Friday, November 05, 2010

Bare Knuckles Pan de Muertos

Pan de Muertos, 2004

These days, it seems that at least every other Mexico food blogger has made Pan de Muertos. Here’s my story.
(This project is intended for experienced bakers of yeasted breads.)
Over the years, I’d made fake-o Pan de Muertos, using sweet doughs or bun doughs shaped into the classic skull with crossed bones.
This year, I decided to go all out and use Diana Kennedy’s recipe from “The Art of Mexican Cooking”. I found it workable, but I also discovered some instructions in the recipe with which I respectfully disagree. In all I made two batches, and the second one was greatly superior to the first, although the first wasn’t all that bad. The ingredients varied little neither in type or in proportions. However, timing and fermentation were very different. 

This is where time and patience are required. The starter consists of:
a pound of flour (scant 4 cups) Bread flour is recommended. See notes, below.
1/2 ounce of salt (1 1/4 teaspoons)
2 ounces of sugar (1/3 cup)
a scant ounce (3 scant tablespoons) of cake yeast (or, 1 1/2 tablespoons dry yeast. See notes.)
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
3 eggs, lightly beaten and unsalted butter for greasing the bowl. —DK
(Forget the unsalted butter. Use a light film of neutral vegetable oil, or PAM non-stick spray. The butter forms a thick outer film when refrigerated which will be hard to work into the dough.)

Activate the dry yeast in a little of the warmed water. Beat the mass until cohesive, sticky and elastic. I’m a glutton for punishment, so I did this by hand. No spoon. With my hand. The final dough wouldn’t have fit in my 5-quart Kitchen Aid stand mixer, anyway.

Scrape out the dough onto a floured surface, clean the bowl, butter it,  and place the dough back in to ferment 2 hours or more at room temperature, about 70ºF, 21ºC. If your kitchen is cool like ours, it may take 3 hours to double the mass.

Some notes on the flavorings:
I note that DK didn’t call for anise. We like it, so you can make a strong anise tea by simmering a few tablespooons of anise in water, then cooling. But ground anise seeds lend a more emphatic taste.

Orange blossom water wasn’t available, but I put  some orange peel to  infuse in some sweetish Elixir de Agave. Vodka or Tequila would work as well. Let it infuse for a couple of days. In a pinch, you could use some orange liqueur, such as Cointreau or the Mexican knockoff brand, Controy.

DK does call for the grated rind of an orange. This is very effective.

Have the following at room temperature:
7-8 ounces of unsalted butter and 8 egg yolks.

In a large bowl,
break up the starter, then gradually add
1/2 pound ( 1 cup) white sugar 
7 ounces (14 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 pound unbleached (if available) flour (see discussion below) or 4 scant cups, approximately.
8 egg yolks, lightly beaten with 2 tablespoons water. (You can use anise tea, but it’s hardly enough to lend the desired mild anise flavor. Add ground anise seeds, 2 or more teaspoons for best results.)
1/4 cup water, approxmately. (You may use the anise tea.)

Using a hand and a plastic dough scraper, incorporate the ingredients until well blended. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead untl dough is smooth, shiny and slightly sticky.

Clean out the larger bowl, spray with PAM, place the dough back in, spray a light mist of PAM on top and cover with plastic film. (I use clean shower caps from hotels.) Refrigerate 8 to 16 hours. It will expand in volume about 1/4 to 1/3 more.

At the end of the refrigerated rest, take out and let come to room temperature. In our cool, early morning kitchen, that took about 5 hours. Do not rush it by placing it in overly warm places, such as in ovens.

Although DK greased her baking sheets with butter, I don’t recommend that as it will tend to burn. I prefer parchment paper sheets. The best for home use is Wilton, but Reynolds will do. Or, you can skip the parchment paper and use a light spray of PAM. Dark sheets may cause the bottoms of the loaves to become very dark.

(The following technique is one I’m still learning, so I'm not writing with total confidence.)
When the dough becomes manageable, divide into three large pieces. From each third, cut a small section and set aside for the “bones”.

Gently round up the remaining larger pieces, then flatten each into a circle about 8 inches diameter. Place on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the other two dough pieces. Remember to give them plenty of space between to allow for expansion.

The “bones” are made by rolling the smaller pieces out to 8 inches long. A small piece is removed and rounded to form the central knob.  The remaining strip of dough is divided in two, again rolling out to form knobby bones. This is a skill not learned overnight. It’s recommended that these pieces be placed on a separate, greased baking sheet, to prove separately while the larger pieces rise. This will involve delicate moves at the last moments before baking, and te deseo buena suerte. I simply placed them on the larger pieces right after they were formed. 
The cross bones go on first, and the knob on top of that. There are subtle techniques for getting this to work. The ends are tapered. The knob will stay in place better if you poke a small depression in the top of the big loaf to receive it. Take your time and just practice. If you prove the bones separately, you'll have no slack to redo them.

Let the loaves rise at room temperature on the baking sheet, lightly covered with a plastic bag. (I use clear trash bags.)
This may take as long as 2 1/2 hours, in my experience. Your conditions may vary.
Preheat your oven to 375º F (191º C) (If you don’t have a decent oven thermometer, please get one before even beginning this project.)
Have the oven racks at the middle and upper positions. Be sure there is plenty of vertical space to allow for expansion.

Prepare an eggwash of 2-3 eggs, beaten with a couple of tablespoons water. (I disagree about using yolks, as they burn too easily. They may also restrict the expansion of the loaf.)
I hit upon putting a light dusting of rice flour over the eggwashed surface, to give the breads that “ghostly” look. If you do that, you won’t have to oil and sugar them after baking, unless you wish to.

Pan de Muertos 1 in oven

The breads are ready to bake when they are expanded and a gentle touch of a finger leaves a small depression which doesn’t rebound.
Place in oven, set a reliable timer for 15 minutes. Then exchange the pans top to bottom and front to back. 
Continue baking another 15 minutes. Check for browning and doneness. Continue baking until golden brown all over the top and sides. A thororoughly baked loaf should sound hollow when the bottom is tapped with the knuckles. For those of us at higher altitudes, baking time will probably be longer. Don't go by the recipe "time"; go by what your senses tell you.

(DK advised to leave the loaves in the oven another 5 minutes with the heat off and the door open. I skipped that, as I missed that point.)
Allow to cool 25 minutes, and apply a light film of vegetable oil, then dust with granulated sugar. Optional)
(Using melted butter may sound tasty, but eventually, the moisture in the butter will melt the sugar and the surface of the loaf will be a sticky mess.)

Finished Pan de Muertos 1

Finished Pan de Muertos 2

These came about from comments that I left on Lesley Tellez’ blog, The Mija Chronicles
Lesley; for yeast I use Sierra Nevada Etiqueta Oro (or amarilla). This is an instant active yeast formulated for high sugar content doughs, and pan de muertos dough falls well in that category. Back in the U.S., I usually used SAF Gold for sweet doughs and SAF Red for regular doughs. However, it's not impossible to interchange the red and the gold, with reasonably good results. In yeast doughs, time and temperature are among the most important factors.

The reason for the sponge or starter stage is to develop a fermented dough base that will accept the high percentage of sugar, eggs and possibly fat. To me, the PdeM dough is not too unlike a brioche dough, although the brioche has greater amounts of butter.

(Which brings me to choice of fats: do we really believe that most Mexican bakeries use unsalted butter in the PdeM? Somehow, I doubt it. But of course, we can afford it, and we like it, so we use it.)

Flour: I typically use Harina OPTIMA, milled by Harinera Guadalupana, which seems to work very well in breads, o.k. in cookies, haven't tried it in cakes. For cakes, I would try KERRY, although I rarely make cakes. I used to use SELLO ROJO TRADICIONAL instead of OPTIMA, but it doesn't seem to be available any more. It is, I believe, an unbleached flour. But OPTIMA is very versatile.

The Tequila-orange peel infusion may be a cool idea, but really, grated orange zest works even better.
If you look again closely at my photos, you may note the great improvement in the second batch. I think that it's due to more "floor time", in other words, the resting period coming out of the fridge was longer, as was the fridge time, by half again. Sixteen hours of fridge time, 5-6 hours of floor time, maybe 2 or more hours of final rise. YMMV.

En fin, slow, cool fermentations tend to improve flavor, keeping qualities and perhaps structure. At least, that's what I've learned and experienced.

 Don Cuevas

Traditional Pátzcuaro Pan de Muertos
Traditional Pátzcuaro Pan de Muertos


GlorV1 said...

Looks great and I bet it does taste great. A lot of work but worth it. Thanks for sharing and the photos are great.

Marie said...

Wow what a lot of work! The photos look great. I've found the bread we buy to be boring, maybe someday, when I have an oven, I'll give Diane Kennedy's recipe a shot... :)

Tancho said...'re the one always telling me never make anything that you can buy locally.....
Don't worry...I understand..completely!
They look good!

Leslie Harris said...

Looks delicious! My favorite part to eat is the little ball of dough on top. :)

I will have to try this recipe next year. :)

Michael Dickson said...

Costco sells great Pan de Muertos. Piece of cake, so to speak. Don´t even have to get your hands covered with flour.

Dan in NC said...

Sr Cuevas,
Read the recipe, and it seems like a substantial amount of time, labor, and some very interesting ingredients go into the pan. Not being a baker by trade, or inclination, it really begs the question - how much was a loaf selling for in the local pananderia? It may not be as soul satisfying to purchase the bread, but possibly more efficacious? (This is coming from a cooking heathen that believes "scratch" baking starts with a box of Duncan Hines!)
Dan in NC

Don Cuevas said...

Tancho, Felipe and Dan in NC:
While it's true that one can easily buy a pan de muerto of decent quality in a panadería, some of us are bakers, and we want to experience the supple dough beneath our hands. We want to...skip it.

Just remember that bakers do it because they need the dough. You either are or you aren't.

Don Cuevas

Anonymous said...

Hola Sr Cuevas
glad to hear you are baking our Mexican breads, I agree you can buy in store anything but the smell of fresh baked bread is something not everyone enjoy if they are not making the time to do it.
keep up the good work.
saludos from Long Beach CA from Mexican Baker