Pan de Muerto, Dead Man's Bread

February 16, 2022
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Photo by M.A. Kitchen |
  • Prep time 20 minutes
  • Cook time 50 minutes
  • Serves 2 breads
Author Notes

The last days of October are filled with the aromas of marigolds, copal, toasted canela, orange blossom, anise seed, mole, tortillas, and wood. Many are busy preparing for the Day of the Dead celebrations that take place during the first days of November (the main festivity is on the 2nd). The celebration dates back to the Aztec times where it is believed that the diseased are embarking on a journey, eventually leading them to the Mictlan, the highest lever of the underworld where they would finally rest in peace. The cemeteries are filled with laughter, mariachis, food, lights, flower sand, and it is a celebration of life. People gather around the tombs and bring the deceased favorite food and sounds.

It isn’t that death isn't painful, but it’s believed that one embarks on a journey and it is a way to celebrate the time we had with them and to keep them alive. There are many different breads made for this celebration. In Michoacán they are sculpted into shapes of flowers, the Virgin Mary, skulls or animals; in Oaxaca, you will find round breads topped with sesame seeds and colorful head figurines coming out of them. In the center of Mexico, the dough is made with pulque (fermented beverage made from the maguey plant) instead of yeast, giving it a very distinctive somewhat herbal-acid flavor. Many places dust the tops with pink sugar, remembering the ceremonial use of bread. The varieties are too large to count, but this one is perhaps the one that is most known. This particular recipe is adapted from Maricu, a chef from Mexico City who owns a cooking school with the same name.

Even though you may not celebrate Day of the Dead, I encourage you to make this delicious bread decorated with "bones" and take a moment to remember the life of those who are no longer with you in this life. —rachelxcheung

What You'll Need
  • Bread
  • 1/4 ounce active dry yeast
  • 2/3 cup milk, divided
  • 2 tablespoons orange blossom water
  • 4 cups bread flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature (you can save the paper to grease the bowl, or use oil spray)
  • Topping
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  1. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in 1/3 cup of milk, orange blossom water, and 1/2 cup of the flour. Whisk thoroughly to combine (the dough should be sticky and smooth). Cover with towel, then leave in warm place (about 70°F) for 20 to 30 minutes until it begins to bubble and puffs up slightly.
  2. In a bowl of a stand mixer, put the remaining 3 1/2 cups of flour. Using the hook attachment, mix in the sugar, salt, and orange zest for about 30 seconds. Add the eggs, the remaining 1/3 cup of milk, and the yeast mixture. Mix at a low speed until the dough starts to come together. Add the butter in small pieces, while continuing to mix and increase the speed to medium. The dough will look sticky but resist the temptation of adding more flour. Continue to beat for about 10 to 15 minutes, until the dough is soft and comes off the sides of the bowl. If the dough is still sticky after 15 minutes, add a little flour (no more than 1/3 cup).
  3. Lightly grease a large bowl. Transfer the dough to the bowl and cover with a towel. Allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size. Punch down, gather sides together, and flip so that the bottom is now the top. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight (chilling it will slow the fermentation process and dull the butter, making it easier to shape).
  4. Remove the dough from refrigerator, uncover and place towel on top. Allow the dough to rise in a warm place (about 70°F) for about 1 hour, until it comes to room temperature.
  5. Separate a little dough by cutting, NOT pulling, (about the size of a large lime) to do the "bones." Divide the remaining dough in half and form into two rounds on a smooth flat surface, making sure that the dough is "tight." Line sheet trays with parchment paper or silicone mat. Place dough on trays. Flatten the tops lightly with the palm of your hand.
  6. Take some of the dough and form into 2 small gumball sized-balls. Set aside on the sheet trays. Divide the rest of the dough into 6 pieces. With your hands, roll from the center of the dough out, making strips that are about 1 inch longer than the width of the rounds. Spread your fingers and press lightly, making knobs that resemble bones. Place 3 strips on top of one of the domes, crossing each other (the strips should be a little longer than the width of the round). Repeat with the remaining strips over the other round. Cover dough lightly with a clean towel.
  7. Let sit in a warm place, until the dough has doubled. To tell if the dough has doubled, press lightly with your finger. It should come back slowly all the way back.
  8. Heat oven to 350°F.
  9. Tap the bottom of the reserved dough rounds with a little water so that they stick. Place the rounds in the center (on top) of the bread, where the strips meet. Bake for about 40 to 50 minutes, until the dough has a nice even dark golden color. Cover loosely with foil and continue to bake until a thermometer reads the internal temperature at 190°F and the bottom of the dough is browned. Transfer to wire rack and let cool.
  10. Variations: The orange zest may be substituted with anise seeds, and milk can be used in place of the orange blossom water.
  11. Toasted, coarsely ground canela may be used instead of the orange zest and milk is used in place of the orange blossom water. The bread is then topped with powdered sugar instead of granulated sugar.
  12. The original recipe, above, may be made by brushing egg yolk and topped with sesame seeds before baking (no butter or sugar would be needed in the end).

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