Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead Celebration Bread)

Just in time for "Days of the Dead" so joyously celebrated in Mexico, Latin America and across the Latino diaspora, how to make Diana Kennedy's authentic bread recipe for Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead), the yeast bread with distinctive "bone" shapes to help communicate with loved ones who have passed on.

Traditional Bread for Days of the Dead on November 1 & 2.
Pan de Muerto (Bread for Day of the Dead) ♥ KitchenParade.com, the traditional bread from Latin America to communicate with loved ones who have passed on. Detailed instructions for all skill levels.

"Home Is Where Your Graves Are."

It’s an idyllic spot, Elm Park Cemetery, the cemetery in the small Minnesota town I still call home, even though for four decades, I’ve not lived there, only visited.

The namesake elms are long lost to Dutch elm disease but other trees reach skyward now, clumps of birch, tall straight ash, a few long-needled pines. Hills rise from the river, offering a certain privacy, pocket by pocket.

The cemetery is a mile or so south of town, close enough that when a veteran is lost, the honor guard still walks the coffin there for burial.

When my sister and I were girls, before Memorial Day, my father took us along to help clean the graves, a solemn task.

At the polished granite monument engraved KELLOGG, we clipped wayward grass at its foot, then washed its cold surface with sudsy water. The stone marks my grandparents’ burial place; nearby is a flat stone, the only physical memory of a sister who died before birth.

Nearby are graves with familiar local names, Rassmussen, Robinson, Helgeson.

One year, I discovered an unmarked wooden cross in the oldest section. The next day, fresh flowers rested against the cross. The cemetery caretaker said no one knew who was buried there, only that flowers appeared throughout the year.

Someone remembers, someone is not forgotten.

Many years later, my sister, her young sons and I visited the family graves, a pilgrimage of sorts.

Six-year old Matthew took me aside. “I’d like to say a prayer for Grampa and Gramma.” Sure, I smiled, touched that he felt connection to these people he knew by name not memory.

He knelt beside the grave and bowed his head, murmuring softly. A few moments later, he looked up, smiled and ran off to chase his little brother around a tall monument.


How to Pronounce

  • Pan de Muerto = [PAN day moo-air-toe] where PAN rhymes with ban
  • Dia de Los Muertos = [dee-uh day loss moo-air-tose]

What Is Dia de Los Muertos or "Day of the Dead"?

Memories of my hometown cemetery flooded back last year while baking a loaf of Pan de Muerto which translates to "Bread of the Dead".

The occasion was Días de los Muertos, Latin America's "Day(s) of the Dead" – but a joyous celebration, not somber, not morbid.

Tradition says that on All Saint’s Day (November 1) and All Soul’s Day (November 2), it’s easier for those who have passed to communicate with the living. So families flock to cemeteries to remember their loved ones, bearing food and small gifts.

The practice dates back to the Aztec belief that death is not the end of life but a portal to another existence. Bread and sugar were the last request, sustenance for the journey.

What Is Pan de Muerto or "Bread of the Dead"?

Enter the modern-day Pan de Muerto in its many variations, both by culture and by family. My Pan de Muerto bread recipe is adapted from Diana Kennedy, the doyenne of Mexican cuisine.

So what does Pan de Muerto bread taste like?

Like most celebration breads from across the world, Pan de Muerto is barely sweet but rich with both eggs and butter. This recipe is flavored with a bit of citrus, either from zest or extract.

Pan de Muerto Has a Distinctive Appearance: Bone Shapes!

What is most distinctive about Pan de Muerto is its appearance. The dough is shaped into "bones" or "skulls" – it sounds creepy but when fashioned with yeast and flour is quite beautiful.

With any luck, all our loved ones will appreciate its beauty and special taste.

Ingredients for Pan de Muerto & "Bread of the Dead"?

In all my recipes and most well-written recipes, every ingredient serves a purpose. Each one matters. Each one contributes to the overall dish. It's not that an ingredient can't be substituted by something else but when choosing the substitute, it's important to understand why the original ingredient was present in the first place.

  • For Leavening Pan de Muerto is a yeast bread, so uses yeast to "leaven" the bread, that is, to make the bread rise. Active-dry yeast is the right choice for this bread.
  • For Structure Flour, either all-purpose or bread flour
  • For Richness Whole eggs and additional egg yolks plus butter.
  • For Sweetness Sugar, though not much, I think of Pan de Muerto as barely sweet.
  • Flavor The primary flavor here is a gentle touch of lemon from lemon extract. This Pan de Muerto recipe deviates from tradition a little, it does not call for anise or anise seed. Salt is important in all breads, don't skip it!

Is There a "Celebration Bread" Traditional In Your Family?

This recipe for Pan de Muerto is the latest in an ongoing series featuring "celebration breads" – traditional special-occasion breads from across the world.

And perhaps your family has a "celebration bread" in your own tradition?

It's likely a recipe passed down at least one generation, some times several generations. It's likely a bread that you make once a year, for some special occasion, often a religious holiday.

Share the story and if you'd be willing to share the recipe, too, that would be lovely but sure isn't required.

In my family, the "celebration bread" is Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday.

Watch my collection of celebration breads grow over the next few years.

Of course, there's also the perspective that hot bread from the oven, any day, any bread, is just cause for celebration. :-)


RESOURCES I haven't baked from it yet but I'm learning lots from Celebration Breads: Recipes, Tales, and Traditions by Betsy Oppenneer. Affiliate Link My Disclosure Promise



CELEBRATION BREAD: PAN de MUERTO

Hands-on time: 1 hour over six hours
Time to table: about 6 hours
Makes 1 large loaf or 3 or 4 smaller ones
  • Oil, for bowl

Mix flour, yeast and salt in the bowl of standing mixer using the dough hook. Slowly add the water and eggs, continue beating until the dough becomes a single sturdy mass, about 5 minutes. Shape into a ball and transfer to a large lightly oiled bowl, rubbing the ball against the sides to coat with oil. Cover with a clean towel and let rise in a warm spot until the starter doubles, about 2 hours.


    BREAD DOUGH & FIRST RISE
  • Starter, torn into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup (100g) sugar
  • 7 tablespoons soft butter
  • 1-1/2 cups flour, fluffed to aerate before measuring or 225g
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1 teaspoon lemon extract (see TIPS)
  • Oil, for bowl

Mix the Starter, sugar and butter in bowl of standing mixer using the mixing paddle. Whisk together the yolks, water and extract. Slowly mix in 1/3 of the flour, half the yolks, 1/3 the flour, the remaining half the yolks, then the remaining flour. Mix well until a smooth, slightly sticky dough forms. Form a round ball and transfer to the same lightly oiled bowl again, rub the ball against the sides to lightly coat with oil. Cover with a clean towel.

OPTION 1: Let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 90 minutes.

OPTION 2: Refrigerate for 12 hours to let flavors develop. Return the dough to room temperature.


FORM LOAVES & SECOND RISE

If making multiple loaves, cut dough into two or three or four pieces and repeat as needed. For visual cues on how to form the distinctive sections of the loaves, see the photo tips below.

Lightly oil two baking sheets. For one loaf, cut off three-fourths of the dough to form the base; cut the remaining dough into four pieces, each one will become a ‘bone’. (See the left photo, below.) To form the base, place the large piece on a lightly floured surface. With your fingers, press the dough into a large round about a half inch thick. With your fingertips, flatten the outer edge. Transfer to a baking sheet. (See the center photo, below.) To form a bone, shape a cylinder from one of the four pieces. Pinch the center, then roll the center until the piece is long enough to span the base, leaving a bulb at each end; pinch each bulb to form the tip of the bone. Carefully transfer the bone to the second baking sheet, repeat with remaining pieces.

Cover both baking sheets with towels and let rise in a warm place for about an hour.


    BAKE
  • 1 egg yolk, whisked with 1 teaspoon water
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • Sugar for dusting

Heat oven to 375F/190C for one loaf or 400F/200C for smaller loaves (see TIPS). (See the right photo, below.) Gently arrange the "bones" across the top of the base. Brush the bread gently with the yolk-water mixture, being sure to get into crevasses but not allowing the mixture to pool. Bake for about 15 minutes until the bread is well browned and springy. Turn off the oven, open the door and let the bread sit for another 5 minutes. Remove from the oven, brush the bread with melted butter, then dust generously with sugar.

When cool, cut into slices. Bread is best on first day but keeps for a second day and is delicious toasted afterward.

ALANNA’s TIPS Aii, bread recipes just look long and complicated. This is a simple bread, really, please don’t be put off by the detailed instructions, ones I’ve included so that even inexperienced bread-bakers will feel confidence. The written instructions for forming the bread may sound confusing. Check the photos below to see how simple it is to form the dough into the pieces that create the distinctive look of Pan de Muerto. All shall be clear! For an underlying citrus flavor, I used lemon extract but you could also use the zest of a lemon or orange. This bread was tested using my oven’s convection feature that automatically reduces the temperature from 375F to 350F and compensates by circulating the hot air with a fan.
NUTRITION ESTIMATE Assumes 32 slices, per slice: 113 Calories; 4g Tot Fat; 2g Sat Fat; 54mg Cholesterol; 83mg Sodium; 15g Carb; 1g Fiber; 4g Sugar; 3g Protein; Weight Watchers Old Points 2 & PointsPlus 3 & SmartPoints 4 & Freestyle 4
Adapted from The Art of Mexican Cooking: Traditional Mexican Cooking for Aficionados by Diana Kennedy, a much-recommended book for cooks wanting to explore authentic Mexican cuisine. Affiliate Link My Disclosure Promise



How to Form the Distinctive "Bones"
in a Loaf of Pan de Muerto

(recipe above)

Form the Base Form the Bones Arrange Bones on Base
Form the Base (left photo) Place the large piece on a lightly floured surface. With your fingers, press the dough into a large round about a half inch thick. With your fingertips, flatten the outer edge.
Form the Bones (center photo) Shape a cylinder from one of the four pieces. Pinch the center, then roll the center until the piece is long enough to span the base, leaving a bulb at each end; pinch each bulb to form the tip of the bone.
After Rising, Arrange the "Bones" (right photo) Working carefully, gently arrange the bones across the top of the base.

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Kitchen Parade is written by second-generation food columnist Alanna Kellogg and features fresh, seasonal dishes for every-day healthful eating and occasional indulgences. Quick Suppers are Kitchen Parade favorites and feature recipes easy on the budget, the clock, the waistline and the dishwasher. Do you have a favorite recipe that other Kitchen Parade readers might like? Just send me a quick e-mail via recipes@kitchen-parade.com. How to print a Kitchen Parade recipe. Never miss a recipe! If you like this recipe, sign up for a free e-mail subscription. If you like Kitchen Parade, you're sure to like my food blog about vegetable recipes, too, A Veggie Venture. If you make this recipe, I'd love to know your results! Just leave a comment below.

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Alanna Kellogg
Alanna Kellogg

A Veggie Venture is home of "veggie evangelist" Alanna Kellogg and the famous asparagus-to-zucchini Alphabet of Vegetables.

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