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Pan de Muerto

October 29, 2013


Traditionally,  pan de muerto is lovingly made to be placed on altars or around headstones in cemeteries honoring loved ones who have passed on.  The bread,  along with  favorite drinks and food are there to invite the spirits to partake and perhaps make a spiritual connection with those who are honoring them.  The tradition has its roots in pre-Colombian Mexico.  November 1st is the day for remembering children while November 2nd is for the adults.  It’s no coincidence that they fall on the catholic All Saints Day and All Soul’s Day.  There is much information out there on Dia de los Muertos that you can find.  I’ll just emphasize that it is a spiritual, joyous celebratory tradition.

I looked at several recipes for pan de muerto.   I gravitated toward those from Diana Kennedy,  Patricia Quintana,  and Fany Gerson.  Their traditional versions differed a little in technique.   What they all had in common were a starter,  the use of orange blossom water and perhaps anise flavoring,  eggs and egg yolks,  milk,  and a generous amount of butter.  The dough was very highly enriched.  The starters differed in thickness as was the fermentation times.  The proportions of the ingredients also differed.  My recipe,  which came about after a few trial runs is a combination of the three versions.  I realized there are many ways to approach using the starter (biga, poolish, pate fermentee).   In any case,  this egg and butter rich dough produces a delicious pillow-soft , slightly sweet,  and delicately flavored bread.  I have to tip my hat to the three great chef/authors.  Their books have been very inspirational to me.



1 1/2 cups bread flour

2 1/2 t. instant yeast

3/4 cup milk at room temperature


Final dough:

The starter

3 1/2 cups bread flour

1/2 cup sugar

1 packed tablespoon orange zest

2 teaspoons anise extract

1 generous teaspoon table salt

2 tablespoons orange blossom water

2 eggs room temperature lightly beaten

6 egg yolks room temperature lightly beaten

1 cup unsalted butter softened


To make the starter,  mix together the bread flour and yeast in your mixing bowl.  Add most of the milk and mix with your hand or spatula to get a shaggy dough.  With the dough hook of your mixer, begin to mix and add more milk or flour as needed to form a smooth elastic dough.  The mixing should take about 5-6 minutes. You can also do this by hand if desired.  Shape the starter into a round ball, place it in a small lightly oiled bowl, roll it around in the bowl to oil all sides.  Cover with plastic and let it rise to double in volume.  This will only take about 20 or so minutes. If it has risen too fast, press it down, and let it rise again.

While the starter is fermenting,  gather the rest of the ingredients.  When the starter is ready,  degass it and cut it into about 6 pieces with a knife or pastry scraper. Put it in your mixing bowl.  Add the bread flour,  sugar,  salt,  and orange zest.  Mix the ingredients well.  Add the orange blossom water,  anise extract,  eggs, and egg yolks.  Mix all the ingredients well to start forming a dough.  Make as best a cohesive mass as possible.  Begin mixing on low with the dough hook.  Immediately begin to add the softened butter in bits, making sure that the butter has been incorporated before adding more.  Resist the temptation to add more milk or water.  The butter will begin to moisten the dough.  If the butter has made the dough too sticky,  add more flour by tablespoons until you get a dough that is only slightly sticky.  Mix until it is smooth, silky, and elastic, about 7-8 minutes.  Take the dough out of the bowl,  and form it into a round shape.  Place it in  lightly oiled bowl, making sure the top of the dough is also oiled. Cover with plastic and proof until it reaches double in height.  Lightly degass the dough.  You can proceed with the recipe or return the dough to the bowl,  cover,  and refrigerate overnight.  I recommend the latter.

If you have refrigerated the dough overnight, take it out about 1 to 1 1/2 hours before you plan to bake the bread.   When the dough has returned closer to room temperature,  proceed with the recipe.  Take it out of the bowl,  and divide it into two.  Lightly degass the two portions,  then cut out a piece from each about the size of a lemon.   Form the large pieces of dough into a round shape and flatten them to 1 to 1 1/2 inch thickness.  Take one of the lemon size pieces and cut off out a small piece which you will now roll into a ball about 3/4 inch in diameter.  Divide the rest of the lemon size portion into 3 equal pieces.  With your fingers,  gently roll out 3 “bones” as shown in the photo.  They should be a little longer than the diameter of the flattened dough.  Place the three bones across the top of the dough as shown.   Lightly moisten the center with water and place the 3/4 inch ball on top.  Place the dough on parchment paper and cover with plastic.  Repeat the process with other dough,  making the small round ball and 3 “bones” to decorate.  Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Let the dough proof until they are about twice the volume.



Put the dough on baking sheets and place in the oven to bake about 25 to 30 minutes.  Check them 15 minutes into the baking because they will brown quickly.  When they have reached a golden or slightly darker color remove and carefully foil them. Return to the oven and continue until done.  They should reach an internal temperature of 190 to 195 degrees.  Place them on a wire rack to cool.  After they have cooled off  for several minutes,  brush them with melted butter and sprinkle with granulated sugar.

I really like the soft texture of this bread.  It’s different from  sweet dough in that the extra amount of eggs and butter give it a bit more airiness. It reminds me of pan de anise,  a slightly sweet soft and delicious Mexican bread.


Marigolds are found in abundance on altars and in cemeteries during the celebration since they attract the ancestors.

Even if you don’t create an altar,  you can still make pan de muerto and remember loved ones while making or eating it.  Altars to me are private matters so I will not show a photo of one.

Another folk craft associated with Dia de los Muertos is “papel picado” or “cut paper”.  Those made for the feast days depict calaveras in different everyday activities. I found some at a folk art store several years ago.  These two have food as the theme.  The first shows a calavera enjoying what looks like sweet bread or rolls from a basket.  The second shows a female calavera cooking up a storm in a large pot.  You can see a bird or other small animal in the pot.




“Let us consider as things lent to us, oh, dear friends:

only in passing are we here on earth;

tomorrow or the day after,

as Your heart desires, oh, Giver of Life,

we shall go, my friends, to His home.”

Anonymous Aztec poet


“They shall not wither, my flowers,

they shall not cease, my songs.

I, the singer, lift them up.

They are scattered, they spread about.

Even though on earth my flowers

may wither and yellow,

they will be carried there,

to the innermost house

of the bird with the golden feathers.”

Nezahualcoyotl,  Aztec king, philosopher, poet


This post is dedicated to my father who showed me the dignity of hard honest work and to my grandmother who somehow kept the extended family together all the while passing on traditions from her past.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. October 29, 2013 2:44 am

    A beautiful post. Thank you.

  2. October 29, 2013 3:31 am

    Gasp! Such beautifully made bread, Gerard! Orange blossom water? Never cooked with it, but the thought of it sounds just delightful. I love everything about the post!

    • October 29, 2013 7:40 pm

      That orange blossom water has a wonderful one of a kind aroma and taste. Thanks for the comment old friend!

  3. Marcella Rousseau permalink
    October 29, 2013 9:25 pm

    Oh, yum! Another delicious-sounding bread that I will have to eat in my dreams!

  4. October 30, 2013 6:04 pm

    Your Pan de Muerto looks devine!

  5. November 15, 2013 8:38 am

    These look beautiful.


  2. Festa do Día de los Muertos

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