Pan de Muerto

Bread of the Dead: Recipe + History

When the scent of orange blossom floods her kitchen, Chef Elizabeth Pérez Camarena knows the Day of the Dead—or “Día de Muertos”—is near. The citrus-infused essence, also known as “azahar” in Spanish, is said to bring back sweet memories of loved ones passed on and is a signature ingredient of the classic “pan de muerto,” or bread of the dead.

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Loaf of Pan de Muerto - Day of the Dead Bread

“Pan de muerto brings to mind celebration, traditions, altars, culture, and how it’s a part of our identity as Mexicans,” said Chef Camarena, owner of the Casa Marietta bakery, located in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico. “The orange blossom essence gives pan de muerto a subtle, aromatic taste. And its soft, spongy texture goes perfectly with a cup of hot chocolate.”

Pan de Muerto with a Cup of Mexican Hot Chocolate

Pan de muerto plays a central role in the country’s Day of the Dead celebration. On November 1 and 2, the Mexican people welcome back the souls of deceased loved ones.

The celebration spans two days—the first for children, and the second for adults. People build altars, or “ofrendas,” adorned with colorful tissue paper cutouts, prayer candles, Mexican marigolds, and sugar skulls. They place photos of the departed on the altar, as well as their favorite food and drink, including mole, chocolate, tamales, guayabas and oranges to nourish them on their journey.

Dipping Pan de Muerto in Hot Chocolate

Among the offerings, you’ll typically see bread of the dead, sometimes gathered in a basket much like a bouquet of flowers, says Chef Camarena.

It’s a sweet treat enjoyed by a majority of people in Mexico. A recent survey shows that 94 percent of Mexicans living in Mexico eat the commemorative bread, which is only sold in late October and the first couple of days in November.

According to a 2018 estimate from Canainpa, the national association of the bread industry in Mexico, people in the country eat about 30 million pieces of pan de muerto between October 30 and November 2.

Closeup Interior Texture Pan de Muerto

History of Pan de Muerto

Although the stories vary, pan de muerto traces its roots to the time of the Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500’s. Some accounts state it originated in Mesoamerica, when the Aztecs made a type of bread with amaranth, honey, and human blood as an offering to the gods.

It was considered a sacred food, eaten by the entire community. In another explanation, the Aztecs are said to have sacrificed a young woman, placing her heart in a clay pot, and mixing it with amaranth. The priest heading the ritual would then eat it as an offering to thank the gods for a good harvest.

Slicing Day of the Dead Bread

The Spanish Catholic priests, finding the practice of human sacrifice barbaric, did away with these rituals and instead baked wheat bread to represent the hearts of the young women who were to be sacrificed, and covered it with red sugar, representing their blood.

Types of Day of the Dead Bread

Today, there are between 750 and more than 1,200 different kinds of pan de muerto throughout the country, depending on the source. Each region of Mexico has their own version that incorporates special ingredients and shapes like human figures, angels, sheep, hearts, liras (stringed instruments), and hojaldras—the classic round pan de muerto dusted with white sugar.

Loaf of Bread of the Dead on Cutting Board

For example, in the states of Mexico, Aguascalientes, Chihuahua, Jalisco and others, hojaldras are the most prominent. But, in regions with higher indigenous populations, the bread is more elaborate and takes on unique characteristics.

In the state of Oaxaca, some bakers make large figures with anise, egg yolk and vanilla in the form of the human body. The head of the figure is made with flour and water, and hand-painted in colorful detail. In the state of Guanajuato, bakers make bread in the shape of animals, flavored with cinnamon, as well as in the form of humans, called “almas.” In the city of Acámbaro, the adult forms are covered with a white glaze, and a dot of pink or red sugar, while the children’s forms are all white.

For the children who have died, bakers make smaller “toy” versions of bread in the shape of fish, horses, donkeys, chickens, rabbits, baskets, and dolls for the ofrenda.

What Bread of the Dead Represents

Each type of pan de muerto is filled with symbolism. For the classic hojaldra, its round shape symbolizes the circle of life and death. The ball on top represents the skull of the deceased. And the pieces that lay across the bread in the shape of a cross signify their bones and tears.

Loaf of Authentic Pan de Muerto on Cutting Board

The portions of the cross—or compass—are believed to aim at four cardinal points, each ruled by an Aztec god: Quetzalcóatl (god of light and wind), Xipe Tótec (god of death and rebirth), Tláloc (god of rain and storms) and Tezcatlipoca (god of darkness and sorcery).

Sesame seeds sprinkled on some breads, like those made in Hidalgo, Oaxaca and Mexico City, represent the tears of souls who’ve not yet found rest. While in some regions, people still dust their bread with red sugar, as they were said to do in pre-hispanic times.

Chef Eli Perez Shows You How to Make Pan de Muerto

Our recipe for Pan de Muerto comes from Pastry Chef Eli Perez, owner of Casa Marietta Repostería in Moroleón, Guanajuato.

Chef Eli Perez
Loaf of Pan de Muerto and Cup of Mexican Hot Chocolate

Before You Start

Gather all of the following:

Ingredients:

  • 18 ozs. flour
  • 5.5 ozs. sugar
  • 3.25 ozs butter to make the dough
  • 2 ozs. butter to coat the loaves
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 to 4 ozs. milk
  • 2 oranges (to grate the peel)
  • 1/3 oz. orange blossom water
  • 1/2 oz. dry yeast

Step #1 – Activating the Yeast Starter

First we must activate the yeast. Gently warm the milk. Do not let it get too hot or it will kill the yeast.

Ingredients to Activate Dry Yeast

Then, in a small bowl, add 4 tbsp. flour, 2 tbsp. sugar, and the dry yeast.

Ingredients to Activate Dried Yeast

Add just enough 1 to 2 ozs. warm milk. This is just enough to make a thin homogenous paste.

Adding the Liquids to the Dry Yeast

Stir until the milk is fully incorporated. Let the starter ferment for 10 to 15 minutes. The warmer the room temperature the faster it ferments.

Activated Yeast Ready to Make Dough

Step #2 – Mixing the Dough

Grate the orange peel first.

On your work table. Pour out the flour and make an indentation in the middle. In the indentation, add the butter, half the sugar, and the grated orange peel. Sprinkle the salt around the outside ring of flour.

Pan de Muerto Ingredients on Pastry Table.

Using your hands, mix the ingredients from the inside out.

Then add the eggs continuing to mix with your hands.

Adding Eggs to Bread Dough Mix

Firmly mix the eggs into the flour.

Add the orange flower water (agua de azahar).

Adding Agua de Azahar to the Dough

And a splash of milk if needed.

Adding a Splash of Milk to the Dough

Form a rough ball with the dough.

Forming a Ball of Dough

Push the dough down and make an indentation in the center.

Making an Indentation in Dough Ball

Add the fermented yeast to the center of the dough.

Adding Activated Yeast Mix to Dough

Use your hands to mix the yeast into the dough.

Working Yeast Into Dough

Push down your dough again and add the remaining sugar.

Adding Sugar to Bread Dough

Mix firmly with your hands to fully incorporate the sugar.

Working Sugar Into Bread Dough

Add a splash of milk if the mixture is too dry.

Adding Milk to Bread Dough

Step #3 – Kneading and Forming the Dough

Once you have fully mixed the dough by hand add it to the bowl in your stand mixer with the bread hook attachment and knead for 5 minutes on medium-high speed. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes then knead on medium-high speed for another 5 minutes. Add a bit of milk if the dough gets too dry.

Bread Dough in Stand Mixer Mixing Bowl

Place the kneaded dough on your work surface.

Kneaded Dough for Pan de Muerto on Pastry Table

Using your hands, form the dough into a ball.

Keep working the dough until you get a perfect sphere of dough.

Shaping Bread Dough By Hand

Perfectly shaped. Notice how the surface of the dough is smooth with a satiny sheen.

A Perfectly Formed Ball of Bread Dough

Step #4 – Proofing the Dough

Add 1 tbsp. of oil to a large mixing bowl.

Adding Oil to Mixing Bowl

Coat the bottom and sides of the bowl with the oil.

Greasing Mixing Bowl

Add the ball of dough to your mixing bowl.

Pan de Muerto Bread Dough in Mixing Bowl

Press the dough down and coat with a bit more oil.

Coating Bread Dough in Oil

Cover with a kitchen towel and place in the warmest aprt of your kitchen until the dough has doubled in size.

Covering the Dough with a Dish Towel

This is what it will look like.

Dough That Has Risen and Doubled in Size
Dough That has Risen and Doubled in Size

Step #5 – Shaping the Loaves

On your work table, gently press down the dough.

Pressing Down the Bread Dough

Stretch the dough into a thin piece about 15″ long.

Stretching Dough on Pastry Table

Form 9, 3 ounce balls of dough. Use a kitchen scale to weigh each piece.

Shaping Individual Dough Balls
Shaping Loaf of Pan de Muerto

After you have the 9 balls, sprinkle the remaining dough with flour.

Knead the dough gently to incorporate the flour.

Using your pastry cutter, cut 18 small, 1/2 ounce pieces of dough and 7, 1/4 ounces pieces. These will be used to form the “bones” and “skulls.”

Cutting Small Pieces of Dough,

Roll the 1/2 ounce pieces into strips about 5″ long. Leave the indentations from your fingers. This makes the dough look like bones. Then form the 1/4 ounce pieces into little balls.

Rolling Dough Strips

Top each loaf with 2 strips in a cross shape.

Placing Dough Strips on Top of Loaves

Then in the center of each loaf, top with one of the small balls of dough.

Topping Loaves with Dough Balls

Your loaves are ready to bake :)

Loaves of Pan de Muerto on Baking Sheet Ready to Bake

Step #6 – Baking the Loaves

Cover your baking sheet with a silicon mat or waxed paper.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Lower the temperature to 350 degrees when you put the loaves in the oven. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until the loaves are golden brown.

Perfectly baked loaves ready to be topped with sugar.

Baked Loaves of Pan de Muerto on Baking Sheet

As soon as the loaves are cool to the touch, brush the melted butter on top of each one.

Sprinkle with sugar.

Your Day of the Dead Bread is ready to be enjoyed.

Finished Loaves of Pan de Muerto on Baking Sheet

Provecho!

Loaf of Pan de Muerto on Wood Cutting Board
Loaf of Pan de Muerto - Day of the Dead Bread
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Pan de Muerto Recipe

Recipe for authentic Pan de Muerto from Chef Elizabeth Pérez Camarena owner of the Casa Marietta bakery, located in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico. It's a sweet orange-infused sweet bread served around Day of the Dead.
Cuisine Mexican
Keyword Bread of the Dead Recipe, Day of the Dead Bread Recipe, Pan de Muerto Recipe
Prep Time 1 hour
Cook Time 20 minutes
Servings 18 people
Calories 224kcal
Author Chef Elizabeth Pérez Camarena

Equipment

  • Stand mixer
  • Lg. Mixing Bowl
  • Baking sheet
  • Pastry cutter
  • Lg. work surface or pastry table

Ingredients

  • 18 ozs. flour
  • 5.5 ozs. sugar plus extra to sprinkle on top of loaves
  • 3.25 ozs. butter to make dough
  • 2 ozs. butter to coat the loaves
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 ozs. milk
  • 1/3 oz. orange blossom water "agua de azahar"
  • 1/2 oz. dry yeast
  • 2 tbsp. oil to coat bottom of mixing bowl

Instructions

Activating the Yeast

  • Gently warm the milk. Do not let it get too hot or it will kill the yeast.
  • Then, in a small bowl, add 4 tbsp. flour, 2 tbsp. sugar, and the dry yeast. Add just enough 1 to 2 ozs. warm milk. This is just enough to make a thin homogenous paste. 
  • Stir until the milk is fully incorporated. Let the starter ferment for 10 to 15 minutes. The warmer the room temperature the faster it ferments.

Mixing the Dough

  • Grate the orange peel.
  • On your work table. Pour out the flour and make an indentation in the middle. In the indentation, add the butter, half the sugar, and the grated orange peel. Sprinkle the salt around the outside ring of flour.
  • Firmly mix the eggs into the flour. Add the orange flower water (agua de azafran). And a splash of milk if needed. Form a rough ball with the dough.
  • Push the dough down and make an indentation in the center. Add the fermented yeast to the center of the dough. Use your hands to mix the yeast into the dough.
  • Push down your dough again and add the remaining sugar. Mix firmly with your hands to fully incorporate the sugar. Add a splash of milk if the mixture is too dry.

Kneading the Dough

  • Once you have fully mixed the dough by hand add it to the bowl in your stand mixer with the bread hook attachment and knead for 5 minutes on medium-high speed. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes then knead on medium-high speed for another 5 minutes. Add a bit of milk if the dough gets too dry.
  • Place the kneaded dough on your work surface. Using your hands, form the dough into a ball. Keep working the dough until you get a perfect sphere of dough.

Proofing the Dough

  • Add 1 tbsp. of oil to a large mixing bowl. Coat the bottom and sides of the bowl with the oil. Add the ball of dough to your mixing bowl. Press the dough down and coat with a bit more oil. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel
  • Place the bowl in the warmest part of your kitchen and allow the dough rise to double its original size.

Shaping the Loaves

  • On your work table, gently press down the dough. Stretch the dough into a thin piece about 15" long.
  • Form 9, 3 ounce balls of dough. Use a kitchen scale to weigh each piece.
  • After you have the 9 balls, sprinkle the remaining dough with flour. Knead the dough gently to incorporate the flour.
  • Using your pastry cutter, cut 18 small, 1/2 ounce pieces of dough and 7, 1/4 ounces pieces. These will be used to form the "bones" and "skulls."
  • Roll the 1/2 ounce pieces into strips about 5" long. Leave the indentations from your fingers. This makes the dough look like bones. Then form the 1/4 ounce pieces into little balls.
  • Top each loaf with 2 strips in a cross shape. Then in the center of each loaf, top with one of the small balls of dough.

Baking the Loaves

  • Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Lower the temperature to 350 degrees when you put the loaves in the oven. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until the loaves are golden brown.
  • As soon as the loaves are cool to the touch, brush the melted butter on top of each one then sprinkle with sugar.

Nutrition

Calories: 224kcal | Carbohydrates: 31g | Protein: 4g | Fat: 9g | Saturated Fat: 5g | Cholesterol: 37mg | Sodium: 70mg | Potassium: 53mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 9g | Vitamin A: 243IU | Calcium: 16mg | Iron: 1mg

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