Today until tomorrow, November 1 and November 2nd, are considered los Dias de los Muertos in Mexico, a few other parts of the world and in my apartment in Chicago. There are links to the holiday in both Pre-Hispanic and Post-Conquest Mexico. The Aztecs had a day to celebrate it, and the Spaniards celebrated All Saints Day on the 1st of the month. Naturally, the cultures blended, by choice or not, and today the “holiday” is celebrated over two days, “Dia de los Inocentes” (Innocents, as in children, who were free of sin when they passed), and “Dia de los Muertos” (Adults who were lost). Mexicans, typically further south and in more indigenous areas typically celebrate the days by making altars for specific lost loved ones. They offer them food, drinks and things that they loved in life. They open their homes to invite the spirits in to visit them and the food and drink are there to nourish them. Many, then, go to the cemetery to clean and decorate the graves of those loved ones. In this way, they are coming to terms with their own mortality, while ensuring the tradition to be passed to the further generations. Death is not something to be feared, it is something that can bring families together, it can be a way to remember someone forever.
Traditionally for these days, semi-sweet breads are made in Mexico, as offerings for the dead. They are called Pan de Muerto. I found the recipe for the rich dough in From my Mexican Kitchen by Diana Kennedy, and I only slightly modified it to my liking. It ended up a lot like a brioche dough.
Into my mixing bowl with the dough hook attachment, I put:
2 Cups AP Flour
1 Scant teaspoon of Sea Salt
In a smaller bowl:
1 oz Sugar (2 T)
1 1/2 teaspoon Dry Yeast
1/4 Cup (plus a touch more) Body Temperature Water
1 1/2 Eggs Room Temperature
I whisked those all together and let the sugar feed the yeast for a little bit (10 Minutes).
Then I mixed that all together on low for about 5 minutes to make sure everything was incorporated, elastic and shiny. Next, I buttered a bowl (and should have buttered some plastic wrap, but I forgot, so my starter stuck to it as you will see later), and placed the starter, which I formed into a ball in the bowl.
I then covered it with plastic and a pilfered table napkin from a fancy restaurant and let the starter rest in a warm spot for 90 minutes or so.
Once the starter has doubled in size, I begin the actual dough.
See? It isn’t a big deal, it’s just a starter. So, next, you will want to tear this ball up and add it back to the mixing bowl. Also:
1/2 Cup Sugar
4 1/2 oz Room Temperature Butter
Mix that all together until it makes a sloppy dough, then alternate:
2 Cups Flour
4 Yolks with a Splash of Water
1/2 Orange Zested (save the other half for the glaze)
Mix all of this until a nice elastic dough is formed. It should stand up on it’s own though.
Put it back in the bowl to rest covered and greased again for another 90 minutes.
It will have doubled again.
Next, take 3/4 of the dough and form it into a ball, saving the 1/4 for the Calavera or the skull and bones.
I think, traditionally, the skull and bones are not so literal, but I just got a little carried away. I took the small portion of dough for the skull and divided it in three, making a skull with one, and the bones with the other two. I shaped the body of the bread as Diana suggested, although, in the end the rim along the sides, didn’t really show up due to rising.
On greased baking sheet they go under the covers one more time for an hour, just to make sure they are nice and puffy. Turning my oven on a few minutes before the parts were ready at 375 degrees Ferenheight.
Next, I made a egg wash of yolks (2) and brushed it on the main body before criss-crossing the bones over it. Then I brushed the bones one more time, trying to not over wash them and leave pools on the bottom of the bread.
Then I layed my skull over the bones. I did one final shaping of the face, then I brushed that too. It was a little creepy, sort of had a terrifying Michael Jackson plastic surgery nose.
While in the oven and starting to smell amazing, I mixed together:
1/4 Cup Raw Honey
2 T Melted Butter
1/2 Orange Zested (the other half)
(For the glaze)
I let it bake about 20 minutes, then I brushed my first layer of glaze over the whole loaf.
Then I put it back in the oven and let it bake 5 more minutes.
After which, I glazed it pretty heavily then sprinkled it with a touch of sugar, and let it sit in the oven (which I turned off), door open, to cool for about 10 minutes.
I am pretty proud of the end result. It was beautiful, if not a little ridiculous with the corny skull on top. It is a bit too pirate, and seems a little silly to offer to deceased loved ones, but as my first attempt, I hope it will suffice.
I decided to make the altar or ofrenda in honor of my Great Grand Mother, or as we called her Grandma Hoekie. She was the matriarch of my Dad’s family, serving 3 generations of us until well into her 90’s.
She passed away in 2008, living to be 100. She was an amazing lady who did everything she could for her family, even if she wasn’t appreciated by everyone as much as she should be. She is pictured (R) above in 1927 next to the car with her best friend Florence Ball (L), posing like a sassy flapper. The Bakelite bangles above the photo were hers, and when she passed, I asked to take them to remember her by.
In the small dish are some candies, left there as a reminder of many trips on the pontoon boat we took as children. She was always sure to take along blankets for the cold night air and small candies (Hers were usually Hershey’s Minis, but what can I do in a pinch?) for all of us kids and adults. The coffee cup is there, filled half way, the way she liked it, and black. She was not a lady who enjoyed cold coffee, so it was always half full. The picture in front showing her as I remembered her.
The smell of marigolds as well as copal (an insence) are believed to draw the dead into the home as well. I repurposed my Halloween pumpkin for this. I hope that she is with me today. I often think about her as I am cooking, not that she made a whole lot of traditional Mexican food or anthing. I think about her taking the time to do things the right way. She probably thought that she was just doing things the way you did them, and nothing else. I know now, though, that that way was the right way. So, whenever I can, I am going to do things in this way, not the “easy way”, but the way that makes the ingredients happiest. In turn, I think it will make me happy, and hopefully I can pass that on to the next generation.
P.S. I never ended up using this, but this was my Frida Kahlo/Dia de los Muertos inspired Halloween Costume that I threw together in a few minutes. I think it is appropriate…hahaha.