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The famous pan de muerto (bread of death) comes in the shape of human figures, alligators, lizards, and other animals - but most often skulls and crossbones or teardrops and crosses, gaily decorated with colored sugar crystals.

The following recipe is a typical modern version of the pan de muerto. Like the European altar breads, it was originally made with flour, yeast, eggs, sugar, and some aromatic flavoring like orange-blossom water. Today Mexican home bakers often enrich and sweeten the bread with condensed milk.

- Zarela Martinez

Yield: 3 plain round loaves (about 6 inches across) or 2 decorated loaves (about 7 inches across)
  • 2 envelopes dry yeast
  • cup lukewarm water
  • 3-4 cups all-purpose flour (or more as necessary)
  • teaspoon salt
  • 9 Tablespoons (1 stick plus 1 Tablespoon) softened butter cut in small pieces, plus additional for greasing
  • 3 eggs (2 for dough, 1 for glazing loaves)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 7/8 cup (half of one 14-ounce can) condensed milk
  • 1 Tablespoon orange flower water
  • Sugar (or colored sugar crystals if desired) for sprinkling loaves

In small bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water and let sit in a warm place for 5 minutes. Make a sponge by stirring in 4-5 tablespoons flour. Cover with a damp towel and let sit in a warm place until full of bubbles and about doubled in bulk, roughly 45 minutes.

Combine a scant 3 cups flour with salt. Place in large mixing bowl or on a pastry board or clean counter. Cut or rub in the butter with pastry blender or fingers until dough resembles the texture of coarse cornmeal.

Beat together 2 whole eggs and 3 egg yolks. Have ready the condensed milk and orange flower water. Gradually add these ingredients to the dough, working them in with fingertips. Add the yeast sponge and work it in, adding flour as necessary to make a soft but kneadable dough. Knead for about 10 minutes, until smooth and silky. (Alternatively, use dough hook of electric mixer.) Lightly grease a large bowl with butter and place dough in it, turning to coat both sides with butter. Let sit in a warm place, covered with a damp cloth or plastic wrap, until doubled in bulk, about 1-2 hours.

Punch the dough down. If not making a decoration, shape into 3 equal-sized loaves. Or to make 2 decorated loaves, proceed as follows: Cut off about of the dough and set aside. Divide the rest into 2 equal portions, shaping each into a ball. Place side by side on a greased and floured baking sheet, remembering that they will expand in baking. With remaining dough, shape skulls and crossbones: First divide dough into 4 parts. Roll 2 pieces between your palms into long, narrow strips for crossbones. Cut each in half. Crisscross 2 strips over each loaf. Shape remaining pieces into 2 small balls for skulls. Lightly press them onto the loaves just above the crossbones (if you have difficulty getting them to stick, make gashes in the loaves with a small sharp knife and press the balls into the gashes). Lightly cover with damp towels and let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 375F. Beat the remaining egg and brush lightly over loaves and decorations and bake 40 minutes. Sprinkle the loaves with sugar and return to oven for about 1 minute to melt.

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