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Pan de Muerto: Bread of the Dead

Pan de Muerto is a staple of Día de los Muertos celebrations. It is often seen on altars, placed as offerings to departed loved ones. This bread varies widely, however, depending on the place in Mexico, and is made from wheat flour, originally brought to Mexico by the Spanish.

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At Mexican bakeries across Texas, shelves are stocked this month with round, sugar-dusted loaves of pan de muerto. Panaderías sell this “bread of the dead”—typically decorated with dough in the shape of bones or skulls—from September through Día de los Muertos. Over two days and nights (November 1 and November 2), the joyful, colorful holiday honors ancestors and loved ones who have died.

Pan de muerto is an essential part of a Día de los Muertos home altar or shrine, also called an ofrenda. The bread adorns the altar openly or in a basket, and is meant to nourish the dead when they return to the land of the living during Día de los Muertos. The loaves share crowded space with photos of departed loved ones, a few of their favorite beverages or snacks, and garlands of bright marigolds. Ofrendas also commonly include calavera sugar skulls and a rosary, cross, or crucifix.

It has a complex sweetness that comes not just from sugar, but also from anise and orange blossom essence. Manuel Tellez, co-owner of Maroches Bakery in Dallas’s Oak Cliff neighborhood, uses the latter in his pan de muerto. The result is a spongy, challah-like loaf rife with buttery and citrus notes, after which rides a light licorice finish. Sugar falls everywhere as you eat. Tellez’s pan de muerto is so popular that he offers it year-round. A Guanajuato native, he emphasizes how widely the bread varies across Mexico. “We had different kinds of pan de muerto: the one you eat in Oaxaca, the one you eat in Veracruz, the one you eat in central Mexico, the one from Mexico City, and the one in the north of Mexico,” he says. Sometimes it’s studded with sesame seeds and pepitas (pumpkin seeds), then decorated with illustrations painted on in colorful dyes and sugars. Amaranth flour is among the grains that might be used instead of or in addition to wheat flour; Tellez also mixes pumpkin flour and orange flour into his dough.