This week at Mexican bakeries across the state, employees are extra busy making and baking “bread of the dead.”
The name may sound somber and eerie, but these egg-rich loaves are one of several joyous symbols of the Día de los Muertos holiday, better known as “Day of the Dead.”
During this two-day celebration, which takes place Nov. 1 and 2, the souls of departed loved ones are said to come back to the world, and their families celebrate with food, music and dancing. The celebration dates back to ancient Aztec traditions and ties in with the All Souls Day and All Saints Day in the Roman Catholic Church.
“It’s not scary or ghoulish like Halloween,” explained Marla Youssef. “We are happy and joyous about the life they had and hope that they will continue to be happy wherever they are.”
Youssef’s family has organized a Day of the Dead event at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center in West Valley City for nine years. (See info box.) This free public event includes a traditional altar display, as well as folk art, food, music and family activities.
“Everything Mexicans do is artistic: the way we speak, the way we dance, the way we display and serve food,” Youssef said.
But for Day of the Dead, relatives go the extra mile for those who have passed. “If you know you’re making something for your father or grandfather, you’ll spend a little more time to make sure it’s perfect,” she said.
To remember their loved ones, families create altars or ofrendas with food and objects that represent the deceased. Tradition says the more elaborate the altar, the more likely the person’s spirit will return to be with family and friends.
The most anticipated altar item is pan de los muertos, a simple yeast bread made with flour, eggs, milk and butter, and flavored with licorice-tasting anise or orange juice. While some cooks make their own loaves, many families purchase bread at local bakeries.
At Panaderia Flores, owners Concepción and Santiago Flores and their employees have been busy keeping up with customer demand. “We make 120 small loaves and 60 large loaves three times a week,” Concepción Flores said on Friday, a week before the holiday. “We will make more next week” as the day gets closer.
The bakery, which has locations at 1625 W. 700 North and 904 S. 900 West, decorates the tops of the loaves with traditional knots and strips to resemble bones. Some loaves are dusted with granulated sugar, as is traditional in Mexico City, while other loaves are topped with sesame seeds, which is more common in smaller Mexican towns.
Bread is just one offering on the altar tables. Other items include:
Food • Flores said families usually add “the freshest fruit from the market” to the altar as well as a plate of food that the person enjoyed while alive. Food offerings might includes tamales, mole, hot chocolate, soda pop or even a bottle of beer. Flores said she leaves a cup of coffee for her mother and tequila for her dad. Families believe the spirit absorbs the “essence” of the food and beverage. After an appropriate amount of time, the living may take their turn and enjoy the feast.
Sugar skulls • These pieces of traditional folk art are placed on the altar as gifts. The skulls are made from granulated sugar that has been boiled and poured into molds. When dry, these smiling skulls are decorated with bright-colored icing and whimsical flourishes such as beads, glitter and feathers. The name of the deceased is written across the forehead in remembrance.
Flowers • Large marigolds, which are abundant this time of year in Mexico, are the most traditional flower but calla lilies also are common.
Photos and candles • A photograph of the person being remembered is placed on the altar, along with several candles, which are intended to light the way and lead the spirit back home.
Personal items • Favorite objects of the deceased also are also placed on the table. Items can vary from a toy or musical instrument to tools. Youssef said her grandfather was an artist, so her family places paintbrushes and drawing utensils on his altar.
For some people, celebrating death may seem like a contradiction, Youssef said, but to those of Mexican descent, “you are celebrating the life of the person and the love they brought to you.”
A cultural celebration
P The Utah Cultural Celebration Center will have an altar display, folk-art exhibit and activities for families during its ninth annual Día de los Muertos — Day of the Dead — celebration.
When • Friday, Nov. 2, 6 to 9 p.m. Altar and decorations will remain on display through Thursday, Nov. 6.
Where • Utah Cultural Celebration Center, 1355 W. 3100 South, West Valley City; 801-965-5100 or culturalcelebration.org
Cost • Free
Details • The Cultural Celebration Center is open Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. or by appointment.
Day of the Dead fundraiser
P Mexican food, live music, children’s activities, a traditional mercado and more are part of the Day of the Dead celebration sponsored by Rico Brand and Frida Bistro. All cash and canned food collected at this event will be donated to The Utah Food Bank.
When • Friday, Nov. 2, 6 to 10 p.m.
Where • Rico Warehouse, 545 W. 700 South, Salt Lake City
Cost • Adults $15 or 15 cans of nonperishable food; children $10 or 10 cans of nonperishable food.
Reservations • 801-433-9923 or email email@example.com
Pan de Muerto — Bread of the dead
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cups water
5 to 5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
2 packages active-dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoons whole anise seed
1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons grated orange zest
1⁄3 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
Colored sugar (optional)
In a saucepan over medium heat, place butter, milk and water; heat until very warm but not boiling, approximately 105 to 110 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, combine 1/2 cup flour, yeast, salt, anise seed and sugar. Slowly beat in the warm milk mixture until well mixed. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing through. Slowly add in another 1 cup of flour. Continue adding flour until the dough is soft but not sticky.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead for at least 10 minutes or until smooth and elastic. Form the dough into a large ball. Lightly grease a large bowl and place dough in it. Flip the dough so that the grease covers the top and bottom of the dough ball. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk, approximately 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
After the dough has risen, punch the dough down and shape into two loaves. Save some of the dough and use it to create strips and knobs that look like bones. Arrange them on top of the loaves. Let these loaves rise in a warm place until doubled, approximately 1 hour.
Heat oven to 350 degrees . Bake bread for approximately 40 minutes. When the bread is done, it should sound hollow when thumped. A good check is to use an instant digital thermometer to test your bread. The temperature should be between 200 and 210 degrees.
While bread is baking, make orange glaze. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine sugar, orange zest and orange juice; bring just to a boil so the sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from heat.
Using a pastry brush, put the glaze on the bread while still warm.
Servings • Makes 2 loaves.