Learn to make Day of the Dead bread with this detailed recipe packed with photos and tips. This delicious traditional Mexican sweet bread, known in Spanish as pan de muerto ("bread of the dead"), is eaten during the Day of the Dead.
Day of the dead bread can be time-consuming to make but you don't need any special cooking skills. I've had problems with homemade bread before, but bread of the dead is suprisingly easy to get right! It's also a safe recipe for kids who'll love handling the dough and decorating the loaves with icing.
In this recipe I'll be demonstrating two main types of day of the dead bread. There is the traditional loaf (upper right), which is topped with strips of dough that resemble bones, and then covered in glaze and sugar. I'll also make a pan de muerto skull (you can make any shape you want) which is decorated with colored icing.
This takes about 4 hours (including rising and baking time) and makes 2 loaves (or more depending on the shapes and sizes you make).
There are two main parts to the recipe: the dough and the glazing. After preparing the dough, you shape it, bake it, and then either apply a glaze or decorate with icing sugar (or any other edible decorations you can think of).
You can customize this bread to your liking. Many recipes contain anise seed, but I prefer cinnamon. You can add one of the following:
These ingredients are boiled in a saucepan for 2 mins and then brushed on the loaves when they are fresh out of the oven. After glazing, sprinkle the loaves with some sugar.
If you don't like citrus there are other glazes you can try:
Put the following ingredients into a large bowl: 1 1/2 cups of flour (put the rest aside), 1/2 cup of sugar, 2 packets of yeast, 1 tsp of salt, and any extras like anise seed or cinnamon. I added 1 tsp of cinnamon.
Mix these ingredients together and put aside.
In a saucepan heat the milk, butter, and water on medium heat until the butter has melted.
Pour the contents of the saucepan into the bowl of dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.
Add the 4 eggs and mix them in thoroughly.
Keep mixing while you slowly add the rest of the flour. It's quite hard work once the dough thickens (unless you have an electric mixer), but you should keep adding flour until it's soft and just slightly sticky.
Transfer the dough to a floured board and knead for 10 minutes until it is smooth and stretchy.
Put the dough in a greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise and double in size. This should take about 90 min. If you put the bowl in a warm location it will help the dough rise.
Your dough is now ready to be shaped and baked, so you need to decide which style of pan de muerto you prefer. There are no rules. You can make any shape you like. It's traditional to shape the dough into a bun and layer strips of dough on top so that they resemble bones. This style is then brushed with glaze and sprinkled with sugar after baking.
You can also shape the dough into a plain loaf and let your imagination run free by decorating it with colored icing or other edible decorations. Finally, you can make all kinds of shapes like skulls, figures, angels or animals, which can be glazed or decorated with colored icing.
Take the dough back to the board and punch it down to size. You can now slice it into portions according to what shapes you're going to make.
Now it's time to make your shapes.
In the photos below I'm making a traditional loaf by rolling dough to resemble bones.
I also prepared a larger traditional loaf and shaped a plain loaf to decorate later with icing.
Lastly, I shaped a basic skull for decorating with icing. When shaping your skull, remember that the dough will rise considerably. So don't make the base too thick or it will distort and crack in the oven. You should also prepare it on the baking sheet because you won't be able to move it safely once it's done.
When you've finished shaping, allow the dough to rise for 1 hour.
Now it's finally time for baking. Put the loaves on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 to 40 minutes depending on the size of your dough shapes and the type of oven you have. Small shapes may only need 20 minutes, while large shapes will need well over 30 minutes. Don't worry too much about baking time. Unlike other breads, pan de muerto is easy to get right. Just supervise your bread closely and check it at regular intervals. Once it's a nice golden brown color it's ready.
While your loaves are baking you can prepare the glaze. I like the citrus glaze, but you can also try one of the alternative glazes listed above.
Simply the boil 1/2 cup of sugar, 1/3 cup of orange juice and 2 tablespoons of orange zest in a saucepan for two minutes.
Take your bread of the dead loaves out of the oven and they should look something like this:
Now it's time to apply the glaze while the bread is still warm. I decided to apply glaze to the traditional loaves but I left the skull plain and ready for the colored icing.
After you brush on the glaze sprinkle the bread with sugar. And if you're not doing any extra decorating, you're done!
You can decorate your day of the dead bread with anything edible. I decided to use colored icing which I made using powdered sugar, food dye, vanilla extract, and some milk. To apply the icing to the bread you can use a food decorating pen or pastry bag, but a small plastic bag with a hole in one corner will work just as well.
I also used some glitter gel, which is ready-made icing you buy in handy tubes in a range of colors. For more ideas just go to any store with cake decorating supplies and you'll find other cool options.
You can have fun thinking up colorful designs. Just make sure that you let the bread cool down a bit before you apply the icing, because the heat can melt it and make it drip.
Below are some progress photos of how I decorated the plain loaf:
Now for the pan de muerto skull. You can opt for minimal decoration or elaborate designs, depending on your tastes. To give you some ideas, I took it to the extreme and piled on lots of icing!
So that's how to make day of the dead bread! I hope you have as much fun making it as I did.
If you'd like to print a summary without all the photos, you can download this PDF version.