When I was growing up, my parents worked really hard and long hours to give us the best opportunities they could afford. During that time, there was a woman named Emperatríz who took care of us. She was from Nicaragua and loved us as if we were her own children. For a time, my siblings and I all spoke Spanish and my Mom would come home to find us dancing around the kitchen to Spanish radio or enthralled in the newest telenovela.
While I'm not an ounce Latina, there's something about the culture that's always felt really comforting to me. For example, one of my favorite comfort food meals is rice and beans with bean broth. And, while it's technically a Mexican holiday, I've always had a fascination with Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). Sure, spending so much time with Emperatríz had an impact on me. But I think a big part of my love of Latin American culture also comes from growing up in Southern California and having such amazing access to Mexico and Latin America.
Last year, I went to the Día de los Muertos procession in the Mission District here. Thousands of people of all ages come out, donning the traditional skull face paint, veils and outfits to honor ancestors and loved ones who have passed away. It is also a time to reflect on and honor the cycle of life. The energy of the evening is deeply healing. It is a time to address grief and loss on a spiritual and personal level; in community. This will be the 36th year for the Día de los Muertos procession in the Mission. If you are here and would like to check it out, here's the info.
This year, I'll participate in the building of a community altar, follow the procession and bake this Japanese black sesame take on pan de muertos. When I was making this, I was reminded of how similar this bread is to challah. Here's the recipe:
1x 1/4 ounce packet of active dry yeast
5 1/3 cups bread flour, another 1/3 cup of flour reserved
1/4 cup warm water
1 1/2 tablespoons black sesame paste (golden sesame paste or tahini could also work)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
1/2 cup butter, softened at room temperature
In the bowl of a stand mixer, add yeast, 1/3 cup of flour and warm water and stir until everything is evenly incorporated. You should have a sticky dough. Let it rest uncovered in an empty oven (not on) for about 30 minutes. At the end of this time, you should see bubbles forming in the dough.
In a medium-sized bowl, add eggs, black sesame paste, salt and 1/2 cup sugar and whisk until well-incorported and sugar has dissolved.
Pour the wet ingredients into the yeast mixture and mix with a dough hook on low speed. Add 1 cup of flour at a time, alternating with the softened butter, a few pieces at a time. A soft dough should start forming in a few minutes. Once there's less risk of flour flying everywhere, increase the speed to medium for about 10 minutes. Turn off the mixer when the dough becomes one stretchy mass. Using the base of my palm, I like to fold the dough over a few times to the center rotating the bowl. This creates a nice ball shape.
Grease a large mixing bowl with melted butter. Transfer the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let it rise at room temperature until it has doubled in size (about 2 hours). Meanwhile, line two baking sheets with parchment paper and grease with more melted butter.
Place the dough that has risen on a clean pastry stone or countertop. With a dough scraper, cut out about a quarter of the dough. Gently shape the 3/4-sized dough back into a ball and place it in the center of one of the baking sheets.
Roll the 1/4-sized piece of dough into a ball and cut it into fourths with your dough scraper. Shape one of those pieces into the shape of a skull and place it on the other baking sheet (but make sure it is not near the edge, since you are going to let it rise and expand again. Start rolling and stretching each of the other fourths of dough from the center into 8" long pieces. You want the middle to be very thin (I didn't make mine thin enough!) and the ends wider so it sort of looks like a bone. Place them on the baking sheet with the skull and make sure each piece has ample space from the pieces around it. You should have 1 skull and 3 bones now. Cover with plastic wrap (loosely). Let them rise until doubled in size for 1½ hours.
When the dough has only 15 minutes left to rise, preheat the oven to 325°F. Remove plastic wrap and gently pick up one of the bones (be sure to pick it up from the ends, not the middle). Drape the first bone diagonally across the large dough round. Drape the second bone over it to form an "X". Place the last bone horizontally across the X. Finally, place the skull in the center, positioning the skull the orientation pictured above. Gently press the edges of the skull into the bones.
Place bread in oven for 45 minutes or until browned and cooked through. Brush half the loaf with melted butter, immediately sprinkling with granulated white sugar. Do the same for the other half and cool the loaf for 1 hour before slicing. Pan de Muertos can be made up to 2 days ahead. Just make sure it's completely cool before storing it in an airtight container at room temperature. Serve with butter.