Pan de Muerto

That I am not a religious person is an understatement. I’m not a lapsed follower, a confused agnostic, or spiritual in any way that involves more that a belief in the Earth, science, and Nature. I am 100% atheist and very comfortable being so.

So, I don’t believe we go anywhere after we die (though, yes, I know, I can’t actually prove it) and I pay no mind to the thought of Heaven or Hell. That said, I do have immense respect for the dead, those we knew personally and our ancestors, as well as the affect of the dead on the living. The emotional rollercoaster we ride when faced with a loved one’s death is life-changing, and the ability of the living to keep on living after this happens is worthy of celebration. Celebrating our lives in the face of death, the lives of those who’ve come to pass, and the lives of the ancestors who gave us our rich history is not a strictly religious ideal, but more of a human one (though hey, animals mourn too).

Rituals celebrating the dead have gone on for thousands of years, and the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico trace back to the Mayan and Olmec civilizations. The Day of the Dead celebrations on November 1 and 2 are a way for people to pay respects to the dead—decorating graves and making delicious offerings. Everyone who likes to cook knows how great it feels to give food to loved ones, so why not deceased loved ones? By offering the deceased the food that you put your sweat and tears into (not literally!), you get to benefit from that warm, fuzzy feeling.

There are a few traditional foods used for offerings at the celebrations (and lots of traditional liquors), including sugar skulls and Pan de Muerto. Skulls have long been used as a festive and celebratory symbol of the dead, like in the floor mosaics of Pompeii, and weren’t always the scary Halloween-or-poison symbols that we have today. Pan de Muerto, “Bread of the Dead,” is a semi-sweet bread, sometimes decorated with skulls, or formed into a skull and bone shape. Anise almost always flavors the bread, and some recipes, like this one, call for orange.

Pan de Muerto

This bread, which uses a lot of flour, goes perfectly with coffee or tea, and I imagine orange marmalade would be quite wonderful on it as well.

Makes 2 small loaves.

  • 2 T anise seeds
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 T grated orange zest
  • 1/2 ounce (2 packages) active dry yeast
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 5 cups flour, plus extra for work surface
  • 1 1/2 sticks (12 T) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 4 egg yolks plus 2 eggs, lightly beaten together
  • 1 or 2 of the egg whites for brushing loaves
  • 1/2 tsp vegetable, corn, or canola oil

In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring 2 tablespoons anise seeds and 3/4 cup water to a boil. Remove, cover, and let sit about 10 minutes. Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer, reserving the water and the seeds.*

Meanwhile beat the sugar and zest until sugar is moistened, about 30 seconds. Add the 2 tablespoons of drained anise seeds, yeast, salt, and 3 cups of flour, and beat to mix, about 30 seconds. Add the reserved anise water and melted butter and beat (not vigorously) until incorporated, about 45 seconds. Add the yolks and beaten eggs and beat until incorporated and dough is sticky, about 1 minute. Slowly add the remaining 2 cups of flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until fully incorporated.

Lightly dust a work surface with flour, turn the dough (along with any scraps at the bottom of the bowl) onto it, and knead for 10 minutes until smooth and elastic. Coat the interior of a large mixing bowl with oil, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil, cover loosely, and place in a warm, draft-free spot. Let rise until it doubles in size, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Lightly dust a work surface with flour, turn the dough onto it, punch down, and divide into 2 equal pieces. Shape the dough into 2 round balls and use the heel of your hand to flatten into disks about 2 inches thick. Place the disks as far apart as possible on a large baking sheet. Cover the loaves loosely and place in a warm, draft-free spot. Let rise until they double in size, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

In a small bowl beat the reserved egg white with 2 teaspoons water and brush all over the loaves. Bake at 375ยบ, rotating the baking sheet halfway through, until the loaves are well-browned and crusty, 25 to 30 minutes. Place the bread on a wire rack and cool to just warm or room temperature before slicing. Serve up on your most beloved gravestone—or just eat it all yourself, in celebration of those underground (I’m sure they won’t mind!)

Optional: Mix 3-4 T of sugar with 1/2 T of ground cinnamon. Paint 2 T of melted butter over loaves and then sprinkle with the cinnamon-sugar. Hey, it’s sweet bread, right, so why not go all out!?

*If you don’t like the anise seeds in the bread, boil them in water to make the anise-flavored water and then discard the drained seeds. You’ll still have the (though a bit subtler) flavor of anise.