Every year in Mexico during Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, the country enlivens with vivid color and festive flourish as people dress in vibrant costumes, embellish their hair with flowers, and paint their faces to resemble smiling skeletons. They gather for dancing and parades in town plazas and bake a bread that has become one of the most vital and delicious Day of the Dead traditions. Pan de muerto, Spanish for “bread of the dead,” is a sweetened, sugar-topped bread baked to honor the deceased. Homes all over the country will have pan de muerto placed among bright orange marigolds and little sugar skulls on ofrendas, homemade altars built to commemorate loved ones who have passed. Our Pan de Muerto is soft and rich, made from hand-kneaded, enriched, yeast-risen dough with delicate flavors of anise seed and orange. If you have any leftovers, toasting a slice and slathering it with salted butter would more than resurrect the day-old bread.
Join us October 30, for Baking School with Williams Sonoma and Brian Hart Hoffman! In this Baking School In-Depth class, Brian will walk you through each step of making, shaping, baking, and finishing this enriched bread. Register here!
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Excellent recipes require wonderful ingredients. Here’s how our recipe’s ingredients contribute to making the very best Pan de Muerto.
WATER: Moisture (in the form of water here) is needed to activate the yeast and hydrate the dough so the gluten can develop and build elasticity. Also, the water converts to steam, which helps prevent the crust from browning too quickly while baking.
GRANULATED SUGAR: Sugar acts as food for the yeast, which converts it to carbon dioxide and alcohol in the fermentation process. This helps make the dough tender, creating a soft, supple loaf, and adds a bit of sweetness without making it overly sweet. Sugar also contributes to the bread’s golden color, retains moisture while the bread bakes, and acts as a final sparkling flourish meant to be scattered onto the bread after it comes out of the oven.
RED STAR® QUICK-RISE INSTANT YEAST: A standard when it comes to baking with yeast, Red Star® is a tried-and-true favorite for a reason. Yeast is essential to many bread doughs, and this Pan de Muerto recipe is no exception. For proper fermentation, it needs sugar to feed on, warmth, and moisture. Yeast acts as a leading leavening agent in the bread, so it’s vital that it’s not killed when combined with the warm liquid in this recipe.
BREAD FLOUR: It may be tempting to substitute all-purpose flour for bread flour, but you won’t get as much of a rise in your loaf and your mixing time will be longer. Bread flour is higher in protein and gluten, which allows bread dough to form a stable structure and rise higher. In this recipe, high-protein flour is essential to create a strong gluten network, with enough protein content to develop gluten and to handle the enrichment added to this dough. A high-protein flour like bread flour provides enough structure to create a strong gluten network for an enriched dough.
KOSHER SALT: As a rule of thumb, the ratio of salt to flour in breads is 1.8% to 2% of flour weight. It’s important to weigh your salt because different salt crystals measure differently. Dough without enough salt can easily over-ferment. Salt also helps with the color of the bread and enhances the overall flavor.
EGGS: The addition of eggs in this dough not only adds richness but also helps with leavening, as the egg whites help create steam that puffs up your dough once it hits the warmth of the oven.
UNSALTED BUTTER: Butter adds decadence to the enriched dough, creating a moist, tender loaf. We use unsalted butter to control how much salt is added to the bread, as different brands have various ranges of salt in their salted butter.
ANISE SEED, ORANGE ZEST, ORANGE BLOSSOM WATER, AND VANILLA EXTRACT: The combination of licorice-like anise seed, vibrant orange zest, floral orange blossom water, and the subtle sweetness of vanilla extract provides the perfect depth and flavor to the bread.
BENCH SCRAPER: The bench scraper is your new best friend in the kitchen, as it can expertly blend, cut, and divide dough, and help you efficiently clear your work surface. (Pictured: Williams Sonoma Olivewood Bench Scraper.)
SCALE: Bakers have long valued the accuracy of a kitchen scale; it’s the easiest and fastest route to precise ingredient and dough measurements for the perfect Pan de Muerto. (Pictured: Zwilling Digital Scale.)
THERMOMETER: We use an instant-read thermometer to ensure the correct temperature of water before adding to the yeast mixture for optimal rise, and it’s the best way to test the doneness of the baked bread. (Pictured: OXO Thermocouple Thermometer.)
PASTRY BRUSH: A pastry brush may be one of the most practical tools in your utensil drawer that takes up the least amount of space. We love this long-handled wooden brush with natural bristles. It’s ideal for gently brushing melted butter onto the bread before sprinkling with granulated sugar. (Pictured: Williams Sonoma Olivewood Pastry Brush.)
RULER: A simple, inexpensive metal ruler is best for the home baker. It lies flat and is a breeze to clean. We use a ruler to measure the dough for the “bones” that top the Pan de Muerto.
BAKING SHEET AND WIRE RACK: Designed to bake evenly, this beautiful, golden, commercial-quality pan is crafted of aluminized steel for exceptional durability, making it ideal for baking our Pan de Muerto. Paired with a wire rack, it’s a match made in heaven, as the rack is the perfect place to let your bread cool for a spell before brushing with melted butter. (Pictured: Williams Sonoma Goldtouch® Pro Nonstick Non-Corrugated Three Quarter Sheet with Cooling Rack.)
GLASS BOWLS, SPATULA, AND WHISK: For all your mixing needs, you really can’t beat the basics. A reliable whisk is essential to have in your baking arsenal; a spatula is the ideal tool for stirring the dough before kneading, and glass bowls give you a 360-degree visual while mixing and proofing the dough; they are the perfect vessels for measuring and mixing all your ingredients. (Pictured: Glass Mixing Bowl 10-Piece Set, Williams Sonoma Silicone FSC® Wood Spoonula with Classic Wood Handle, Williams Sonoma Olivewood Whisk.)
To perform a finger dent test, gently press a well-floured finger about 1/2 inch into the dough’s surface. If your dough has properly proofed, you should be able to watch the dough spring back slightly but still show an indentation.
If baking the loaf ahead of time, don’t brush with butter and sprinkle with sugar until you’re ready to serve it; the sugar will dissolve on the loaf if stored overnight.
1. In a medium bowl, whisk together ½ cup (120 grams) warm water, 1 teaspoon (4 grams) sugar, and yeast. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. This step, also known as “blooming” the yeast, is a simple way to ensure your yeast is active and is going to work. If it isn’t foamy after 5 minutes, you’ll want to start over with new yeast. Also, keep in mind that yeast is killed at 140°F (60°C), so keep your thermometer on hand to check your water temperature before adding the rest of the ingredients.
2. In a large bowl, place ⅓ cup (67 grams) sugar; add orange zest, and rub zest into sugar until fragrant and well combined. Whisk in 1½ cups (188 grams) flour, salt, and anise seed. Make a well in center. The pressure from your fingertips when rubbing the sugar and orange zest together will release oils from the zest and infuse the sugar with its citrusy perfume.
3. Add eggs, one at a time, to yeast mixture, whisking until well combined after each addition. Whisk in vanilla and orange blossom water. Pour into well of flour mixture. Stir until well combined. Add remaining 1¾ cups (219 grams) flour, and stir until a shaggy dough forms. Knead by hand in bowl until dough comes together. Adding the flour in two additions guarantees all the ingredients are evenly incorporated into the dough.
1. Turn out dough onto a clean work surface. Add 1 tablespoon (14 grams) room temperature butter, and incorporate into dough by using the heel of your hand and pressing dough out and away from you; using a bench scraper, bring dough together into a dough ball. Repeat procedure with remaining 5 tablespoons (70 grams) room temperature butter, 1 tablespoon (14 grams) at a time, until dough is smooth and elastic and starts to stick together, 5 to 7 minutes. This blending method is called fraisage, a classic French technique that involves a “smear-and-repeat” process of mixing butter into pastry or enriched dough. It ensures even blending of fat and flour and is the quickest way to incorporate the butter into hand-kneaded dough. The heat and constant friction will begin to warm the butter during this step. For success, you want the butter to be at room temperature because its soft, pliable texture will easily incorporate into the dough.
1. On a clean surface, knead dough by picking up dough, slapping dough onto surface, and folding dough in half; rotate dough 90 degrees. Repeat slapping, folding, and rotating until dough passes the windowpane test, 10 to 12 minutes. The slap-and-fold technique aerates and strengthens the dough by lifting it off the countertop, slapping it down, folding it, and repeating this method until it is soft without being sticky and passes the windowpane test. During the first few rounds, you will notice some dough left on your countertop. (The bench scraper will be your most loyal companion, helping you scrape the work surface and keep bringing the dough together!) As the gluten develops, the dough will stick more and more to itself and less and less to you and your countertop.
1. Lightly oil a large bowl. Place dough in bowl, turning to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free place (75°F/24°C) until doubled in size, about 1 hour. If you want to, you can measure the height of the dough once it’s in the bowl, double it, and mark it with a piece of tape to know when the dough has doubled in size.
2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
3. Lightly punch down dough. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes. Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface, and cut off one-fourth of dough (about 200 grams). Reserve, and cover to prevent it from drying out. Punching down the dough removes excess air. Then letting it stand for 5 minutes allows the gluten to relax. These steps make it easier to shape. When portioning out the dough, use a bench scraper (you don’t want to tear the dough) and a scale (you want consistency and uniformity).
1. Press remaining dough into a ½-inch-thick disk. Lift bottom edge of dough, and gently stretch and fold bottom third up to center. Stretch right side out, and fold over to center; repeat with left side. Finish by folding top third over previous folds. Roll dough away from you, and using both hands, cup dough and pull it toward you to seal. Rotate dough 90 degrees, and pull again, repeating until a tight, smooth boule forms. Place, seam side down, on prepared pan. The pulling motion is what seals the seams of the dough, so make sure you’re applying gentle pressure as you pull, taking advantage of the resistance the countertop provides.
1. Divide reserved dough in half (about 100 grams each). Working with 1 portion at a time, roll into a 6½-inch log. In center of log (3¼ inches from either end), pinch dough, and roll with your fingers to form 2 smaller logs joined by a thin center. Measuring from center, in each direction, mark 1¾ inches. Pinch and roll at each mark to create 4 connected sections. Shape each section into a ball. Repeat with remaining reserved dough. During shaping, the lightly floured surface is important to make rolling and pinching dough easier. It also helps the crossed top (“bones”) from melding into the boule while baking.
1. Place one strip of shaped dough across top of boule. Place second strip of shaped dough on boule perpendicular to first strip, crossing at the center. Cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free place (75°F/24°C) until almost doubled in size, 1 hour and 20 minutes to 1½ hours. (Dough should pass the finger dent test; see Notes.) After shaping, the dough will rise again. Enriched doughs are notorious for taking a longer time to rise, so patience is key. Keep in mind that it won’t be the standard “doubled in size,” puffing up only 66% to 77%. Then we perform a finger dent test by gently pressing a well-floured finger about ½ inch into the surface. If your dough has properly proofed, you should be able to watch the dough spring back slightly but still show an indentation.
1. Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C).
2. Bake until golden and an instant-read thermometer inserted in center registers 190°F (88°C), 35 to 40 minutes, covering with foil after 15 to 20 minutes of baking to prevent excess browning. Remove from pan, and let cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes.
3. Brush melted butter onto loaf; sprinkle with remaining 3 tablespoons (36 grams) sugar. Serve warm or at room temperature. If baking the loaf ahead of time, don’t brush with butter and sprinkle with sugar until you’re ready to serve it; the sugar will dissolve on the loaf if stored overnight.