Dia de Todos Los Santos, Part 1: Pan de Muerto and Hec’s first Jack-O-Lantern

Dia Santo 1 - Jacko Lit

Well…Halloween has come and gone, but I still have quite a few thoughts floating around in my head regarding the Guatemalan version of the holiday. Perhaps many of you have already thrown your beautifully carved Jack-O-Lanterns in with the compost. Or they have been nabbed by the neighborhood kids and smashed in another’s yard. And maybe you have painstakingly removed all the cotton cobwebs and spooky scare crows from the porches and windows and replaced them with wreathes, strings of lights, and candle sticks. Even here in Guatemala the Halloween decorations were stripped down by November 2nd, and yesterday afternoon the city crews strung garland letters of “JOY” and “NAVIDAD” across the main roadways, and positioned sleighs with reindeer in the grassy boulevards. Even my local grocery store rapidly strung lights from the rafters and placed artificial trees in the produce section complete with empty ribbon-trimmed boxes beneath. It’s always surprising how quickly the holiday season comes.

I think its quite a shame that immediately following Dia de Todo los Santos (All Saint’s Day), which is a fairly significant holiday in Guatemala, that every remembrance is swept away and immediately replaced with glitter, pine, and advertisements for holiday deals on the new trendy toy. All that is left from the holiday before are the shredded remains of tissue paper and balsa wood kites stranded up in trees and telephone wires; or if you frequently pass a cemetery on your daily commute it may appear particularly bright and colorful compared to the week before. Other than that, Guatemala, along with the rest of western civilization, is flooded with the sounds of rum pum pum pum, silver bells, and for some strange reason the awful. awful. awful. version of Last Christmas by Wham that seems to repeat every 50 minutes on all radio stations through out the world from November 1st until January 2nd. Its not clear to me why, however, because I know not one person who admits to liking it. But it sure is catchy. Just writing about it I’ve got it stuck in my head. Now look what I’ve done…

Dia Santos 1- Jacko Drawing

Anyway. I’ve got some lovely things to say about Dia de Todos los Santos here in Guatemala. First, this year Hec made his first ever Jack-o-Lantern. Isn’t it cute? He is named Ayotillo (little squash, in Spanish). Hec carved him a few weeks ago and we’ve enjoyed it’s warm glow in our apartment for quite some time. And of course we roasted the pumpkin seeds, seasoned with paprika salt and pepper.

Dia Santo 1 - Jacko y Beto

This time of year also offers so delicacies that are not available any other time. One of these is a special pan dulce (sweet bread) that I really really enjoy. It is only offered in the months of October and part of November here in Guate. It’s called Pan de Muerto, literally “Bread of the Dead”. I haven’t researched it’s history, and perhaps that would have been rather interesting to talk about here, but honestly I’m more interested in how it looks, feels, and tastes. The loaves are large round mounds, criss-crossed with rope-like shapes, and topped with a knob-like ball of dough, and dusted off with powdered sugar. The texture is light and fluffy with sometimes very large air bubbles in the center, but when you dive in it is unexpectedly smooth and chewy. It is only slightly sweet with a strong eggy taste. I love it, and I buy it from San Martin, my favorite bakery in Guatemala. We bought one to share with my Suegros this year, and after that tease of a taste I needed more. But seeing that they are 30Q a pop, and being compelled by my fascination with discovering the secrets behind my favorite foods, I decided I would research the recipe and try to make it myself!

I’ll be honest right out. It did not turn out a thing like the Pan de Muerto from San Martin. It was a dense loaf (which is not necessarily bad, but not what I was aiming for here either), and it was rather flat-tasting. I will go ahead and post the recipe I used, which I’m guessing reflects more accuratly the Mexican Pan de Muerto than the Guatemalan, and I have made some adjustments in salt and sugar which I hope will correct for the bland taste I encountered. No promises here, though.

Even though I found the recipe to be quite a failure, I wanted to show my pictures of how the pan dulce of the “autumn” season looks because I think, if anything at all, this recipe was a visual success. Additionally I feel obligated to bring it to your attention in case you would find yourself in these parts around the season, or if you come across a Guatemalan bakery which by chance might serve this bread in October and November (I know there is one in Chicago).

This recipe made for loves the size of half a volley ball. And I was not crazy about it, so I used the loaves to make bread pudding with almonds and crystallized ginger (which turned out to be a huge success). However, for those of you looking for a new holiday tradition, who are adventurous in the kitchen and aren’t easily upset by less than perfect results, I hope my adjustments of sugar and salt serve you well and make it more palatable overall. But for the real thing, I would just recommend visiting me here in Guate some time in the fall and I’ll treat you to a loaf from San Martin!

Pan de Muerto - Up Close

Pan de Muerto, adapted from here.

Makes 2 loaves

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons aniseed or 5 star anise
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons yeast
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 6 eggs
  • 1.5 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 stick butter, melted
  • 4 1/2 cups flour, plus flour for dusting work surface
  • Vegetable oil for coating bowl
  • 1/3 cup sugar for sprinkling

Directions:

  • Steep the aniseed in 1/4 cup water for 10 minutes.
  • In a large mixing bowl, stir together the yeast, warm water, and 1 tablespoon of the 3/4 cup sugar. Let sit until foamy, 10 minutes.
  • Beat together 3 eggs and 3 egg yolks, reserving the 3 whites on the side for later.
  • Add the beaten eggs and yolks, salt, the remaining sugar, aniseed with water, nutmeg, and melted butter. Stir well until evenly combined. By hand or with the beater of an electric mixer, mix in flour. Transfer to a lightly floured board or counter and knead the dough for 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and slightly sticky. Place the dough in a large oil-coated bowl. Cover with a lightly moistened tea towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.
  • Punch the dough down and turn out onto a floured counter. Pinch off about 2 cups of dough and set aside for decoration.
  • Divide the remaining dough into 2 pieces and shape into round loaves and place both loaves on a greased baking sheet.
  • Make and egg wash by beating together remaining egg whites with 1 tablespoon water. Divide remaining 2 cups dough into 6 pieces. With four of these pieces roll a snake-like shape. Gently pretty two of these pieces on each loaf making a large X which crossing at the top of the loaf and use the egg wash as a glue. With the remaining two pieces of dough, roll them into balls and place them on the top of each loaf where the snake-like pieces cross. Apparently this is supposed to appear as a skull and cross bones.
  • Cover the assembled dough with a damp towel and set aside to rise until the loaves hold a fingerprint when pressed, about 50 minutes. Don’t throw away the egg wash yet!
  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Brush the risen loaves with the egg wash and sprinkle with remaining 1/3 cup sugar. Bake until golden about 30 minutes. Cool on a rack
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