Pan de Muerto (Dead Man's Bread)

February 18, 2022
0 Ratings
  • Prep time 5 hours 40 minutes
  • Cook time 50 minutes
  • Serves 2 loaves
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 is believed that the deceased embarked on a journey that led them to the Mictlan – the highest lever 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, where people gather around the tombs, bringing the deceased's favorite foods and sounds.

It is not that death isn't painful. In fact, the belief that the dead embark on a journey serves to celebrate the time we had with them, keeping their memories 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 the breads with pink sugar, symbolizing its ceremonial use. Although there are countless varieties, Pan de Muerto is perhaps the most well-known of them all: 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 Day of the Dead, I encourage you to make this delicious bread –decorated with "bones"– and take a moment to remember the lives of those who are no longer with you. —lavanya24narayanan

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. In a small bowl, combine the orange blossom water and 1/3 cup milk, mixing well. Dissolve the yeast in the mixture. Then, add 1/2 cup of the flour and whisk thoroughly to combine (the dough should be sticky and smooth). Leave the dough in a warm place, about 70°F, until it begins to bubble and puffs up slightly, about 20-30 minutes.
  2. In the large bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, add the remaining 3 1/2 cups of flour. Then, mix in the granulated sugar, salt, and orange zest for about 30 seconds. Add the eggs, the remaining 1/3 cup of milk, and the yeast dough. Mix at a low speed until the dough starts to come together. Then, with the mixer still running, add butter in small pieces gradually, increasing the speed to medium. The dough will look sticky, but resist the temptation of adding flour. Continue beating for about 10-15 minutes, until the dough is soft and comes off the sides of the bowl. If the dough is still sticky after beating for 15 minutes, you may add a little more flour (no more than 1/3 cup).
  3. Lightly grease a large bowl with oil or butter and place dough inside it. Cover with a towel and place in a warm place allowing the dough to double in size. Punch down, then gather the sides together and flip over so that the bottom is now the top. Cover with plastic wrap and 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 the refrigerator, uncover, and place a towel on top. Leave the dough in a warm place (about 70°F) to rise and come to room temperature, roughly 1 hour.
  4. Cut off a small piece of dough, about the size of a large lime, to form the "bones." Set aside and divide the remaining dough in half. Shape each dough half into a tight round on a smooth, flat surface and place the loaves on parchment- or silicone-lined sheet trays. Flatten the tops lightly with the palm of your hand.
  5. Using the reserved dough, section off two small balls (each the size of a gum ball) and set aside on a tray for later use. Separate the rest of the dough into 6 pieces. Using your hands, roll each piece of dough from the center outward, making 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 atop one loaf, crossing over in the center (the strips should be a little longer than the width of the round). Repeat with the remainder strips over the other loaf and cover both lightly with a cloth.
  6. Place the trays in a warm area and allow the loaves to double in size. To tell if the dough has doubled, press lightly with your finger – the dough should return to its original shape.
  7. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  8. Once the dough has doubled, place one reserved dough ball on top of each loaf, where the strips cross over in the center. To do this, dab the bottom of each dough ball with a little water, helping them stick to the loaves. Bake until the dough is golden-brown and even in color, then cover loosely with aluminum foil. Bake 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 cool on a wire rack.
  9. While the loaves cool, melt 1/2 cup of butter for the topping. Handling one loaf at a time, brush the loaves with melted butter thoroughly, covering every knob and inch of dough. Using gloves or a piece of cardboard if the loaves are still too warm to hold, hold the bottom of each loaf and tilt to cover evenly with sugar. Allow loaves to cool completely.
  10. Variations: 1) The orange zest may be substituted with anise seeds. If doing so, use milk in place of the orange blossom water. 2) Alternatively, toasted, coarsely-ground canela (cinnamon) may be used in place of the orange zest. Use milk instead of the orange blossom water and top with confectioners' sugar instead of granulated sugar. 3) The original recipe, above, may also be made by brushing egg yolk and topping with sesame seeds before baking. In this case, omit the butter and sugar topping.

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