Makes two 9-inch rounds
Mexican bakeries turn out loaf after loaf of this sweet bread for Dia de los Muertos. It’s best eaten the day it’s baked, but makes delicious French toast for days after. —Sarah Lagrotteria
½ cup whole milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
Zest of two oranges
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1-¾ teaspoon active dry yeast
3-½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour; more as needed
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Vegetable oil as needed
For the topping:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup sugar in the raw
Combine the milk, butter, orange zest, and vanilla extract in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the butter melts. Remove from the heat, cover, and let mixture steep for at least 30 minutes or up to one hour. Whisk in the eggs and set aside.
Dissolve the yeast in 1/4 cup lukewarm water and let stand until the mixture bubbles slightly, 5 to 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt. Make a well in the center. Pour the yeast and milk mixtures into the well, using a spatula to mix the wet ingredients into the flour forming the inner walls of the well. Continue mixing outward from the well until all the flour has been incorporated into the wet ingredients. Lightly flour your hands and knead the mixture into a smooth, sticky dough, about 10 minutes.
Put the dough in a large, lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a towel, and leave in a warm place (about 70°F) until doubled in size, 1 to 1-1/2 hours.
Cut off a piece of dough about the size of your fist and reserve. Divide the remaining dough in half and shape the pieces on a lightly floured surface into two rounds. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and dust it lightly with flour. Lay the dough rounds on the floured parchment and lightly flatten the top of each round with your palm.
Shape some of the reserved dough into two balls the size of large marbles; set aside and cover with plastic. Divide the remaining dough into 6 pieces and roll them with your hands from the center out, making ropes that are slightly longer than the width of the loaves. As you’re rolling, spread your index and middle fingers about 1 inch apart to make knobs that represent bones. Arrange 3 of the ropes on top of each dough round, overlapping the ropes in the center. Cover loosely with a cloth or plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F.
Dab a little cold water on the top center of each round where the ropes meet and put the reserved dough balls on top, pressing slightly so they stick. Bake until the loaves are deep golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes. Cover the loaves loosely with foil and continue to bake until their bottoms are equally browned, 10 to 15 minutes more. Remove from the oven and cool for a few minutes on a wire rack.
When the loaves are cool enough to just touch, use a pastry brush to coat the top and sides of one loaf with melted butter.
Sprinkle half of the sugar all over the top, tilting the loaf slightly to help coat it evenly.
Repeat with the other loaf and remaining sugar. Cool to room temperature before serving.