A plain but lovely pan de muerto, or Day of the Dead bread


November 3, 2010Recipes25 Comments

Día de los Muertos is my favorite holiday in Mexico City. I love the orange cempasúchitl flowers that suddenly pop up in the street medians and parks, and the altars sprinkled with flower petals and candles. I love watching the seasonal fall foods finally arrive in the markets: pan de muerto, calabaza en tacha, tejocotes.

Sadly, the Día de los Muertos season pretty much passed me by this year. I was traveling in the States through most of October, and then I got home and promptly caught a head cold. I was too sick to visit the Sugar Skull Market in Toluca like I did last year, or wander around checking out ofrendas.

One thing I could do, though, was make my own pan de muerto. Last year I took a class on how to make the round, orange-flavored loaves, so I was already familiar with what the dough contained — basically flour and a lot of butter — and how to form the ropes on top to make “bones.” The bread has a delicate orange taste, which comes from a few spoonfuls of orange blossom water, known in Spanish as agua de azahar.

I wanted to use Fany Gerson’s Pan de Muerto recipe from My Sweet Mexico. But I had to tweak a few things, because I was too tired and/or I didn’t have enough time to seek out the proper ingredients. Watered-down orange blossom essence became my substitute for agua de azahar, because it was all I could find. I dipped into my abundance of mascabado — unrefined cane sugar — and used that instead of regular white sugar, even though it made the dough less sweet.

Once I started baking, more issues popped up. My yeast starter, made from instant yeast and not active-dry as the recipe had stated, didn’t bubble, sending me into a panic. I couldn’t tell if my dough was too sticky, or not sticky enough. The dough also rose sloooowly: three hours during the first rising, and a whopping five after the dough chilled in the fridge overnight. (Note to Future Lesley: Do not place buttery dough in an heated oven to speed things up, as it’ll turn it into a greasy, sloppy mess.)

While my loaves baked, I discovered my oven temperature was whacked-out. My first batch looked pretty and golden-brown. When I sliced into it, the insides were still doughy and chewy.

So yeah. What I’m trying to say here is that both of my pan de muertos turned out kind of flat and homely.

I didn’t care too much in the end. The bread was the centerpiece of my Día de los Muertos celebration this year, and I was going to enjoy it. I sprinkled one loaf with sugar and the other without, as an experiment. I actually liked the un-sugared one better — it was lightly sweet and perfect with a cup of hot chocolate. Crayton and I each had a wedge for dessert on Nov. 1, while the candles burned on our altar. (Yes, that’s a bottle of Coke below. It’s for Crayton’s relatives in South Carolina.)

Here are the shots of my flattish, but still tasty, breads.

For more pan de muerto adventures, check out Three Clever Sisters (she also used Fany’s recipe, resulting in these cute, plump little loaves) and Steven McCutcheon-Rubio’s post on Serious Eats. If you made pan de muerto this year, send me a picture of it and I’ll post it here.

UPDATE: Here’s a picture of reader Isabel’s pan de muerto…

And Don Cuevas’s bread:

Pan de Muerto
From My Sweet Mexico, by Fany Gerson
Makes two loaves

Note: You’ll see that the recipe calls for bread flour, which is higher in gluten than regular flour, and lends a certain chewiness to the crumb. I couldn’t find bread flour so I used regular all-purpose. Also, mascabado sugar did tone down the sweetness quite a lot, and it gave the bread a sort of light-brown color.


2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons orange blossom water
2/3 cup whole milk
4 cups bread flour (see note)
1/2 cup sugar (see note)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup unsalted butter (226 grams), at room temperature

1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar


To make the dough, dissolve the yeast in the orange blossom water. Add 1/3 cup of the milk and 1/2 cup of the flour. Mix well and whisk — the dough should be sticky and smooth — and leave in a warm place, about 70 degrees F, until it begins to bubble and puff slightly, 20 to 30 minutes.

Put the remaining 3 1/2 cups flour in the bowl of a mixer with a hook attachment and mix in the sugar, salt and orange zest for about 30 seconds. Add the eggs, the remaining 1/3 cup milk and the yeast dough. Mix at low speed until the dough starts to come together. Add the butter gradually, in small pieces, while continuing to mix, and increase the speed to medium. The dough will look sticky, but resist the urge to add more flour. Continue beating for 10 to 15 minutes, until the dough is soft and comes off the sides of the bowl. If the dough is sticky after 15 minutes of beating, you can add a little flour — no more than 1/3 cup.

Lightly grease a large bowl and place the dough inside. Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place (about 70F) until doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Punch down the dough, gather the sides and flip over so that the bottom is now the top and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least four hours or overnight — chilling the dough will slow the fermentation process and make it easier to shape. When dough has been sufficiently chilled, remove from refrigerator, take off the plastic wrap and cover with a towel. Leave it in a warm place (70F) to rise again, about 1 hour.

Cut off — don’t pull — a piece of dough about the size of a large lime and reserve to make the “bones.” Divide the remaining dough in half and form 2 rounds, shaping them on a smooth surface and making sure the dough is compact. Place on 2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Lightly flatten the tops of the dough rounds with the palm of your hand.

To make the “huesos”: Form some of the reserved dough into two gumball-size balls and leave on the baking sheet for later use. Divide the remaining dough into four pieces. Roll out with your hands, from the center outward, making strips. Spread your fingers and press lightly, making knobs that resemble bones. Place two strips on top of each bread round, crossing the strips over each other. Cover lightly with a cloth and let rise in a warm place (70F) until doubled in size, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. The dough should spring back when pressed lightly with your finger — that’s how you know it’s done.

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Place the small “gumball” reserved balls in the center of the bread rounds, using a little water to make them stick. Bake until the dough is an even, dark-golden brown, about 20 to 30 minutes. Then cover loosely with foil and bake until the internal temperature is 190F or the bottom of the bread is browned, 10 to 15 minutes longer. Remove from the oven and cool on wire rack.

To make the topping: Melt the butter and brush on the breads, being sure to cover every inch. Hold each bread by the bottom — if it’s too warm, use gloves or a piece of cardboard to hold it — and sprinkle evenly with sugar on the top.

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25 Responses to “A plain but lovely pan de muerto, or Day of the Dead bread”
  1. Paola

    Very funny, I attempted a pan de muerto as well with no success, I am convinced the recipe wasn’t right at all! It was turned and turned out right, but it tasted nothing like Pan de Muerto, I remember thinking it called for little butter, only 1 stick for a lot of flour. Now reading that it calls for a lot of it in your recipe, I have no doubt the recipe was wrong…… Hey at least I know I can still bake 😉

  2. muybuenocookbook

    It looks beautiful and not “plain” at all! It’s homemade and it doesn’t get any better than that. I was very close to making Zarela Martinez’s recipe, but the days just flew by and I didn’t get around to making it. I ended up running to my nearest Mexican market and bought one and some pan dulce. Great job Lesley!

    • Lesley

      Thank you. Appreciate the kind words. I’m still working my way through the two loaves, so I think I may freeze the leftovers for french toast one morning. Actually got that idea from Sylvia, the commenter below, so thanks, Sylvia!

  3. Sylvia

    Hi Lesley, the pan de muerto looks great! I made my own this year too.. much more fun than buying one at the store!


  4. Leslie Limon

    I think you’re Pan de Muerto turned out great! Certainly better than the one I made last year. My oven’s temp was way lower than normal, so it cooked all the way through, but it took forever and it didn’t turn a light golden brown. And when I finally took it out my kids wanted to touch it gently to see just how tender it was and ended up pushing it in, making it look ever so unattractive! :)

    • Lesley

      Oh no! :-) I’m sure it still tasted great. By the way — my friend Alice and I were talking about your pumpkin pie atole last night. Sounds fabulous, I can’t wait to make some.

  5. Sara

    Butter temperature is always a challenge isn’t it? I don’t plan well enough in advance, and sometimes manage with the microwave and other times not…Your bread looks good to me though–I’m already ready for more. I have never had the “real deal” so I am hoping mine was pretty close to what an actual pan de muerto is like. I’m sure the mascabado sugar was great (though I’ve never had it–still keeping my eye out for the piloncillor that Fany Gerson uses. I can’t wait to have some more cafe de la olla).

    And thanks for the shout out!

    • Lesley

      Hi Sara: You should be able to find piloncillo at Mexican grocery stores or delis. It’s sold in a cone shape. I’m not sure where you live, but chances are there’s one near you.

  6. Don Cuevas

    You get an “A” for effort, Lesley.

    I made two batches of pan de muertos, using Dana Kennedy’s recipe in The Cuisines of Mexico, but, of course, with my own small variations. I have some comments about the DK recipe, but I’ll save them for my blog.

    Both times the dough was refrigerated overnight, the first time, 12 hours; the second time 18 hours. The second time came out a lot nicer than the first: almost fluffy, tender, and the taste was better as I added grated orange zest and ground anise seed.

    Our house is quite cool at night, which helps the slow development of the yeast, but this takes more time. The sponge method of yeast dough is not meant to be rushed, with visits to very warm ovens, despite what others may say.

    I use bread flour, and the second batch has a very tender crumb, probably due to the high proportion of whole eggs, egg yolks and sugar. The texture of the first batch was heavier, spongier and almost like eating solidified custard. Same basic ingredients, but somewhat different rising times.
    Patience is necessary to form the bones nicely. My second attempt was better than the first, but not quite there yet.

    Yesterday while in Pátzcuaro, I saw pan de muertos for sale from two separate sidewalk vendors, and neither resembled mine: they were low, brown and crispy looking, but the bones were superbly fashioned.

    There are photos here.
    down in the lower rows…. Starts here>>>

    My bread photos start here..>>> http://tinyurl.com/2843hap

    Don Cuevas

    • Lesley

      Wow! What plump, juicy loaves. They’re beautiful. And I’m very impressed by the orange-peel tequila infusion. The flavor must’ve been fantastic.

      A few questions for you: What type of leavener do you use? And where do you find bread flour in Mexico?

      Next time I’ll have to have more patience with my rising loaves, I guess. No putting it in the oven.

      • Don Cuevas

        A belated reply, Lesley, to your question about what leavener I use. I use Sierra Nevada Levadura Instantánea, Etiqueta Oro.

        What I called “bread flour” 3 years ago may be a misnomer. Usually, I use Harinera Guadalupana’s “OPTIMA” , used by many commercial panaderos in the Michoacán area, at least.

        I’d forgotten about using an orange peel-Tequila infusion, which is probably more romantic than highly effective. I was going to use Controy Licor de Naranja this year, but now, I think I’ll peel an orange and Tequila-ize it. Why not be romantic?, ¿verdad?

        Don Cuevas

        • Lesley Tellez

          If only we could all be more romantic in the kitchen! I approve. :-)

  7. Isabel

    I substituted mascabado as well, but only for a portion of it and sprinkled it on top of the egg wash before baking. I’ll substitute more of it next time; I prefer the deep flavor of unrefined sugar. Levadura is tricky for me as I just don’t bake often. I’ve seen the same recipes repeated with the levadura type changed, active-dry, rapid rise, instant, etc. Always a gamble, but one thing we are as cooks is adventurous and willing to try. Thanks for inspiring!

  8. Obet

    Coke is not good for the dental health of the dead people, I’m pretty sure of that.

  9. Jesica

    Chocolate en jicarita! Nice!

  10. Don Cuevas

    Lesley; for yeast I use Sierra Nevada Etiqueta Oro (or amarilla). This is an instant active yeast formulated for high sugar content doughs, and pan de muertos dough falls well in that category. Back in the U.S., I usually used SAF Gold for sweet doughs and SAF Red for regular doughs. However, it’s not impossible to interchange the red and the gold, with reasonably good results. In yeast doughs, time and temperature are among the most important factors.

    The reason for the sponge or starter stage is to develop a fermented dough base that will accept the high percentage of sugar, eggs and possibly fat. To me, the PdeM dough is not too unlike a brioche dough, although the brioche has greater amounts of butter.

    (Which brings me to choice of fats: do we really believe that most Mexican bakeries use unsalted butter in the PdeM? Somehow, I doubt it. But of course, we can afford it, and we like it, so we use it.)

    Flour: I typically use Harina OPTIMA, milled by Harinera Guadalupana, which seems to work very well in breads, o.k. in cookies, haven’t tried it in cakes. For cakes, I would try KERRY, although I rarely make cakes. I used to use SELLO ROJO TRADICIONAL instead of OPTIMA, but it doesn’t seem to be available any more. It is, I believe, an unbleached flour. But OPTIMA is very versatile.

    The Tequila-orange peel infusion may be a cool idea, but really, grated orange zest works even better.
    If you look again closely at my photos, you may note the great improvement in the second batch. I think that it’s due to more “floor time”, in other words, the resting period coming out of the fridge was longer, as was the fridge time, by half again. Sixteen hours of fridge time, 5-6 hours of floor time, maybe 2 or more hours of final rise. YMMV.

    En fin, slow, cool fermentations tend to improve flavor, keeping qualities and perhaps structure. At least, that’s what I’ve learned and experienced.

    Don Cuevas

  11. Deli Lanoux, Ed.D.

    I’m sooo glad I found your post… again… thanks to my search for the pan de muertos recipe!

    Really interesting, worthwhile material!

  12. phillegitimate

    Osh! Also pretty much missed Dia de los Muertos. Roadtrip to Michoacan fell apart when our four day weekend became one regular weekend plus a Tuesday off. Have been stuffing myself on pan de muerto for about a month though. Couldn’t agree more; the bread alone makes it a great holiday….

  13. Stephanie

    Hello Lesley! Just discovered your blog- so fun to find a fellow Pan de Muerto enthusiast. I just posted on mine last week (using Zarela Martinez’s recipe), and it’s fun to see all the variations. I miss Mexico and look forward to keeping up on it via YOU! LOVE the orange flower… love it.

    • Lesley

      Hi Stephanie: Welcome! Loved the icing on your pan de muerto. Muy bien trabajo. :-)

  14. Chris

    Anyone had trouble getting the yeast to work in the orange blossom water? My orange blossom water was high in alcohol and I’m wondering if it killed the yeast. Same active dry yeast proofs in water.

    • Sara

      I don’t know how much of a difference it makes, but I use instant SAF Gold yeast; it’s supposed to work better in fatty, acidic, and/or sugary doughs. You’ll have to work with the proportions a bit as it’s more powerful than active dry. (I didn’t try this recipe with active dry, though I can’t say I’ve had too much trouble with active dry in other rich breads, but this is fatty, acidic AND sugary…)

  15. Jose

    Leslie, I don’t know if you can still get it but, there was this AMAZING pan de muerto in the El Globo bakery. So soft, with chocolate chips OMG.

    By the way, have you tried empanadas at el globo? If you haven’t, then its a must.

    • Lesley

      Hi José: I haven’t had the empanadas there. I’ve had mixed results at El Globo, to be honest. Found their garibaldis to be mediocre compared to the ones at La Ideal in the Centro. But if you say they’re good, I’ll get one the next time I’m in the neighborhood. There’s an El Globo right across from my yoga studio. :-)

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