Translated literally as Bread of the Dead, Pan de Muerto is eaten by almost everyone in central and southern Mexico on and around November 1 and 2 as an important element in the annual Day of the Dead celebration. Most family and communal ofrendas (offerings for the beloved deceased) hold at least one of these loaves, placed for the enjoyment of visiting souls.
Many varieties of Pan de Muerto exist, their shape, texture, and flavor particular to one or more geographical and cultural regions in Mexico. This one is very common in Mexico City and the central part of the country. It is a sweet, semi-spherical loaf decorated with pieces of dough in shapes that represent bones and tears.
Nowadays, most Mexicans buy their Pan de Muerto from a bakery. If you live where this bakery treat (increasingly available online, as well), is not available—or if you just want to help keep this delicious tradition alive—try making your own with this recipe.
- 1/2 cup real butter (not margarine)
- 1 1/4 cup warm water
- 6 cups bread flour or all-purpose white flour
- 2 packets (4 and ½ teaspoons) dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 teaspoons whole aniseed
- 2 tablespoons orange zest
- 3/4 cup white sugar
- 4 large eggs
- Your choice of Glaze (see below)
Bring all ingredients to room temperature (except for the water which should be very warm) before beginning.
In a large bowl, mix together butter, sugar, anise, salt, and 1/2 cup of the flour.
In a separate bowl combine the eggs and the water.
Add the egg/water mixture to the first mixture and add another 1/2 cup of the flour.
Add the yeast and another 1/2 cup of flour. Continue to add the flour 1 cup at a time until a dough forms.
Knead on a floured surface about 1 minute. Cover with a slightly damp dishcloth and let rise in a warm area for 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Separate about 1/4 of the dough and use it to make bone shapes to drape across the loaf.*
Shape the rest of the dough into a semi sphere. Place bone shapes on loaf. Let it rise for 1 more hour.
Bake in a 350 Fahrenheit (177 Celsius) for about 40 minutes (30 minutes if you have made smaller loaves).
Cool and glaze before serving. Pan de Muerto is always eaten with the hands.
To serve: Cut your Pan de Muerto loaf into large wedges and serve with Mexican hot chocolate or champurrado (chocolate atole), if you like.
*The most common bone-shaped dough pieces are stylized and simple. Sometimes it's just a matter of forming ball shapes and pressing them into the loaf in a line. You can also take a piece of dough, roll it into a long cylinder and place a ball at each end. You can get much more detailed if you like, but even a slightly "knobby" looking loaf will get the idea across.
Glazes for Pan de Muerto
Choose one of these glazes to finish your Pan de Muerto. After glaze is applied, sprinkle your loaf with plenty of white or colored sugar; use table sugar, superfine (not powdered) sugar, or table sugar pulverized in a blender or food processor.
- Bring to a boil 3/4 cup sugar and 1/2 cup fresh orange juice. Brush on bread after it has baked and cooled.
- Mix 3 tablespoons orange juice concentrate and 1/3 cup sugar with 2 raw egg whites. Brush on bread during the last 10 minutes of baking.
- Bring to a boil 1/4 cup piloncillo (or dark brown sugar), 1/4 cup white sugar, 2/3 cup cranberry juice, and 2 tablespoons orange zest. Brush on baked loaf after bread has cooled.
Edited by Robin Grose