Pan de Muerto / Day of the Dead Bread

2½ teaspoons instant yeast*
4¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
2/3 cup whole milk, warmed
4 eggs, room temperature and lightly beaten
2 teaspoons orange zest
 cup butter, room temperature
1 egg white
1 tablespoon water
Sugar to cover

In the bowl of a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment, blend yeast, flour, salt and sugar. Slowly add warm milk and fully incorporate. On low speed, mix in eggs and orange zest until the dough begins to form, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Increase speed to medium. Add butter, one tablespoon at a time, thoroughly mixing in. On medium speed (or by hand on a floured surface), knead the dough for 15 minutes, until the dough begins to pull from the sides of the bowl. The dough will be very sticky, but resist adding flour until it has been kneaded the entire 15 minutes. An additional 1/4 cup of flour might be required, but  add it sparingly a few tablespoons at a time.

Grease a large bowl. Form the dough into a ball (it will still be tacky) and roll it in the bowl until all sides are greased. Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1½ hours.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Punch down the dough and pinch off one-third of it; set aside. Form the larger piece into a round loaf and place, seam side down, on a greased cookie sheet. Pinch off a walnut-sized piece of the remaining dough and form into a ball; set aside. Roll the rest of the dough into three ropes, each about a foot long. Make knobs at the ends and two knobs toward the center, separated by a distance that equals the width of the walnut-sized ball. These form the “bones” of the bread. Lay the ropes equidistant and crosswise over the bread, ensuring that the balls on the outside ends reach the bottom of the loaf. Press lightly at the bottom to hold. Brush a bit of water on the bottom of the walnut-sized ball and place in the center of the loaf, over the crosspoint of the three rope bones. Press down the center of the bread lightly with the flat of your hand.

Mix together the egg white and water to make an egg wash. Brush wash over the bread and sprinkle liberally with granulated sugar, about 1/3 cup.

Bake 25–30 minutes, until the bread is fully browned. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with extra sugar (if you like) and let cool on a wire rack. (Alternately, you can bake without sugar on top then, immediately after removing the bread from the oven, brush the bread with melted butter and sprinkle evenly with sugar.)

VARIATIONS: Instead of—or in addition to—the orange peel, add a teaspoon of cinnamon or nutmeg or aniseed.

* Instant yeast does not require proofing and needs not be dissolved in a liquid.

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