Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bread of the dead

I have an on-going love affair with many things Mexican. Mexican oilcloth. Mexican hot chocolate. Mexican history. Mexican culture. Mexican art. Mexican literature. Mexican molcajetes. Mexican music. And, por supuesto que sí, Mexican cuisine. I think my Mexico thing goes back to my BFF in first grade, Susí. She and her family were from Mexico City and she was Just. So. Cool. We spent hours listening to ABBA on the boombox in her bedroom, pretending "Dancing Queen" was all about us.

As I've mentioned before, one of the things that fascinates me most about Mexican culture is the Day of the Dead. I won't go into the boring details but if you're interested, has a good explanation of Dia de los Muertos' history and significance. I volunteered to do a small cultural lesson for our home school group this week, and thought the timing would be perfect to spotlight Dia de los Muertos, which is coming up on Sunday and Monday. And not just because I wanted to bake pan de muerto again (though that would have been a good enough reason all by itself!)

My loaf turned out a bit misshapen compared to the real thing, but it tasted heavenly. Yes, technically the sugar topping made it off limits, but I ripped a piece of crust off the bottom to sample (all in the name of quality control, mind you!)

This recipe is easy, absolutely delicious, and the heavenly smell of the cinnamon and anise seeds when it's baking is divine. I had to fight the kids off after their third and fourth helpings so I'd have enough to take home to Jim.

Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead)

¼ cup milk
¼ cup butter (half a stick)
¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 package active dry yeast
¼ cup very warm water
2 eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour, unsifted
½ teaspoon anise seed
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons sugar

Bring milk to boil and remove from heat. Stir in butter, ¼ cup sugar and salt. In large bowl, mix yeast with warm water until dissolved and let stand five minutes. Add the milk mixture. Separate the yolk and white of one egg. Add the yolk and the other whole egg to the yeast mixture, and save the white for later. Now add flour to the yeast and egg. Blend well until dough ball is formed.

Flour a pastry board or work surface very well and place the dough in center. Knead until smooth. (I used the dough hook on my stand mixer and kneaded the dough for five minutes, which worked just as well). Return to large bowl and cover with dish towel. Let rise in warm place for 90 minutes. Meanwhile, grease a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 350° F.

Knead dough again on floured surface. Now divide the dough into fourths and set one fourth aside. Roll the remaining 3 pieces into “ropes”. On greased baking sheet, pinch 3 rope ends together and braid. Finish by pinching ends together on opposite side. Divide the remaining dough in half and form two “bones”. Cross and lay on top of braided loaf. (Note: I think the form of the loaf varies regionally. I followed these instructions the first time I made the bread, but the loaf I made today was round, with “bones” on top, modeled after some images I found on the internet).

Cover bread with dish towel and let rise for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix anise seed, cinnamon, and 2 teaspoons sugar together. In another bowl, beat egg white lightly. When 30 minutes are up, brush top of bread with egg white and sprinkle with sugar mixture. Bake at 350° F for 35-40 minutes.

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