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Day of the Dead Bread - Pan de Muertos

Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is a revered Mexican celebration. Preparations begin on October 31, while the official "all souls day" is actually November 2. It follows Dia de los Angelitos, which is "Day of the Little Angels" on November 1. While some think it has ties to Halloween, it is a much older tradition with special meaning. It's given recognition in many different ways, depending on which region of Mexico you're from, but never with a scary intent. (read more below)

Overall, however, Day of the Dead is a remembrance of adults who have already passed. It's never a sad event as in Mexico, death is as much a part of life as breathing. Cleaning and food preparation begin days in advance and the feasting often starts in the wee hours of November 2. In many Mexican homes, altars are built in remembrance and the belief is widely held that on this day, the dearly departed are allowed to pay a visit. Mementos from the life of the deceased are gathered at the altar. Later in the day, families will trek to the cemetery and have another meal.

Of course, like many other celebrations, this one also revolves around food. In rural areas, a more religious attitude is observed, while in more developed villages and cities, it is quite a party that goes well through the day, evening, and into the night.

Traditional dishes include tamales and mole sauces, along with a sweetened corn-based drink called "atole." Calabaza en dulce is another sweet treat comprised of pumpkin and a chocolate syrup. Skulls made from sugar or chocolate with elaborately decorated faces are sold on the streets.

Day of the Dead Bread is one of the most popular baked goods. It, too, is on the sweet side and is known in Mexico as "pan de muertos." From a cultural aspect, it is believed that sweets and breads will assist the deceased along their journey in the afterlife. The loaves can be molded into many shapes, such as rabbits, but rounds are most popular. A dough topper is always added. It's commonly in the shape of a bone or a skull, but you can use your imagination and create whatever shape you want.

Here's a fairly simple recipe for Day of the Dead bread. You'll need ground anise and if you grind fresh seeds, it's even better. A sweetened glaze is nice after it comes out of the oven, but you can also just use an egg wash before cooking if desired.

Pan de Muertos - Day of the Dead Bread
(makes 2 loaves)

-5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (starting with 1 ½ cups)
-1 cup milk
-½ cup butter
-½ cup water
-1 package active dry yeast
-1 teaspoon ground anise
-4 eggs
-1 teaspoon salt
-½ cup sugar

-In a small saucepan, combine the milk and butter. Stir and heat to a near boil (do not allow to boil).
-Proof the package of yeast in the ½ cup of water plus a pinch of sugar (warm first, according to package directions).
-Combine the 1 ½ cups flour with the sugar, salt and ground anise. Add the milk and yeast mixtures and combine thoroughly.
-In a separate bowl, blend the four eggs. Set aside about 2-3 tablespoons to use as a glaze. Add the rest to the dough mixture plus 1 cup of flour.
-Add flour and knead (at least 10 minutes/on a floured board) until dough softens and becomes elastic and not sticky.
-Coat another bowl with cooking spray and add the dough. Cover with a towel or plastic and let it rise in a warm spot (about 60-90 minutes to double in bulk).
-Turn out onto board and punch down. Split pieces in half, then remove smaller chunks to shape for bones on the top.
-Make a round, smooth loaf with a flat bottom.
-Roll out the smaller pieces to make "crossbones" across the top and draping over the sides.
-Cover again and allow to rise (doubling time is about 1 hour).
-Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
-Use the remaining egg wash to coat the loaf and cook for about 30-40 minutes or until top and sides have turned a golden brown.

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