Monday, 30 March 2015

'Dead Bread' AKA Pan de Muerto

I first came across Pan de Muerto whilst browsing through some of the bread books which form part of my ever-growing and already quite large cookery book collection. I was fascinated by the folklore surrounding it and totally intrigued by the appearance of the bread.
As my regular readers will know, after doing an evening course on bread making in the Firehouse Bakery, I have recently discovered how much I genuinely enjoy baking my own bread at home. Although I had baked yeasted breads before, I’d had varying success and was never completely happy with the results. It’s hard to describe, but I just didn’t have a ‘feel’ for baking bread.
I am a confident cook and baker and if I say so myself, would be more than competent, easily able to learn and put into practice processes that are quite technically challenging. I have mastered macarons and can make my own puff pastry amongst many other things, but when it came to baking my own bread, I just was not achieving the results that I wanted. I found it quite frustrating and in many ways couldn’t understand how people could be so enthused by baking their own bread! However, in one evening, over a period of four hours, that all changed. I learnt so much in those few hours with Patrick Ryan at the Firehouse Bakery and truly came away from it with a better understanding of what baking bread was all about (see my original post written immediately after doing the course here).
One of the most remarkable things that I learnt was to avoid adding extra flour to the work surface on which you knead the bread. At first, this is almost counterintuitive because the natural response when faced with a wet or sticky dough is to add more flour to stop it sticking. However, adding extra flour upsets the balance of ingredients in the dough and results in bread which is heavy to eat.  Patrick urged us to keep working the dough (using a bread/dough scraper from time-to-time to prevent it sticking to the table) until it became less sticky and easier to work as the glutens in the bread were developed by the kneading. We also learnt many other tips and tricks of the trade and since then I have been producing loaf after loaf of consistent quality in my own domestic oven.
With this new found confidence in baking my own bread has come a desire to experiment and try out different types of bread. I had never heard of Pan de Muerto before, but was enticed by its unusual shape and the description given of it in the book. I knew that I had to try it.

In essence, Pan de Muerto or Bread of the Dead (although my daughter likes to call it ‘Dead Bread’) is a variety of sweetened soft bread, usually enriched with butter and eggs which is traditionally made in Mexico around Dia de Muertos on 31st October and 1st and 2nd November each year to be eaten by the graves/in honour of the deceased.  The bread can be made into one large loaf or, as I have done, into individual smaller bun-shaped ‘loaves’. Before being baked, the bread is usually decorated with extra bits of dough fashioned into bone shapes which are arranged in a cross or circle to represent the circle of life. Freshly baked and still warm from the oven, the bread is brushed with a glaze and also sometimes sprinkled with fine sugar.
In many ways this bread is a little like a gently spiced brioche and is addictive to eat. The crumb is soft and yielding and although not mandatory or even, I suspect, traditional, I strongly recommend serving it liberally spread with butter.
NOTE: This is a sticky dough and whilst I did knead it by hand you can do so by using a stand mixer fitted with dough hooks. 


300g plain flour
270g strong flour
1tsp ground cinnamon
10g fine sea salt
50g caster sugar
25g fresh yeast
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
250ml milk
50g butter, melted and allowed to cool slightly
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
75g caster sugar
Juice of 1 orange


1. Place the plain and strong flours along with the ground cinnamon into a large mixing bowl and add the salt and sugar mixing with your hands to distribute. Crumble the fresh yeast directly into the flour and add the orange zest. Mix the yeast through the flour. Make a well in the centre of the flour and add the milk, melted butter and eggs.
2. Mix everything together with your hands to form a dough, albeit a slightly sticky one! Turn out onto a clean work surface and aided by a dough scraper, work the dough, by stretching and kneading it for about 12-15 minutes, until it becomes more velvety to the touch and stops sticking quite as much to your work surface.
3. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover, with cling-film and allow to prove for approximately 2 hours until doubled in size.
Shaping the dough:
4. Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface and knock back. Divide the dough into four. Put one portion aside for forming the ‘bones’ and working on each of the portions, one at a time shape into a round ‘bun’ shaped roll and place on a parchment lined baking tray.
5. Remove of one third of the reserved dough and use to form into three mini-balls. Set aside. Divide the remaining dough into 6 and roll into thin strips with your hands. Make them a little ‘knobble’ to resemble bones. Drape two of these in a criss-cross fashion over each of the large buns, placing the smaller ball in the centre at the top of each bun. Cover loosely and allow to rise for a second time for approximately 60 minutes until almost doubled in size.
To bake:
6. Preheat oven to 180C/Fan Oven 160C/Gas Mark 4.
7. Place the baking tray containing the three breads into the preheated oven and bake for approximately 20 minutes until golden brown and cooked through. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly while you make the glaze.
8. Put all the ingredients into a small saucepan and bring up to the boil over a moderate heat. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer for 2-3 minutes until slightly reduced. Brush each of the breads with the glaze using a pastry brush and set aside to cool completely.
Makes 3 smallish loaves.