I love color. I don’t love sweets. Weird, because it would seem that someone who enjoys bright colors as much as I do should absolutely love sweet things. Sweet things are luminous! When I’m in the rainbow embrace of a candy shop or an extravagant cake display, I imagine I have the power to shrink myself in order to live in these impishly saturated worlds. The joy vanishes, however, the moment the sweets touch my mouth. It’s not that I hate the taste, it’s just not nearly as enjoyable as the colors promise.
Día de Muertos comes in happy color, in celebratory color, in color that reaches across death. First, there’s cempasúchil yellow, meant to lead the dead to our altars. There’s papel picado in hot pink, purple, orange, indigo, sky blue, green, yellow, aqua, lime, fuchsia, violet. There are intricately decorated skulls, sugar, and ceramic. There’s food. There are lit candles waving their flames like hellos. Forget darkness! Día de Muertos is about light, light bouncing from color, shining from candles, light wafting from food, most enticingly from pan de muerto. If I am dead, I would travel back for pan de muerto.
Now, why do I love pan de muerto so much if it’s sweet? It’s not even brightly colored! I love it because its joy comes from within, from its cloudy fluffiness, from its crisp sugar granules, from its zesty orange which feels like eating sunshine. Pan de muerto tastes like colors make me feel. Pan de muerto is joy. Biting past the skull and bones that decorate the bread, I eat death to discover death’s innards are a burst of delicious, glowing life.
My mom is a baker. She shared this recipe with me (like she’s shared countless joys) and now we’re sharing it with you. Hope you enjoy it!
Make the starter:
If using fresh yeast, break it up with a fork inside a medium bowl. Add the warm milk and sugar, and stir until fully dissolved.
If using instant yeast, combine it with the warm milk and sugar in a medium bowl, and stir until fully dissolved.
Stir in the flour until fully incorporated. Let the mixture rest uncovered at room temperature for about 20 minutes until it bubbles.
Make the dough:
Add the starter, flour, sugar, salt, egg and egg yolks, sweetened condensed milk, orange blossom water, and zest of orange and lime into the bowl of a stand mixer set with a hook attachment.
Mix the dough on low speed for about 2 minutes, until the ingredients are mostly combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed.
Increase the speed to medium and add the butter piece by piece until fully incorporated.
Continue mixing the dough for about 15 minutes, until it pulls away from the sides of the bowl and is no longer sticky when you poke it with your finger. It is a wet dough—resist the urge to add more flour.
Let the dough rise:
Transfer the dough into a large greased bowl and cover it with plastic wrap. Rest it at room temperature for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until doubled in size.
Overnight rise option: Right after you knead it, pop the bowl with the dough into the fridge for up to 24 hours. When you’re ready to bake, let the dough come to room temperature for about an hour before you proceed with the recipe.
Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Shape the dough into balls:
Lightly sprinkle a clean work surface with flour. Tip the dough onto it and divide it into four equal portions (about 280g each). Set one portion aside for the “bones and skulls.”
To shape each bread, flatten a piece of dough using the palm of your hands. Pull the outer edges up and over the center, all around. Pinch the pulled-up edges together and flip the dough over so that the smooth side is facing up. Cup your hands around it to shape it into a ball (bolear in Spanish). Place the balls on the baking sheet, making sure they are evenly spaced out so that they don’t touch.
Shape the “bones and skull”:
Divide the dough set aside for the “bones and skull” into nine equal portions (about 30g each).
To shape the “bones” roll six portions into a 5-inch log. Using your three middle fingers, press down on the log leaving the equal space between them. You can also simply pinch the dough in even intervals to make them look like bones.
To shape the “skull” simply roll three portions into a small ball.
Place two “bones” on each ball of dough, crossing in the middle. One “skull” goes in the center where the “bones” meet. Press down gently to adhere.
Let the dough rise once more:
Lightly cover the baking sheet with plastic wrap and let the dough rise at room temperature for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until almost doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Lightly brush the top of each loaf with egg whites.
Bake them for about 25 minutes, until the tops are golden brown. Check after 15 to 20 minutes. If the tops are too dark, cover with foil and continue baking.
Sprinkle with sugar:
Allow the bread to cool on a rack for about 20 minutes.
Brush the tops with melted butter and quickly sprinkle a generous amount of sugar on top, working with one loaf at a time. If you wait too long to sprinkle the sugar, the butter will soak through and the sugar will not adhere.
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