The last days of October are filled with the aromas of marigolds, copal, toasted canela, orange blossom, anise seed, mole, tortillas, and wood. Many are busy preparing for the Day of the Dead celebrations that take place during the first days of November (the main festivity is on the 2nd). The celebration dates back to the Aztec times where it's believed that the diseased are embarking on a journey, eventually leading them to the Mictlan, the highest lever of the underworld where they would finally rest in peace. The cemeteries are filled with laughter, mariachis, food, lights, and flowers, and it is a celebration of life. People gather around the tombs and bring the deceased favorite food and sounds.
It isn't that death isn't painful, but it's believed that one embarks on a journey and it's a way to celebrate the time we had with them and to keep them alive. There are many different breads made for this celebration. In Michoacán they are sculpted into shapes of flowers, the Virgin Mary, skulls, or animals; in Oaxaca, you will find round breads topped with sesame seeds and colorful head figurines coming out of them. In the center of Mexico, the dough is made with pulque (fermented beverage made from the maguey plant) instead of yeast, giving it a very distinctive herbal-acid flavor; many placed dust the tops with pink sugar, remembering the ceremonial use of the bread. The varieties are too large to count, but this one is perhaps the most known. This particular recipe is adapted from Maricu, a chef from Mexico City who owns a cooking school with the same name.
Even though you may not celebrate the Day of the Dead, I encourage you to make this delicious bread decorated with "bones" and take a moment to remember the life of those who are no longer with you in this life. —Fany Gerson
- Prep time 15 minutes
- Cook time 45 minutes
- makes 2 breads
active dry yeast
bread flour, divided
orange blossom water
finely grated orange zest
large eggs, lightly beaten
unsalted butter, room temperature (you can save the paper to grease the bowl, or just use cooking spray)
(1 stick) unsalted butter
- In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in ½ cup of the flour, ⅓ cup of the milk, and the orange blossom water. Whisk well to combine (the dough should be sticky and smooth). Let sit in a warm place (about 70°F) for 20 to 30 minutes, until it begins to bubble and puffs up slightly.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the hook attachment, mix the remaining 3½ cups of the flour, the sugar, salt, and orange zest for about 30 seconds. Add the eggs, the remaining ⅓ cup of the milk, and the yeast mixture. Mix at low speed until the dough starts to come together. Add the butter in small pieces while continuing to mix; increase the speed to medium. The dough will look sticky, but resist the temptation of adding more flour. Continue to beat for 10 to 15 minutes, until the dough is soft and comes off the sides of the bowl. If the dough is still sticky after 15 minutes, add a little flour (no more than ⅓ cup).
- Lightly grease a large bowl. Transfer the dough to the bowl and cover with a towel. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. Punch down, gather the sides together, and flip so that the bottom is now the top. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to overnight (chilling will slow the fermentation process and dull the butter, making it easier to shape).
- Remove the dough from refrigerator, uncover, and place a towel on top. Let rise in a warm place (about 70°F) for about 1 hour, until it comes to room temperature.
- Separate a little of dough by cutting, NOT pulling (about the size of a large lime) to form the "bones." Divide the remaining dough in half and form into 2 rounds on a smooth flat surface, making sure that the dough is "tight." Place on paper- or silicone-lined sheet trays. Flatten the tops lightly with the palm of your hand.
- Take some of the dough for the bones and form into 2 small gumball sized-balls; set aside on the sheet trays. Divide the remaining dough for the bones into 6 pieces. Roll out with your hands from the center of the dough out, making strips that are about 1 inch longer than the width of the rounds. Spread your fingers and press lightly, making knobs that resemble bones. Place 3 strips on top of one of the domes, crossing each other (the strips should be a little longer than the width of the round). Repeat with the remaining strips, then cover the dough lightly with a towel. Let sit in a warm place until doubled in size. To test if the dough has doubled, press lightly with your finger. It should come back slowly all the way back.
- Heat the oven to 350°F.
- Tap the bottom of the reserved dough rounds with a little water so that they stick. Place the rounds in the center (on top) of the bread, where the strips meet. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes total, until the bread has a nice even dark golden color, then cover loosely with foil and continue to bake until an instant-read thermometer registers 190°F and the bottom of the dough is browned. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool slightly.
- In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Brush each loaf with the butter, making sure to brush all around the knobs.
- Hold the bottom of a loaf (if it's too warm, use gloves or a piece of cardboard to hold it) and tilt to cover evenly with the sugar. Repeat with the remaining loaf. Let cool completely.
Variations: The orange zest may be substituted with anise seeds, and milk can be used in place of the orange blossom water.
Toasted, coarsely ground canela may be used instead of the orange zest, and milk can be used in place of the orange blossom water. The bread is then topped with powdered sugar instead of granulated sugar.
The original recipe, above, may be made by brushing with egg yolk and topped with sesame seeds before baking (no butter or sugar would be needed in the end).