguna area. It is made with wheat flour, salt and sugar and also shaped like humans but also animals like bunnies, donkeys and even sombreros, virgins, flowers, skulls… you name it. In some cases, it can be colored pink but it’s not a rule.
Another typical bread from Mexico City and Puebla, is made from egg yolks and shaped like a bagel; it is usually sprinkled with red sugar. According to the people from indigenous villages, they symbolize the skulls placed on the Tzompantli (traditional skull altar from our ancestors) which were to be skewered on canes.
A very traditional bread from the state of Michoacán and other southern regions across Mexico, and some places in South America. It’s a round bread made of wheat flour, yeast, salt and cheese. The cheese is usually placed on top of the bread and painted yellow with red sugar sprinkled on top to represent Christ’s wounds.
After knowing some of the different types of pan de Muertos, I will share a recipe of the one you have probably seen the most:
115 ml milk
1 tbsp orange blossom water or agua de azahar (see Note)
60 gr raw sugar
1¼ tsp dried yeast
465 gr plain flour
½ tsp salt
1 tsp ground anise
2 eggs at room temperature, lightly beaten
1 egg yolk
110 gr unsalted butter, softened and at room temperature
Mexican hot chocolate to serve
2 egg yolks
1 tbsp water
¼ cup raw sugar
Warm the milk in a small saucepan to around 50°C, add the orange blossom water and sugar and stir until dissolved. Pour the milk into a large bowl, add the yeast and ½ cup of flour. Mix until combined, then set aside in a warm place until the mixture begins to bubble (about 20 minutes).
Add the remaining flour, salt and anise and knead until a dough forms (mix on a medium speed if using an electric mixer). Gradually add the eggs and continue to knead for 5 minutes until smooth. Add the softened butter, a few pieces at a time and knead until fully incorporated. Place the dough into a clean bowl and cover with cling film. Set aside for 11½ hours until doubled in size.
Knock back the dough and knead for 30 seconds. Pinch off a ball of dough about the size of a tennis ball to use for the decoration. Form the remaining dough into a ball and place on a baking paper lined oven tray. Roll three quarters of the reserved dough into a long bone shape about 1 cm thick (we do this by separating our fingers while rolling the dough on a counter into a long shape). Cut in half and drape over the dough in a cross pattern. Form the remaining dough into a ball in place in the center of the cross. Cover with a tea towel and set aside in a warm place to proof for 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 180°C. For the glaze, combine the egg yolks and water. Brush the glaze all over the dough. Transfer to the oven and bake for 20 minutes until golden and the bread sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove from the oven and cool on wire rack. Once cooled, melt some butter and brush your bread, then sprinkle with sugar.
Serve with Mexican hot chocolate.
Orange blossom water (agua de azahar) is available at some Mexican baker stores, at Middle Eastern food stores and some international delicatessens. If unavailable you can swap it for a little bit of orange zest, very fine and very little making sure you don’t get to the white part of the orange peel. Worst case scenario is to simply omit. The bread will still be delicious!
Some modern bakeries put delicious fillings in the bread, such as pastry cream or hazelnut-chocolate cream. Other people prefer to eat this bread just with a hot cup of coffee or chocolate. But it doesn’t matter how you like your pan de Muertos, as long as you share it with your loved ones, dead or alive.
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