Pan de Muerto (Dead Man's Bread)

February 16, 2022
0 Ratings
  • Prep time 5 hours 30 minutes
  • Cook time 50 minutes
  • makes 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, when it was believed that the deceased embarked on a journey that led them to the Mictlan—the highest level of the underworld—to finally rest in peace. The cemeteries are filled with laughter, mariachis, food, lights, flowers, and sand. It is a celebration of life. People gather around the tombs and bring the deceased's favorite foods and sounds.

It is not that death isn't painful. Rather, the belief that the deceased embark on a journey serves to celebrate the time we had with them and keep their memory 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. In the center of Mexico, the dough is made with pulque (a fermented beverage made from the maguey plant) instead of yeast, giving it a distinctive and somewhat herbal, acidic flavor. Many places dust the tops of bread with pink sugar, evoking its ceremonial use. Though there are countless varieties, Pan de Muerto is perhaps the best-known: this particular recipe is adapted from Maricu, a chef from Mexico City who owns a cooking school of the same name.

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

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 granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest
  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup butter, room temperature (you can save the paper to grease the bowl)
  • unsalted butter or oil spray, for greasing the bowl
  • Topping and Assembly
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  1. Bread
  2. In a small bowl, combine the orange blossom water and 1/3 cup milk. Dissolve the yeast into the mixture. Add 1/2 cup of the flour and whisk thoroughly to combine (the dough should be sticky and smooth). Leave in a warm place, about 70°F, until it begins to bubble and puffs up slightly, about 20 to 30 minutes.
  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, add the remaining 3 1/2 cups flour. 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. With the mixer still running, gradually add the butter in small pieces. Increase the speed to moderate. The dough will look sticky but resist the temptation to add flour. Continue beating until the dough is soft and comes off the sides of the bowl, about 10 to 15 minutes. If the dough is still sticky after 15 minutes of beating, you may add a little flour (but no more than 1/3 cup).
  4. Lightly grease a large bowl with oil or butter and place dough inside it. Cover with a towel and put it in a warm place until doubled in size. Punch down, then gather the sides of the dough together and flip over so that the bottom is now the top, and 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). Remove the dough from refrigerator, uncover, and place towel on top. Leave the dough in a warm place (about 70°F) to rise and come to room temperature, about 1 hour.
  5. Section off a small piece of dough (about the size of a large lime) for the "bones," making sure to cut the dough, NOT pull it. Set aside and divide the remaining dough in half. On a smooth, flat surface, shape each half into a tight round. Place on parchment- or silicone-lined sheet trays. Flatten the tops lightly with the palm of your hand.
  6. Using the reserved dough, section out two small pieces (each the size of a gum ball) and put aside on a tray for later use. Separate the remaining dough into 6 pieces. Using your hands, roll out each piece of dough, starting from the center and moving outwards until you have strips that are about an inch longer than the width of the rounds. Spread your fingers and press lightly on the strips, making knobs that resemble bones. Place three strips on top of one loaf, crossing them in the center (the strips should be a little longer than the width of the round). Repeat with the remaining strips on the other loaf and cover both lightly with a cloth.
  7. Place trays in a warm area and allow loaves to double in size. To tell if the dough has doubled, press lightly with your finger—it should slowly return to its original shape.
  8. Heat the oven to 350°F.
  9. Place one reserved dough ball on top of each loaf, right where the strips meet in the center. To do this, dab the bottom of each ball with a little water so that they stick to the dough. Bake until the dough is golden-brown and even in color, then cover loosely with foil. Continue to bake until the internal temperature reaches 190°F, or until the bottom of the dough is browned, about 40 to 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly.
  1. Topping and Assembly
  2. While the bread cools, melt the remaining 1/2 cup of butter for the topping. Working with one loaf at a time, brush bread liberally with melted butter, covering every inch, including all around the knobs. Holding the bread from the bottom (and using gloves or a piece of cardboard if it's too warm to hold), cover the bread evenly with sugar. Allow to cool completely.
  3. Variations: 1) The orange zest may be substituted with anise seeds. Use milk in place of the orange blossom water. 2) Alternatively, toasted, coarsely-ground canela (cinnamon) may be used instead of the orange zest. Use milk in place of the orange blossom water and top the bread with confectioners' sugar instead of granulated sugar. 3) The original recipe, above, may also be made by brushing the dough with egg yolk and topping it with sesame seeds prior to baking. Omit the butter and sugar topping.

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