Pan de muerto (Spanish for bread of the dead) (also called pan de los muertos or dead bread in the United States) is a type of sweet roll traditionally baked in Mexico during the weeks leading up to the Día de Muertos, which is celebrated on November 1 and 2. It is a sweetened soft bread shaped like a bun, often decorated with bone-shaped phalanges pieces.
Pan de muerto is eaten on Día de Muertos, at the gravesite or altar of the deceased. In some regions, it is eaten for months before the official celebration of Dia de Muertos. In Oaxaca, pan de muerto is the same bread that is usually baked, with the addition of decorations. As part of the celebration, loved ones eat pan de muerto as well as the relative’s favourite foods. The bones represent the disappeared one (difuntos or difuntas) and there is normally a baked tear drop on the bread to represent goddess Chimalma’s tears for the living. The bones are represented in a circle to portray the circle of life. The bread is topped with sugar.
The classic recipe for pan de muerto is a simple sweet bread recipe, often with the addition of anise seeds, and other times flavoured with orange blossom water. Other variations are made depending on the region or the baker. The one baking the bread will usually wear decorated wrist bands, a tradition which was originally to protect from burns on the stove or oven.
- In the Mexico City, the bread is called hojaldra, with some communities using pink sugar.
- In Mixquic, despeinadas (literally, unkempt ones) are made with sprinkles and sesame seeds.
- Muertes (deaths), made in the State of Mexico, are made with a mix of sweet and plain dough with a small amount of cinnamon. Other types in the region include gorditas de maíz, aparejos de huevo (egg sinkers, apparently after fishing weights) and huesos (bones).
- In Michoacan, breads include pan de ofrenda (offering bread), the shiny pan de hule, (rubber bread) and corn-based corundas, made with tomato sauce and chile de árbol.
Pan de Muerto Recipe
For the bread
- ½ cup whole milk
- 80 g unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- two 10 x 2 cm strips orange zest , use a vegetable peeler; avoid the white pith
- ¾ tablespoon orange blossom water
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 7 g active dry yeast
- 450 g unbleached plain flour, more as needed
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- vegetable oil, as needed
For the topping
- 60 g unsalted butter, melted
- ¼ cup sugar
To make the dough
- Put the milk, butter, and orange zest in a small saucepan over medium heat; stir until the butter melts, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool until warm. Discard the orange zest, add the orange blossom water, and whisk in the eggs.
- Dissolve the yeast in ¼ cup lukewarm water (no hotter than 45°C : 113°F) and let stand until the mixture bubbles slightly, 5 to 10 minutes. (If the yeast doesn’t bubble, discard it and start again with new yeast.)
- Mix the flour, sugar, and salt on a work surface. Make a well in the centre. Gradually pour the yeast mixture and the milk mixture into the well while mixing with your hand . Knead until you have a nice, uniform dough, about 10 minutes. The dough should be smooth but still slightly sticky. If it seems too sticky, add more flour as needed.
- Put the dough in a large, lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a towel, and leave in a warmish place (about 22°C : 72°F) until doubled in size, 1 - 1½ hours.
To shape the bread
- Cut off a piece of dough about the size of a lemon and reserve. Divide the remaining dough in half and shape the pieces on a lightly floured surface into 2 rounds. Lightly oil a heavy-duty rimmed baking sheet or line it with baking paper; put the dough rounds on it and flatten the tops with your hands.
- With some of the reserved dough, form 2 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 centre out, making ropes that are slightly longer than the width of the loaves. As you're rolling, press with your index and middle fingers spread about 2 cm (¾") apart to make knobs that represent bones. Arrange 3 of the ropes on top of each dough round, overlapping the ropes in the centre. 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 centre of the oven and heat the oven to 175°C. (350°F ; Gas Mark 4).
- Dab a little cold water on the top centre of each round where the ropes meet and put the reserved dough balls on top, pressing slightly so they adhere. Bake until the loaves have an even golden colour (30 - 40 minutes). Cover the loaves loosely with foil and continue to bake until their bottoms are browned and the internal temperature is 88°C (190.4 °F), 10 to 15 minutes more. Remove from the oven and cool for a few minutes on a wire rack.
Topping the bread
- Brush the loaves all over with some of the melted butter. Holding one from the bottom (if it's too warm, use an oven mitt or a piece of cardboard), 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. The bread is best eaten within a day of baking. See notes below for an alternative glaze.
- Variation - Orange Glaze
- ½ cup sugar
- 1½ tablespoons grated orange zest
- ⅓ cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
- coloured sugar (optional)
- 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.
- Shelf Life: The baked loaves can be wrapped in plastic and frozen for up to 2 months