Pan de los Muertos (or Pan de Muerto) is a traditional and insanely yummy Mexican bread, also known as Day of the Dead Bread or simply Dead Bread in English. At pastry school, we made this bread often, well beyond the Mexican celebration of Dia De Los Muertos (from October 31 to November 2). Made from an enriched yeast-risen dough—meaning it contains delicious enrichments, such as butter, eggs, and sugar—pan de los muertos is nothing short of fabulous: soft and rich, with delicate flavors of anise and orange that also make it smell particularly fantastic during and after baking. While it’s still warm, the outside of the bread is coated in a light layer of vanilla sugar, which makes it soar taste-wise. I daresay I was nearly addicted to the fresh stuff, and the stale bread makes out-of-this-world toast (and even better French toast). Best of all, it’s super fun to make. Ready to bake up a loaf for yourself? Here’s what you need to know.
I spoke to Nancy Mendez, a baker at Hot Bread Kitchen in Harlem originally from Puebla, Mexico, to learn more about Dia De Los Muertos. Nancy described that the holiday takes place over three days: “The first day is for children, the second is for people who have been killed, and the third [is] for those who have naturally passed on.” The holiday is celebrated throughout Mexico and areas with large Hispanic populations. Specific traditions can vary largely by region, but it is a period of celebration intended to remember and pay respect to close loved ones who have died. Elaborate altars are made to honor the deceased, decorated with everything from photographs to flowers to the favorite foods of those who have died, to name a few.
Pan de los muertos is made as part of the traditional altar decor—it is placed on the altar on the day you celebrate the person who has died, and on the next day, you eat it. The bread is traditionally made as a round loaf, decorated with pieces of the bread shaped to look like bones on the surface. These bone-shaped pieces of dough are usually arranged in a circle, referencing the circle of life. The bread is typically sweet, and most commonly flavored with orange and anise, finished with a dusting of granulated sugar. But variations in flavor and finishing exist: Sometimes colored sugars are used on the exterior, and occasionally savory ingredients like sesame seeds make an appearance. There are also other decorative breads made for the holiday. Nancy told me her grandmother also made hojaldras, a fried bread, decorated with red sugar. Some breads resemble people; I’ve seen some particularly amazing versions of these guaguas de pan courtesy of the amazing bakers at Hot Bread Kitchen.
Mixing the Dough
The dough is pretty straightforward to mix. Because it’s an enriched bread, it contains ingredients that should be warmed (milk) or brought to room temperature (eggs) before mixing. You want your milk on the lukewarm side, about 85-95° F. Add it to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment and add the remaining ingredients (flour, sugar, yeast, salt, aniseed, orange zest, and eggs). Mix the dough on low speed for 3 minutes. Raise the speed to medium and continue to mix for 4 minutes more. If you want to mix by hand, that’s okay too, but the dough can be quite sticky, so start by mixing it in a bowl. Once it comes together, you can knead it on a lightly floured surface, but avoid adding too much extra flour, which can lead to a tougher bread in the end. You’ll need to knead for about 10 minutes by hand.
Because this dough is enriched, it rises slower than a lean dough (like baguette or ciabatta dough, for example). Transfer the finished dough to a lightly greased bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let it rise for 1–1 1/2 hours in a warm place. It may take longer if your kitchen is on the cool side. The dough will not quite double in size, but should noticeably rise and become puffy.
Shaping the Bread
As I mentioned earlier, Pan de los Muertos is generally decorated with small pieces of dough on the surface that resemble bones. How detailed you want to get is up to you. I just sort of roll four bone-like shapes—thinner in the center, thicker at the outside ends—and one round piece to decorate my bread. I remove 5 ounces (about 1/8 of the total dough) from the dough. Divide this piece into five 1-ounce pieces.
Roll the remaining large piece of dough gently into a round; this will be your main loaf. Gently transfer the loaf to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Press your thumb gently into the center of the loaf to make a deep indentation in the surface. Next, roll one of the 1-ounce pieces into a round and place it in the indentation. You can brush a little water on the large dough ball to help the small one adhere.
Pierce, and brush with water before adding dough pieces on top.Photo by Ren Fuller
Take the remaining 1-ounce pieces of dough and roll each into long ropes that are thicker at the ends than in the center. The idea is to make them kind of look like bones. (Go as crazy and detailed as you like; I promise it looks pretty cool no matter what.) Brush each of the dough “bones” lightly with water on one side and arrange in a circle around the dough ball on top; the pieces should wrap around the sides of the bread. Once your bread is shaped, cover the dough with lightly greased plastic wrap and let it rise for 40 minutes to an hour, or until noticeably larger and puffy.
Baking the bread
When you’re ready to bake the bread, preheat your oven to 350° F. Remove the plastic wrap from the loaf and gently egg wash the loaf evenly all over. Bake the loaf until golden brown, 35-45 minutes. It can be difficult to tell if large loaves like this are fully baked; my favorite way to know for sure is to use a thermometer. Stick it into the thickest part of the loaf—it should read at least 190° F. If you feel like your bread is browning too quickly, you can tent it with foil at any point during baking.
Finishing the bread
My favorite part about pan de los muertos is the finishing, usually a thin layer of sugar all over. I like to use vanilla sugar, but regular granulated sugar works fine (or you can get crazy and infuse your sugar 1 day ahead with other flavors, such as anise and/or orange zest). It’s important to apply the sugar while the loaf is still warm so it will stick. If you forget or have trouble getting an even coating, you can lightly glaze the loaf with 2 tablespoons of orange jelly/marmalade or simple syrup before adding the sugar. Try to get an even coat of sugar all over, then let the loaf cool completely before slicing and serving.
I always have three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's wrapped in a pastry crust. My newest cookbook, Savory Baking, came out in Fall of 2022 - is full of recipes to translate a love of baking into recipes for breakfast, dinner, and everything in between!
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