Pan de Muerto and Café de Olla – just in time for Día de los Muertos / Allsaints

Sitting in a cafe with a cup of coffee while reading a book or working on a blog post, maybe nibbling on a pain aux raisins or a slice of banana bread, is one of my favourite things to do. And with spending so much time at home since I started WFH back in March, once cafes were open again, heading to a cafe also represented a small escape from the seemingly endless and also never-ending days at home. Alas, as Belgium is back into a quasi-lockdown cafes are back to offering take-away coffee only.  But thankfully this little ritual can easily be recreated at home. I stocked up on my favourite coffee from Belga & Co and I have been tackling a range of new recipes for homemade treats, including these Mexican Pan de Muerto

Pan de Muerto, also known as Pan de los Muertos, is a Mexican pan dulce (sweet bread) typically eaten in the run-up to and on this week’s Día de Muertos, i.e. All Saints. They come both in larger loaves meant for sharing but also in individual buns. But regardless of size, what gives Pan de Muerto its typical appearance are bone-shaped pieces of dough draped in a cross shape across each bun. 

While there are some regional variations Pan de Muerto is typically flavoured with one or several of anise seeds, orange zest and orange blossom water. And to finish, Pan de Muerto is often brushed with melted butter and rolled in caster sugar (but a generous scattering of sesame seeds seems similarly common). The dough itself is an enriched sweetened dough ranging from a simple and fairly lean milk bread type dough to recipes so rich in butter they could give brioche a run for its money. Having played with different ratios, I settled on a richer version. After all, Pan de Muerto is eaten for a celebration so there is no reason to be stingy with the butter! 

And what is a sweet and sugary delicious treat if you don’t have anything tasty to drink alongside? So today I also wanted to share a recipe for Café de Olla, also known as Mexican claypot coffee. This is nothing more than coffee brewed with a handful of different spices (and sometimes orange zest) and sweetened with piloncillo (a type of pure and unprocessed cane sugar also known as panela) or another type of brown sugar. 

Now, anyone who has been to North Africa or the Middle East will be familiar with coffee brewed with spices, often cardamom. However, Café de Olla is a much subtler affair, and that is what makes it so delicious if you ask me – the spices enhance the flavour of the coffee but without overpowering it. And I don’t know about you, but I cannot think of a better day to start one of these cold and grey fall mornings than with a homemade baked treat and a warming cup of delicious coffee. 

Pan de Muerto

Notes: I tried kneading the dough for these by hand and it is doable. But it took me a good 25 minutes and for the longest part it felt like I was merely spreading cake batter across my kitchen countertops. So if you have one, you may want to use a standmixer for this recipe. 

Ingredients

250g flour
50g sugar
¼ tsp salt
¾ tsp dried active yeast
1 tsp anise seeds
1 ½ tsp orange zest
1 egg
100ml warm milk
1 tbsp orange blossom water
75g softened butter

Eggwash: 1 egg whisked with a splash of milk

To finish: ca. 50g melted butter, 100g sugar

In the bowl of your stand mixer whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, dried active yeast, anise seeds and orange zest. Add the egg, warm milk, orange blossom water and softened butter. 

Mix on slow for 2-3 minutes or until the ingredients are combined into a shaggy mess. Then knead on medium for around 10 minutes or until the dough passes the windowpane test (i.e. you can stretch a small portion of dough so thin as to be almost translucent). Cover the dough and set aside somewhere warm to proof for around 1.5-2h or until doubled in size.

Remove the dough from the bowl and knead briefly before shaping your Pan de Muerto. Now, the shaping is a tiny bit fiddly, so I am not going to stop you if you just want to divide the dough in 5 and shape 5 simple buns. But if you do want to give them their characteristic appearance, here is what you need to do (note a scale will come in handy for this):

Divide the dough into 5 pieces of around 70g – these will be your buns – followed by 5 pieces of around 30g (these will be your bones) and 5 pieces of around 5g each. 

Shape the buns (see here for a helpful video on how to do this) and place them seam-side down on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Cover the buns and the extra pieces of dough with a tea towel while you shape the decorations so nothing dries out. 

To shape the bones, divide each 30g piece in half. Shape each piece into a sausage (it should be about the size and width of your pinkie). Next, continue rolling each piece back and forth on your countertop to flatten and lengthen it while pressing the index finger and middle finger of one your hands into the centre of each sausage and your ring fingers against the ends of each sausage. It might take you a few tries but you should end up with something that looks a little bit like a thin-ish string of dough with two large round blobs on either end of it. Lay one of these across the centre of one bun and repeat with the second piece of dough and lay this atop of the first piece like a cross. Now take one of the 5g pieces of dough, shape into a round, and press this on top of each bun where the two strips of dough meet. Make sure you press down firmly – otherwise you risk the top dislodging during proofing or while the buns are in the oven. 

Repeat these steps with the remaining pieces of dough – you should end up with 5 buns, each decorated with two strips of dough laid in a cross-shape across the centre of the bun and topped with a small round of dough. Cover the buns with a kitchen towel and set aside to proof until doubled (this should take around 45 minutes).

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Brush each bun with egg wash and bake the buns for around 20-25 minutes until golden brown and they sound hollow when tapped from the bottom. 

To finish, brush each Pan de Muerto with melted butter and quickly roll in sugar. Make sure you do this one by one, otherwise the buns will absorb the melted butter and the sugar won’t be able to stick. 

These are best eaten the day they are made (and irresistible when still warm from the oven), but thanks to all that butter in the dough they will stay fresh for a few days and also taste delicious cut in half and toasted. If they do end up going stale, I suspect they would also make delicious French Toast or Bread and Butter Pudding.

Café de Olla 

Notes: Café de Olla, also known as claypot coffee, is typically prepared in a claypot, but it tastes equally good brewed in a saucepan. While traditionally drunken hot, it also makes excellent iced coffee, whether with your dairy of choice or even a glug of homemade horchata. There are many different versions of Café de Olla, so feel free to experiment with different spices and maybe even adding a strip of orange zest. But one thing I would recommend is to go easy on the amount of spices – what is so lovely about Café de Olla is that the spices are quite subtle. 

Makes 2 cups

Ingredients

0.5L water
25g brown sugar (or, if you have, piloncillo)
1 cinnamon stick
1 clove
½ star anise
2 generous tbsp ground coffee

Directions

Add the water, sugar and spices to a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Once the sugar is dissolved, take the saucepan off the heat, add the ground coffee, stir to disperse, cover and set aside for 10 minutes. 

Strain the coffee through a coffee filter or cheesecloth and divide between two cups. Serve as is or with milk and extra sugar. 

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