Pan de Muerto (Dead Man's Bread)

February 16, 2022
0 Ratings
Photo by lucysimon
  • Prep time 6 hours 30 minutes
  • Cook time 50 minutes
  • makes two 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 deceased are embarking on a journey, eventually leading them to the Mictlan, the highest level of the underworld where they would finally rest in peace. The cemeteries are filled with laughter, mariachis, food, lights, flowers, and it is a celebration of life. People gather around the tombs and bring the deceased their favorite food and sounds.

It is not that death isn't painful, but it is 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. And 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 very distinctive somewhat herbal and acidic flavor, and many places dust the tops with pink sugar, remembering the ceremonial use of bread. There are too many varieties to count, but this one's perhaps the 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.
Lucy Simon

What You'll Need
  • Bread
  • 1/4 cup active dry yeast
  • 2/3 cup milk, divided
  • 2 tablespoons orange blossom water
  • 4 cups bread flour
  • 1/2 cup 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
  • 4 tablespoons melted butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  1. In a medium bowl, dissolve the yeast in the orange blossom water and 1/3 cup of milk, then add 1/2 cup of the flour. Mix well with whisk (the dough should be sticky and smooth) and leave in warm place (about 70°F) until it begins to bubble and puffs up slightly (about 20 - 30 minutes).
  2. Put the rest of the flour in a bowl of a standing mixer with the hook attachment. Add in the sugar, salt and orange zest and mix for about 30 seconds. Add the eggs, the remaining 1/3 cup of milk and the yeast dough. Mix until it starts to come together at a low speed. Add butter, in small pieces gradually, while continuing to mix and increase the speed to moderate. The dough will look sticky but resist the temptation of adding flour. Continue beating for a while (about 10 - 15 minutes) until the dough is soft and comes off the sides. If the dough is still sticky after fifteen minutes of beating you may now add a little flour (no more than one third of a cup).
  3. Lightly grease a large bowl with oil or butter and place dough inside it. Cover with a towel and allow to double in size in a warm place. Punch down, gather sides 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 to rise in a warm place (about 70°F) to come to room temperature. This process should take about one hour.
  4. Separate a little dough, by cutting NOT pulling (about the size of a large lime) to do the "bones." Divide the remainder dough in half and form two rounds by shaping them on a smooth flat surface making sure that the dough is "tight" and place on parchment paper or silicone lined sheet trays. Flatten the tops lightly with the palm of your hand.
  5. Take the separated dough and form two small gumball-sized balls and leave on the tray for later use. Separate the rest of the dough into 6 pieces. Roll out with your hands from the center of the dough out, making strips that are about an inch longer than the width of the rounds. Spread your fingers and press lightly, making knobs that resemble bones. Place three strips on top of one of the domes, crossing each other. Repeat with the remainder strips over the other round and cover lightly with a cloth.
  6. Place dough in a warm place and allow to double. Preheat oven after an hour to 350°F. To tell if the dough has doubled, press lightly with your finger. It should come back slowly all the way back.
  7. Once the dough has doubled, place small reserved balls in the center (on top) of the bread, where the strips meet, tapping the bottom of the rounds with a little water so that they stick to the dough and bake. When the dough has a nice even dark golden color, cover loosely with foil and cook until the internal temperature is 190°F or until the bottom of the dough is browned (about 40 - 50 minutes). Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a few minutes over a rack.
  8. While it cools, melt the 1/2 cup of butter. Take the breads, one at a time and brush deliberately with melted butter, making sure to brush all around the knobs and every inch. Hold the bottom (if it's too warm use gloves or a piece of cardboard to hold it) and tilt to cover evenly with sugar all over the top and allow to cool.
  9. Variations:

    The orange zest may be substituted with anise seeds and milk can be used in place of the orange blossom water.

    Toasted, coarsely ground canela may be used instead of the orange zest, with milk used instead of orange blossom water. The bread is then topped with confectioners sugar instead of granulated sugar.

    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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Lucy Simon

Recipe by: Lucy Simon

Editorial and Production Assistant, Food52

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