Pan de Muerto

Preparation time: 5 hoursCooking time: 40 minutes
Serves: 10Difficulty: Moderate

Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead) is a round Mexican sweet bread, decorated with boney phalange shaped pieces. It’s particularly popular in the run up to Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), which is held on the 1st and 2nd of November.

Ingredients

  • 125ml/1¼ dl/¼ pint/½ cup of lukewarm milk, plus extra if needed
  • 14g/½ oz/4½ teaspoons of dry yeast
  • 500g/18 oz/4 cups of plain flour, plus extra if needed
  • 150g/5 oz/¾ cup of granulated sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
  • ½ teaspoon of sea salt
  • A teaspoon of ground aniseed
  • 3 large eggs, plus an extra egg for the egg wash
  • 2 tablespoon of orange zest or orange juice
  • 125g/4½ oz/½ cup of butter (at room temperature) plus 2 tablespoons of melted butter for the glaze

Make it vegan: use a plant based milk instead of dairy milk and a vegan butter or margarine instead of butter. Replace the eggs in the bread with 9 tablespoons of whisked up aquafaba, and brush the bread with a little extra aquafaba before baking.

Special Equipment

  • A large mixing bowl, plus an additional mixing bowl
  • A whisk
  • A baking tray
  • Baking paper
  • A pastry brush

Method

  1. Pour the lukewarm milk into a mixing bowl and sprinkle in the dry yeast. Leave it to sit for a few minutes before stirring in a tablespoon each of the flour and sugar.
  2. Mix together the remaining flour and sugar in a separate large mixing bowl and stir in the aniseed, orange zest and salt. Then add the three eggs and the yeast mixture and briefly stir everything together.
  3. Add the butter to the mixing bowl and rub it into the mixture with your fingers. Continue kneading with your fingers until it forms a smooth, springy dough that you can form into a ball- this will take about ten minutes. If after a few minutes of kneading the dough seems a little dry, knead in some milk and if it seems too wet, add some flour, before continuing to knead.
  4. Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel and leave it in a warm place for three hours, or until the dough has doubled in size.
  5. Line a baking tray with baking paper.
  6. Remove a quarter of the dough and roll it into knobbly bone shapes. Shape the remaining dough into a semi-sphere and place it onto the baking tray before pressing the ‘bones’ on top.
  7. Leave the dough to rise in a warm place for another hour. While it’s rising preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.
  8. Briefly whisk the remaining egg and brush the dough with it using a pastry brush, before popping it in the oven.
  9. Bake for approximately 40 minutes, or until the bread is nicely browned. Remove it from the oven, brush it with melted butter and liberally sprinkle with sugar.
  10. Allow to cool, then cut into wedges to serve.
  11. ¡Buen provecho!

Tips

  • Make sure you knead the dough for at least ten minutes so that it acquires the right texture- it should be soft and springy. Keep some extra milk and flour on standby: knead in a bit of extra milk if the dough seems too dry and a bit of extra flour if it’s too wet. If the dough hasn’t been kneaded enough or is too wet, it won’t retain its shape.
  • Keep an eye on the bread while it’s in the oven- rotate it once or twice while it’s baking to make sure it cooks evenly and reapply any leftover egg wash to parts of the bread that seem in danger of burning.
  • If desired, serve the Pan de Muerto with Champurrado or hot chocolate.

Background

Pronunciation: [pandeˈmwerto] (pann demwuertoh)
Home:
Mexico
Relatives:
Rosca de Reyes (Latin America, Spain), Conchas (Mexico), Pan Dulce de Elote (Mexico)

History

There are several theories about the origin of Pan de Muerto, whose decoration- strips of bread shaped into a cross of bones- could be derived from pre-Hispanic and/or Catholic theology. According to one theory, the bread derives from an ancient pre-Hispanic sacrificial ritual, wherein a priest would sacrifice a princess to the gods by cutting her heart out and biting into it immediately afterwards. In later years, when human sacrifice was no longer practiced, this ritual was changed and the priest would bite into a heart shaped piece of bread instead.

Another theory is that Pan de Muerto developed from the bread made to honour Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war: this bread was shaped into the figure of the god and eaten by his devotees, just as Pan de Muerto is shaped into bones and eaten by people paying homage to the souls of the dead. It has also been suggested that Pan de Muerto may have been invented after the Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire by Spanish friars, who gave out bread decorated with imagery familiar to the indigenous population in an bid to entice them to Christianity.

Pan de Muerto is particularly associated with Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), a celebration which draws on the Catholic All Saints Day as well as pre-Hispanic Aztec traditions for honouring the dead. It’s a warm, communal holiday where people fondly remember those they have lost. During the celebration families may build private altars to deceased loved ones and decorate them with offerings, photos and memorabilia: they may also visit graves to be near the souls of the dead, leaving toys for children who have passed on and alcoholic beverages for deceased adults. Feasting, drinking, dressing up and dancing are also popular activities, as is writing epitaphs for dead friends and family.

Day of the Dead Altar with Pan de Muerto
Eneas de Troya, Altardediademuertos, 2009
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Altardediademuertos.jpg (accessed 01/11/2020) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en]

Pan de Muerto‘s boney, phalange-shaped decorations fit right in with the playfully macabre aesthetic of Día de Muertos. The bread is widely baked, sold, and eaten in the run up to the holiday, and during the celebration itself is left on altars and by gravesides for the souls of the dead.

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