Growing up in the southwest we learned Spanish in school and at the start of every November we would celebrate Día de los Muertos with our class. Día de los Muertos is a three day celebration in Mexico, during which families celebrate their relatives that have passed. It is believed that during these three days, family members return to the living world to visit, therefore offerings are made to help them celebrate. You can read more about Día de los Muertos here. One of the most common food offerings is Pan de Muerto, or Dead Bread.
During school we would make and eat this bread at our Spanish class festivities. Traditional Dead Bread is an enriched yeast bread, made wth milk and eggs and flavored with anise seeds. However today we wanted to present an alternative to the traditional Dead Bread.
Our first variance from the tradition is the omission of anise seeds. Al is not a fan of anything licorice tasting at all, therefore we left them out.
Our next variance was born purely out of an accident. Our original recipe included sweetened condensed milk instead of whole milk. While perusing the options at the grocery store, we picked out a couple of cans of our go to brand, Eagle Brand but then we also decided to try a different brand, La Lechera. The La Lechera brand also had some other interesting options including Dulce de Leche Caramel. Very pleased with our purchases of all the different options, we waltzed home to make our Dead Bread. We decided to try the La Lechera sweetened condensed milk but with all the cans looking similar, instead of opening the correct can, we opened the Dulce de Leche Caramel. This is probably the best baking mistake we have ever made! The bread turned out extra moist with a deeper yellow color than other versions we have made with whole milk or sweetened condensed milk.
Another switch we made from tradition is the finishing of the bread with granulated sugar, which is usually sprinkled on right right after the loaf comes out of the oven. We love cinnamon so we decided to substitute cinnamon sugar and then we helped it adhere better by brushing melted butter on the top then sprinkling the cinnamon sugar onto the loaf.
Forming the shape of the Dead Bread is probably the most challenging step of this whole process. Traditionally the loaf is topped with a skull and crossbones. How elaborate this decoration is, is up to the baker. We kept it pretty simple. We took 8 ounces of the dough after the first rise and separated it into 5 pieces. With the remaining dough, we formed it into a round loaf and then made a golf ball sized indentation in the middle. Next, we formed the skull and crossbones. We rolled four of the pieces into cylinders, lightly brushed one side with water and placed them on the main loaf, meeting in the middle. The fifth piece we rolled into a ball and then flattened it slightly. We also brushed a little bit of water on the underside of this piece and placed it in the center, covering the mesh points of the crossbones, to be the skull.
One last tip before we share our recipe. While baking, leave the loaf uncovered for the first half of the baking time to allow the loaf to brown, then tent the loaf with a piece of aluminum foil to protect it from over browning and drying out.