Bread of the Dead

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Mexico has a special relationship with the dead that we northerners can find disconcerting. We understand Halloween and all that goes with it, including skeleton costumes, excess candy  and scary cemeteries. We don’t always understand how families in Mexico can celebrate Day of the Dead at cemetery graves decorated with candles and marigold flowers, and favorite food and drink of the deceased enjoyed by all, including the departed. Children run around and play among the gravestones, while their parents and grandparents share special dishes, laugh and chat. One may see images of La Catrina, the elegantly attired female skeleton who laughs at death, and sugar candy skulls decorate the alters. At this time of year, death seems front and center, not tucked away behind social mores.

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Pan de Muerto, or Bread of the Dead, is the most iconic food for Días de los Muertos. This lightly sweet, rich bread, similar to brioche, can trace its origins to Spanish bakers who immigrated to Mexico in the last century. This makes sense, given that Mexico does not have its own tradition of baking, but rather adopted desserts and recipes brought to the New World by Spanish nuns and later by immigrants.

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In the few weeks leading up to Day of the Dead, Pan de Muerto is in all the panaderías and grocery store bakeries, even at Costco, where they were handing out generous slices the other day. I won’t go so far as to say we can make a lunch of Costco’s samples, but Russell and I can come pretty close, and Pan de Muerto made a perfect dessert after other bits and bites were sampled last week.

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Orange blossom water and anise seed are the two signature flavors of Pan de Muerto. Surprisingly, I found a bottle of orange blossom water on my shelf, purchased on a trip to the U.S. for a now forgotten recipe. This distillation is made from the blossoms of bitter orange, and has a strong floral aroma that mellows as it bakes. If you don’t have orange blossom water, use grated orange zest instead for a citrusy aroma. In Mexico, orange blossom water is known as agua de naranjo or agua de azahar.

Green anise seed was new to me. I’m familiar with star anise used in Asian cooking, but did not know that green anise seed is from a totally different plant. This is the anise used for making absinthe, the green colored liqueur.

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If you are familiar with my baking by now, you know that I generally use 50% whole wheat flour. To my taste, this adds much to the flavor — a nuttiness and sweetness found only in fresh whole wheat flour. Use all white flour if you prefer, which is in step with most Mexican baked goods.

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My breads and cakes always have a charming (or embarrassing) homemade look, though this loaf pushed the envelope in the homemade category. When Russell saw my loaf come out of the oven, he kindly said it looked muy rústico. After his first bite, he said it reminded him of his Polish grandma’s babka.


Pan de Muerto — Day of the Dead Bread 

  • 1/2 cup (4 fl. oz./118 ml.) whole milk
  • 3 oz. (85 g.) unsalted butter
  • 2 large strips orange zest, minus white pith
  • 1 tablespoon orange blossom water (or 2 tablespoons grated orange zest)
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1  1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 2 cups (8.5 oz./228 g.) white all purpose flour
  • 2 cups (9 oz./250 g.) sifted whole wheat flour, bran reserved for another use
  • 1/4 cup (1.75 oz./50 g.) sugar
  • 2 teaspoons anise seed (known as anis in Mexico)
  • 1  1/2 teaspoon salt
  • oil for bowl and pan
  • Topping: 1 oz. (28 g.) melted butter and 1 -2 tablespoons sugar
  1. In a small saucepan, warm milk,  butter and orange zest until butter melts. Remove from heat and discard zest. Whisk in orange blossom water and beaten eggs.
  2. Blend yeast, flour, sugar, anise seeds and salt in a large bowl. Gradually add milk mixture, stirring with a large wooden spoon. When the dough becomes too stiff to stir, knead by hand for about 10 minutes until smooth. If too sticky to handle, add flour a tablespoon at a time. If too dry, add water or milk by the tablespoon.
  3. Turn into an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise until double in size. Punch down, cover, and refrigerate overnight.
  4. The next day, remove dough from refrigerator and bring to cool room temperature. Save aside a small amount of dough to form “bones” and “skull” (sometimes called a tear). Form ball of dough, slightly flattened. Roll 3 small balls of dough into ropes for the “bones”, and shape to form bony segments. Place “bones” across the loaf, with the “skull” or “tear” pressed into the center. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until almost double in size.
  5. Bake in a pre-heated 350 F./180 C. oven for 30-40 minutes, covering with foil in 15 minutes if top browns too quickly. When done, a tap on the bottom of the loaf will make a hollow sound. Or bake until interior temperature measures 190 F/88 C.
  6. Brush with  melted butter and sprinkle with  sugar.  Serve warm.

Notes

~ For my readers in Mexico, I have found Espuma de Chapala to be the best whole wheat flour brand in the grocery stores here. It comes in a plastic-lined bag for freshness, and is high in protein, which corresponds to its gluten content, making it great for bread baking. It needs to be kept refrigerated to discourage rancidity, as do all whole grain flours.

~ I used my KitchenAid stand mixer to knead the dough for about 8 minutes. Use your hands, a KitchenAid mixer, or a large enough food processor for mixing and kneading, following dough instructions for mixer or processor.

~ Like other rich egg breads, this bread is best the day it is made. If it lasts longer, toasted slices are almost as good as freshly baked.

~ Thank you to Rachel Laudan for the information about Spanish bakers in Mexico If you are interested in reading more on the history of Pan de Muerto, I recommend her blog, A Historian’s Take on Food and Food Politics.

~ This recipe was primarily adapted from a recipe in Fine Cooking, by Fany Gerson. Other recipes to check are at Pati’s Mexican Table and The Mija Chronicles.

Corn tortillas, old world and new

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We were in the state of San Luis Potosí some years back, in the very small town of La Plazuela, when we came across the tortilleria — the shop that makes fresh corn tortillas. Every Mexican town has at least one tortilleria, but this one was special. The tortillas were being made from freshly ground, dried corn, instead of packaged Maseca, the corn flour usually used. We watched the grinding process, and waited around for the hot tortillas. Ay caramba, were they good! I don’t think we have had tortillas made from corn kernels ground on site since.

Amadeo, a resident of La Plazuela, ate egg tacos every morning made with these tortillas. He was a poor man, and when I saw his breakfast, I realized there wasn’t more than a small smear of cooked egg in each taco, essentially tortillas flavored with a bit of egg. His large meal of the day was tortillas with beans, and he told us that he was lucky he liked beans and tortillas so much, since that was the food God gave the poor of Mexico.

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Corn tortillas date back to pre-Columbian times, and still figure prominently in traditional Mexican cuisine. Then as now, the corn kernels are first soaked in an alkaline solution of lime (known as cal in Mexico) and water. This softens the outer skin, which is then rubbed off by hand. This process is known as nixtamalization. If you buy a bag of Maseca in Mexico, that is what the word nixtamalizado on the package means.

Despite the growing popularity of spongy Bimbo bread, tortillas are everywhere. They are the basis of quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos, enfrijoladas and much more. These days, they are more likely to be made from the dry masa mix, rather then freshly ground, dried corn. There is no comparison between the flavor of the two, but a corn grinder is not a usual household applicance, even in Mexico. So we all eat tortillas made from Maseca, though today’s modern Mexican youngsters probably do not even know what tortillas made from freshly ground corn taste like. No doubt, in the remote villages of Mexico, the real tortillas are all they know.

For some reason, my dear chief taster has had this fantasy that his esposa will some day slap masa between her hands and make corn tortillas for him regulary. Maybe this has something to do with a wish to return to simpler times. With a tortilleria only a block away, this is one fantasy that is not going to happen. Or so I thought until he gave me a beautiful, wooden tortilla press as a gift. What else could I do, but make tortillas for him. This one time.


Do you have a tortilla press and a mate who thinks you are going to slap together fresh tortillas for breakfast? If so, buy a bag of Maseca, or better yet, go to your local tortilleria and buy some fresh masa. That’s what I did. A half kilo of fresh masa cost six pesos, the same as a half kilo of tortillas. In other words, it cost the same for an equal weight of freshly cooked, steaming tortillas as it does for the masa, leaving me to go home, press the tortillas, then stand over a very hot griddle. But if making corn tortillas will make your day, here’s how to do it.

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If you live in a town with a tortilleria, buy fresh masa. One pound (one-half kilo) will make twelve to fifteen tortillas. If you are not lucky enough to live near a tortilleria, buy a bag of Maseca or Quaker Masa Hariana de Maiz and follow the instructions on the package. Their instructions call for 2 cups of masa mix, 1 1/4 cups of water, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Stir together, adding water in small increments if the dough is too dry and cracks when a test tortilla is pressed, or adding more masa if it is too wet and sticks to the plastic bags in the press.

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Whether your masa is fresh from a tortilleria, or mixed at home, pinch off enough dough to roll a ball in your hands that is slightly larger than a walnut. Keep the balls covered with a towel or plastic bag so they don’t dry before they get to the griddle or comal.

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Lay a plastic bag on your tortilla press, set a ball of dough in the center, cover that with another plastic bag, and bring down the upper part of the press with moderate pressure. That’s it — remove the tortilla from the bags and place on a very hot, unoiled griddle. After a few minutes, when brown spots start to appear on the under-side, turn it over. It will start to puff a little. Cook another minute or two, until small brown spots again appear underneath. Don’t overcook or it will be crispy. We are after soft tortillas.

Once you can stand back and survey your handiwork, you are ready to make quesadillas, Baja fish tacos or enchiladas rojas. The side of the tortilla that puffed up is called the “face” and experts say it goes inside a taco or quesadilla, because it may peel off. Once I have the tortillas cooked and off the griddle, I can’t tell which side is which. But, I’m no expert.

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The two illustrations at the top are from the Florentine Codex and the Mendoza Codex, repectively.

Jamaica iced tea

Jamaica iced tea is tea is everywhere in Mexico — in almost every restaurant, offered by many street stands, in large, glass jars in the markets. The grocery stores sell jamaica (ha-MY-ka) by the bag full, and bulk herb and grain stores sell it loose. It is always served cold with plenty of ice, and in Mexico it is also served overly sweet, like red liquid candy. If we order it with a meal, we only order one and a glass of ice water. A few tosses back and forth between the two glasses, and we have two ruby drinks that are half as sweet, but still refreshing.

If you order this colorful drink in Mexico, don’t ask for  de Jamaica, as I once did, only to be corrected. Ask for agua de jamaica. Apparently, a tea is a hot drink, and an agua (water) is served cold.

Known as hibiscus in English, and flor de jamaica in Mexico, jamaica/hibiscus is the herb that gives some Celestial Seasonings teas the bright red color and a slightly bitter flavor. If you drink Red Zinger tea, you are drinking hibiscus flowers.

The stronger the brew, the more noticeable the bitter flavor, which leads to more sugar added to mask the bitterness. This recipe uses less jamaica, but it needs less sugar because the bitterness is minimized. Iced jamaica tea can be mixed with fruit juice, like mango nectar, though I have never seen it served with juice in Mexico. In Mexico, don’t ask for té de jamaica — ask for agua (water) de jamaica.

Hibiscus tea is made from one particular plant, Hibiscus sabdariffa. It doesn’t grow in our yard, but another hibiscus blooming outside (below) is just as red, though not for used for tea. The tea is not made from the petals, something I used to think until I learned that it is the part of the flower around the petals, the sepals, that are used for tea .

Jamaica Iced Tea — Agua de Jamaica

  1. Bring two cups of water to a boil.
  2. Add 1/4 cup of lightly packed jamaica/hibiscus.
  3. Turn off  heat and brew for 3-5 minutes. Strain, discarding jamaica.
  4. Stir in 2 tablespoons of sugar, or to taste.
  5. Add 2 cups of cold water or fruit juice.
  6. Pour over ice and serve.

Makes one quart.

Post Script: As my readers have reminded me in their comments below, this tea is also delightful without sugar.

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Chiles en nogada with fresh fruit

If you have missed me, I’ve missed you, too, but it’s just been too hot to be in the kitchen this summer. El Día de la Independencia, September 16, brought me back from the brink of forgetting that I even have a food blog. Chiles en nogada, the traditional dish served for Mexican Independence Day, helped reacquaint me with mi cocina mexicana.

A year ago, I featured Chiles en Nogada the way they are traditionally made in Mexico — with dried fruit. For something different, this recipe features fresh fruit instead of dried, with a golden delicious apple and a sweet, juicy peach. I think plums and pears would be great in this, also. With all the beautiful fruit in the markets this month, the possibilities are endless.

My taster-in-residence says these chiles en nogada are delicious, but for a real test, he would need to taste them side by side with the dried fruit version. At least that’s what I think he said between mouthfuls of stuffed poblano. His sly smile means he really wants me to make more, with either dried or fresh fruit. He’s not particular.

Chiles en nogada are usually garnished with pomegranate seeds, something hard to come by in our little town. I substituted an unusual fruit, Natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa), that grows in our yard. Its color replicates the pomegranate seeds, but its flavor resembles a sweet cranberry. If you are in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle and walk along the Marina Riviera Nayarit, you will see hundreds of Natal plum bushes lining the walk-way, bright with aromatic white flours and red, little plum-like fruit.

The word nogada is Spanish for “sauce of pounded walnuts”, according to Cassell’s Spanish Dictionary. The creamy, white walnut sauce adds a mellowness all of its own. Don’t bother trying to peel the walnuts, as many recipes recommend. It is too tedious a chore and really not necessary.

Chiles en Nogada with Fresh Fruit
  • 6 poblano chiles
  • 3 medium tomatoes (.75 lb./340 grams)
  • 1 medium onion (6-7 oz./220 grams)
  • 1 lb. (1/2 kilo) ground beef
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup (1 oz./30 grams) finely chopped walnuts or sliced almonds
  • 1 apple, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 peach, finely chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 ml.) ground cinnamon
  •  1/4 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 1 1/2 cups (360 ml.) crema (Mexican sour cream), crème fraîche or sour cream
  • 3/4 cup (180 ml.) walnut meat
  • salt to taste
  • pomegranate seeds for garnish (optional)
  1. Roast and peel poblano chiles. Carefully slit down center and remove seeds. Set aside.
  2. Roast and peel tomatoes. Squeeze out juice, reserving the liquid. Finely chop tomatoes. Set aside.
  3. Saute onion and garlic until tender.
  4. Add ground meat and cook until no longer pink.
  5. Add tomatoes, 1/4 cup walnuts (0r almonds), fruit, bay leaves, cinnamon, oregano, salt and pepper and simmer for ten minutes. Do not allow to cook dry. Add reserved tomato juice or water to maintain some moisture. Remove bay leaves.
  6. To make the sauce, combine crema or sour cream and 3/4 cups walnuts in blender until smooth. Add a little milk if it is too thick. Salt to taste.
  7. Generously fill chiles, spoon walnut sauce over top, and garnish with pomegranate seeds.
  8. Serve hot, cold or room temperature.

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Empanadas de Atun ~ Tuna Empanadas

Our first empanadas de atun left a big impression. Who would have thought of combining tuna and canned peas in a Lenten empananda? But it was so good, we would look for tuna empanadas again and again in panaderías during Cuaresma (Lent). Repeating that empanada taste proved illusive, like a childhood memory of a favorite food or place that doesn’t measure up when experienced again years later. We thought we remembered a distinct tuna flavor that blended together in a moist, generous filling, encased in crispy dough. What we found, again and again, was a doughy pocket with such a small smear of tuna, it was not worth the few pesos it cost.

Walmart’s empanadas de atun were especially dismal. All dough, with an orange smear inside that was so miserly, there could not possibly be any flavor of tuna, no matter how hard my taste buds tried. Mega Comercial’s empanadas were better, with more filling, but still shy on the tuna. Look at all that flaky pastry and healthy veggies in their empanada (below). Beautiful empanadas, but little tuna. As this quest was getting us nowhere, I knew it was time to make them myself.

The first time we had empanadas de atun, they were made with only canned tuna, canned peas, and a bit of chile. I stayed true to the original recipe, more or less, but the addition of corn and carrots in Mega’s makes a colorful filling. More veggies means less tuna and there is only so much you can fit into a small pocket of dough. And I was after the tuna taste.

Super Mario, our great yard guy and general handyman, was here today replacing a toilet. (Can you write about toilets in a food blog ?) When we heard the first flush, we knew we were back in business. The least we could do was give him a cold Pacifico and a few warm empanadas. I must have done something right, because he took one home to his wife, saying he wanted her taste it.

Muy Bueno Cookbook inspired the empanada dough recipe, though I used whole wheat flour, and extra baking powder to lighten the dough, which was surprisingly light and easy to handle, given its whole wheat-ness.

Empanadas de Atun ~ Tuna Empanadas makes 14-15 empanadas

Dough

  • 3 cups (13.5 oz./383 g.) cold whole wheat flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (4 oz./115 g.) cold butter
  • 1/2 cup (4 fl. oz/63 ml.) cold milk
  • 2 cold eggs plus 1 beaten egg to brush on empanadas
  1. Mix flour, baking soda and salt in a food processor, pulsing 3 or 4 times.
  2. Add butter and process for 10-15 seconds, or until butter is cut into very small pieces, but still visible.
  3. Add milk and 2 eggs and process just until a ball of dough forms. Do not over-mix.
  4. Handling as little as possible, roll into a ball and divide into two pieces. Refrigerate while mixing tuna filling.

Tuna Filling

  • 7 oz. ( 200 grams) drained canned tuna
  • 2/3 cup (129 g. can) drained canned peas
  • juice of 1/2 small lime
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (150 ml.) drained, home made cooked salsa

Lightly blend all ingredients in a small bowl. Set aside.

Empanadas

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 deg. F. (180 C.) Oil large baking sheet.
  2. Roll out one ball of dough on a floured surface to 1/8″ (.32 cm.) thick.
  3. Use a 5″ (12.7 cm.) round shape as a cutter and cut out circles from rolled dough, then do the same with the second ball of dough. Roll out scraps and cut more rounds of dough.
  4. Spoon one heaped tablespoon of tuna filling on one half of dough circle.
  5. Overlap dough, forming a half circle.
  6. Moisten lower edge of dough with water.
  7. Press with a fork to seal edges. Place on baking sheet.
  8. Brush empanadas with beaten egg.
  9. Pierce crust with a fork to allow steam to vent.
  10. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve hot or at room temperature.

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