The Baker: Pan de Los Muertos

Wednesday October 26, 2016

Panes de Muerto, or “breads of the dead,” is a special orange- and anise-spiked egg bread made especially for November 2, All Soul’s Day, a Mexican national holiday honoring the deceased.  It is

my friend Anjali shopping for flowers in the Mexican open air market for dia de los muertos

a fusion between Indian and Spanish religions.  This is a very happy sweet loaf covered with sugar and fragrant with orange and anise, despite the morbid name, and is consumed with the reverence awarded to Holy Communion. Día de los muertos dates back to pre-Hispanic times, but with the Spanish conquest and the influence of other European cultures and Catholicism, the holiday took on new forms and traditions. Though it is recognized and celebrated in other Latin American countries, certainly the most colorful, rich, and lavish imagery and lore reside in Mexico. Graveyards on this day shake off their lugubrious attitudes and play host to festive gatherings of people celebrating the lives of those who have parted to the más allá (the beyond).

The night of November 1st, you have an appointment with the dead in the cemetery to celebrate and have a diner on the graves. Mexicans play with the Death, making fun of it in carnivalesque masquerades.

And what a beautiful occasion is it to meet all together, the living and the dead, once a year, to celebrate! And everything is accompanied by a joyful and lively music!The breads of death and funeral sweets are exchanges of sugar skulls called calaveras, symbolic objects in the higher sense of the Mexican Day of the Dead. It is very appreciated to offer some to the loved ones, its parents, and children. Many Mexican families put together at home an altar with the picture of the deceased close parents, flowers, gifts and their preferred food. The four main elements of the nature are among the offerings in the altars:
Fire is represented by candles : one candle for every soul,
Earth is represented by the fruits feeding the souls,
Water, in containers all along the trail, in order for the visiting souls to be able to drink while coming to the altar,
Wind, symbolized by paper of china that moves with the breeze because of its lightness.

The loaves represent the ánimas or souls of the deceased and are taken to the cemetery to “feed the spirits and mythical creatures.”  They are decorated with nobs of dough to represent a skull and pieces

formed into tears and bones, often all liberally sprinkled with crunchy pink decorative sugar crystals (found in the baking section of the supermarket or specialty baking supply stores), or sesame seeds for happiness, which hold their sequin-like shape during baking.  Loaves may also be shaped into human “muertos” figures, reminiscent of the ancient Aztecan monos fashioned from cornmeal doughs prepared for sacrifices, or impressed with small faces of a Christian saint.

My version finishes the loaves with a tasty powdered sugar glaze flavored with vanilla or orange liqueur.  Decorate your centerpiece loaf with lots of fresh yellow marigolds or cempascúchil (whose golden petals represent the sun and its illuminating rays showing the dead the way home), the flower of the dead, and serve with a mole, tamales, tequila, and atole hot cornmeal drink.

Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead)

Yield:  2 large round loaves



1 tablespoon (1 package) active dry yeast

Jacquie McMahan's pan de muerto

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 cup water

1 cup unbleached all-purpose or bread flour

2 tablespoons whole aniseed

1/3 cup water


5 large eggs

2 tablespoons orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier or Triple Sec

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Grated zest of 1 large orange

1/2 cup granulated cane sugar

2 teaspoons salt

3 1/4 to 3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose or bread flour

Sweet Powdered Sugar Glaze with Vanilla, Sherry, or Curaço

1 cup sifted powdered sugar

2 to 3 tablespoons milk, Cream Sherry, or Curaçao

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, if using milk


1.  To prepare the sponge: In a large mixing bowl or plastic container with a whisk or the work bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the yeast, sugar, the 1/2 cup of water, and the flour until smooth.  Scrape down the sides and cover with plastic wrap.  Let stand at room temperature until bubbly, about 1 hour.  Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, combine the aniseed and 1/3 cup of water.  Boil until the liquid is reduced to 3 tablespoons, about 3 minutes.  Strain and discard the aniseeds.  Set aside.

2.  To prepare the dough: Stir down the sponge and add the eggs, orange liqueur, aniseed water, butter, orange zest, sugar, salt, and 1 cup of the flour.  Beat hard until creamy, about 1 minute.  Continue to add the flour, 1/4 cup at a time, to form a soft dough that just clears the sides of the bowl, switching to a wooden spoon as necessary if making by hand.
3.  Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until a soft, smooth, and springy dough is formed, 1 to 2 minutes for a machine-mixed dough and 3 to 5 minutes for a hand-mixed dough, adding only 1 tablespoon flour at a time as necessary to prevent sticking.  Place in a greased deep container, turn once to coat the top, and cover with plastic wrap.  Let rise at room temperature until double in bulk, 1 1/2  to 2 hours.

4.  Grease or parchment-line a baking sheet.  Turn out the dough onto the floured work surface and divide into 2 equal portions.  Form into 2 tight, round loaves and place on the prepared pan.  Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until puffy but not quite double in bulk, about 30 minutes.  These loaves will expand considerably in the oven.  Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375º.

5.  Bake in the center of the preheated oven until the loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped, 35 to 40 minutes.  Remove from the pan and place on a rack over a piece of waxed paper to catch the drips while glazing.

6.  To prepare the glaze: In a small bowl using a whisk, combine the powdered sugar, milk or spirit, and vanilla if using milk.  Beat to form a glaze that is smooth and thick, but pourable.  Adjust the consistency of the glaze by adding more liquid a few drops at a time.  Pour the glaze over the surface of the still-hot loaf, letting the extra drip down the sides.  Cool on a rack before slicing.

To Decorate Pan de Muerto in the Traditional Manner

In Step 4, divide the dough into thirds, with 2 larger pieces equal in size to form the loaves and a small piece for the decorations.  Refrigerate the small piece and form the remaining 2 pieces into round loaves as directed.  This loaf may also be formed into a thick crucifix.  Press both loaves to form flatish rounds no more than 1 inch thick on the baking sheet.  Remove the reserved dough from the refrigerator and place on the work surface.  Divide the dough into 3 sections.

To make “bones” (canillas): roll 3 pieces of dough into fat cylinders, then roll with your hands to lengthen in the middle.  “Tears” are formed from the remaining dough section by rolling small balls and pinching the ends.  One larger ball, the “skull,” traditionally crowns the bread with the cross of bones arranged around it and and joined to the skull.  The tears are sprinkled in the empty spaces.  Press firmly to adhere the decorations after they have been placed and glaze with an egg beaten with 1 teaspoon milk or water.  Let the loaves rise as in step 4.

Halfway through baking, remove the bread from the oven and quickly brush once more with the egg glaze.  Sprinkle lavishly with coarse sugar or colored crystal sugar squares.  Return to the oven.  Continue to bake and cool as above.

Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2016

Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.

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