Pan de Muerto (Dead Man's Bread)

February 20, 2022
0 Ratings
  • Prep time 5 hours 30 minutes
  • Cook time 45 minutes
  • makes 2 breads
Author Notes

In Mexico, 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, eventually leading them to the Mictlān (the highest level of the underworld), where they would finally rest in peace. Today, the cemeteries are filled with laughter, mariachis, food, lights, and flowers. It is a celebration of life. People gather around the tombs and bring the deceased's favorite food and sounds.

It is not that death isn't painful. Rather, it is believed that one embarks on a journey. The Day of the Dead is a way to celebrate the time we had with them and to keep them alive in our memories. There are many different breads made for this occasion, called Pan de Muerto (Dead Man’s Bread). 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 central 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 people throughout Mexico dust the tops with pink sugar, signifying the ceremonial use of the bread. Although there are countless varieties of Pan de Muerto, this recipe is perhaps the best-known. It is adapted from Maricú, 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 to take a moment to remember the lives of those who are no longer with you. —daniendlich

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
  • 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
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  1. Bread
  2. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in the orange blossom water and ⅓ cup of milk. Add ½ cup of the flour and mix well with a whisk (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 a hook attachment, add the remaining 3 ½ cups of flour, the sugar, salt, and orange zest. Mix for about 30 seconds to incorporate. Add the eggs, the remaining ⅓ cup of milk, and the yeast mixture. Mix on low speed until the dough just starts to come together. Continue mixing while gradually adding 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 now add flour, a little at a time, amounting to no more than ⅓ cup.
  4. Lightly grease a large bowl with oil or butter. Transfer dough into the greased bowl and cover with a towel. Let rise in a warm place until it has doubled in size. Punch down to release large air bubbles, gather sides together, and flip over 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).
  5. Remove the dough from refrigerator, uncover, and place a towel on top. Leave the dough to rise in a warm place (about 70°F) until it comes up to room temperature, about 1 hour.
  6. Separate a little dough (about the size of a large lime) by cutting NOT pulling, and set aside. This will be used later to create the "bones'' topping. Divide the remaining dough in half and form two rounds by shaping them on a smooth flat surface, making sure that the dough is "tight." Place the rounds on paper or silicone-lined sheet trays. Flatten the tops lightly with the palm of your hand.
  7. Take the separated “bones” dough and form two small gumball-sized balls. Set aside on the tray. Separate the remaining “bones” dough into 6 pieces. Roll out each piece with your hands from the center outwards, making strips that are about an inch longer than the width of the rounds. Spread your fingers and press down lightly on the strips, making knobs that resemble bones. Place 3 strips on top of each dough round, crossing them over each other in the center (the strips should be a little longer than the width of the round). Cover lightly with a cloth.
  8. Place the dough rounds in a warm place, and allow them to double in size, about 1 hour. To tell if the dough has doubled, press it lightly with your finger. It should slowly bounce back to its original shape.
  9. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  10. Once the dough has doubled, remove the 2 reserved dough balls from the tray and tap with a bit of water (this will help them stick to the bread while it bakes). Place the dough balls in the center (on top) of the bread, where the strips meet.
  11. Place the dough rounds in the oven to bake. When the bread has an 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 let cool for a few minutes over a rack.
  1. Topping
  2. While it cools, melt the ¼ cup of butter. Brush each loaf liberally with melted butter, making sure to reach all around the knobs.
  3. Hold the bottom of a loaf (if it's too warm, use gloves or a piece of cardboard to hold it) and tilt to cover evenly with half of the sugar. Repeat with the remaining loaf, and allow them to cool before enjoying.

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