Cooking Like A Mexican


Bread of the dead

No, there’s no ashes involved - I get asked about that quite a lot! I don’t understand who would say that, but there are no remains of any corpse in this delicious bread. And, this is one of those recipes my friends would get angry at me for sharing with gringos, but I would be so proud if foreigners tried to make a traditional recipe the right way.

A festivity for the dead might seem a little strange for some people; but in Mexico, celebrating those who have left this world and remembering them in a happy way, celebrating, is part of the colorful culture and traditions of the country. During the festivities of Day of the Dead in Mexico, there is one tasty element that can be enjoyed for more days than just those of the festivity, and that is no other than pan de Muertos or bread of the dead.

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Some folkloric legends indicate that ancient civilizations carried human sacrifices to honor their deities, one of these rituals required to take the heart of a princess and place it in a pot with amaranth; the ritual leader would have to bite the heart, as a sign of gratitude. How delicious and eternally grateful! The bread making came in when the Spaniards came to ruin the fun and forbade any of these sacrificial rituals, so the pre-Hispanic people started making bread in the shape of a heart and covered in red sugar to resemble the blood. Boo.

Another not-so-gore version of the story says the bread was made to symbolize the heart of an idol, followed by a symbolic sacrifice, which consisted of removing the “heart” from the deity, in order to be shared with the rest of the people.

But no matter where the origin of pan de Muertos is, this treat represents the dead: its traditional round shape represents the body, the bone figures that decorate it all across the sides, represent the extremities and the round piece in the middle, on top represents the skull. There are different shapes and presentations of this bread: some bread makers cover them in sesame seeds, colored sugar and regular sugar.

Pan de Muertos is eaten on Día de Muertos but available a month prior, at the gravesite or in lieu, at a tribute called an ofrenda. In some regions it is eaten for months before the official celebration of Día de Muertos. In Oaxaca, pan de Muertos is the same bread that is usually baked, with the addition of decorations. As part of the festivity, loved ones enjoy pan de Muertos as well as the relative's favorite foods. The bones represent the deceased one (difuntos or difuntas) and there is normally a baked teardrop on the bread to represent goddess Chimalma's tears for the living. The bones are represented in a circle to portray the circle of life. The bread is topped with sugar. This bread can be found in Mexican grocery stores in the U.S.

The classic recipe for pan de Muertos is a simple sweet bread recipe, often with the addition of anise seeds, and traditionally flavored with orange flower water or orange zest. Other variations are made depending on the region or the baker. The one baker would usually wear decorated wristbands, a tradition which was originally practiced to protect from burns on the stove or oven; but I’ve never seen that personally. It’s not as ceremonial now.

Bread of the dead usually has skulls or crossbones engraved on it. It is believed the spirits do not eat, but absorb its essence, along with water at their ofrenda, after their long journey back to Earth.



115 ml milk

1 tbsp orange blossom water or agua de azahar (see Note)

60 g raw sugar

1¼ tsp dried yeast

465 g plain flour

½ tsp salt

1 tsp ground anise

2 eggs at room temperature, lightly beaten

1 egg yolk

110 gr unsalted butter, softened

Mexican hot chocolate to serve



2 egg yolks

1 tbsp water

¼ cup raw sugar



    •    Warm the milk in a small saucepan to around 50°C, add the orange blossom water and sugar and stir until dissolved. Pour the milk into a large bowl, add the yeast and ½ cup of flour. Mix until combined, then set aside in a warm place until the mixture begins to bubble (about 20 minutes).

    •    Add the remaining flour, salt and anise and knead until a dough forms (mix on medium speed if using an electric mixer). Gradually add the eggs and continue to knead for 5 minutes until smooth. Add the softened butter, a few pieces at a time and knead until fully incorporated. Place the dough into a clean bowl and cover with cling film. Set aside for 1­1½ hours until doubled in size.

    •    Knock back the dough and knead for 30 seconds. Pinch off a ball of dough about the size of a passionfruit to use for the decoration. Form the remaining dough into a ball and place on a baking paper-lined oven tray. Roll three-quarters of the reserved dough into a long sausage shape about 1 cm thick. Cut in half and drape over the dough in a cross pattern. Form the remaining dough into a ball in place in the center of the cross. Cover with a tea towel and set aside in a warm place to prove for 1 hour.

    •    Preheat oven to 180°C. For the glaze, combine the egg yolks and water. Brush the glaze all over the dough and sprinkle with sugar. Transfer to the oven and bake for 20 minutes until golden and the bread sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove from the oven cool and place on a wire rack.

Serve with Mexican hot chocolate.


Orange blossom water (agua de azahar) is available at some Mexican baker stores, from Middle Eastern food stores and some international delicatessens. If unavailable simply omit, the bread will still be delicious!

Some modern bakeries put delicious fillings in the bread, such as pastry cream or hazelnut-chocolate cream, other people prefer to eat this bread just with a hot cup of coffee or chocolate. But it doesn’t matter how you like your pan de Muertos, as long as you share it with your loved ones, dead or alive.