Pan de Muerto (or Pan de los Muertos, as it is also know) literally translates as ‘bread of the dead’. It is traditionally baked in Mexico in the weeks running up to Dia de los Muertos (day of the dead) which is celebrated from 31 October to 2 November. Traditionally, these sweetened breads are eaten at the gravesides of relatives passed or is offered up to, and eaten around, the ofrenda (a shrine to relatives who are no longer with us.)
It is thought that this sweetened bread was first made after the Spanish invaded Mexico during the Spanish Armada. Before then, it is believed that Mexican priests conducted ritual sacrifices to the gods by killing a princess and removing her heart (which the priest would bite into! Yuck!) Not wanting to carry on this tradition, the Spanish invaders instead baked heart-shaped breads which they coloured red to represent blood. In some parts of Mexico, pan de muerto are still decorated with red sugar for similar symbolic reasons.
Huesitos (little bones)
You might be wondering what the decoration on top symbolises. Well, these are supposed to be the bones of the dead people you are honouring. Dia de los Muertos is believed by those who celebrate the holiday to be the time when relatives who are remembered on the ofrenda can come back to be with their living relatives and that, when the living eat and drink the offerings from the ofrenda, their dead relatives also take sustenance.
Pan de Muerto is traditionally eaten with hot chocolate and so I decided to skip a step by putting the chocolate in the buns! Not traditional, but a nice little change, even if I do say so myself! Pan de Muerto are actually quite versatile and different families have different recipes. The recipe below uses chocolate and orange however some recipes also use lime, star anise, orange flower water, and all manner of other fragrant ingredients.
So, whilst not traditional in the UK, pan de muerto are certainly perfect for Halloween (which, as I write this, is only a few days away) and if you’re wondering how I discovered these unique buns, well… I was watching the Disney film, Coco, last night and decided Dia de los Muertos is much more fun than the Halloweens I experienced as a kid. A little bit of researching later, and I came up with this recipe (with my own twist, of course!)
Try something different this Halloween. Go on, I dare you!
Pan de Muerto
Makes: 12 small or 2 large | Prep time: 2.5 hours | Cooking time: 45 minutes
- 500g strong white bread flour
- 14g instant yeast
- 10g salt
- 100g caster sugar
- 5 eggs, large (4 for the dough, 1 for glazing)
- Zest from 2 oranges
- 2 tsp. orange extract
- 60ml lukewarm milk
- 160g butter, softened
- 200g dark chocolate
- Extra butter and sugar for coating (2-3 tbps. of each)
- In a mixing bowl, weigh out your flour before adding the yeast and salt on opposite sides of the bowl. You don’t want the yeast and salt to touch at this point as it can retard the yeast’s activity.
- Next, add the sugar and mix all of your dry ingredients together until fully combined.
- Make a well in the centre of your dry ingredients.
- Now, add in your eggs, orange zest and extract; and milk.
- Break the softened butter into walnut-sized pieces and dot it around the bowl.
- Mix until a sticky dough is formed with no leftover flour in the bowl.
- If you have a stand mixer, knead the dough with a dough hook attachment for 5-10 minutes, or until the dough is elastic and pulls away a little from the side of the bowl. Tip onto a floured surface and knead a couple more times to smooth the dough.
- If you don’t have a stand mixer, knead on a floured surface for 15-20 minutes, until the dough is springy and the surface of the dough is smooth.
- Cover your dough with a damp tea towel or a clean shower cap, and leave to prove in a warm room for 1 hour.
- Once proved, knock back the dough and tip onto a floured surface.
- Reserve about a third of your dough for the ‘bones’ (around 300g of dough, if you like to weigh your dough) and portion the rest into 70g pieces.
- Turn your dough into balls: place a dough ball on the work surface, make a cage over the top of it with your hand. Applying a little bit of pressure, move your hand in a circular motion (like you’re polishing the work surface). The dough should roll around beneath your hand to form tight balls.
- Now you need to form the ‘bones’ or huesitos for each Pan de Muerto. Start by splitting the 300g of reserved dough into 24 equal pieces.
- Roll each piece into a log a bit wider than the width of your four fingers.
- Next, splay out your index, middle, and ring fingers and place on top of the log so that your middle finger is centred in the middle. Roll the dough back and forth so that the areas under your fingers flatten and the bits between get bigger. The result will be a bead-like structure with four bumps.
- Lay two ‘bones’ on each dough ball in a cross design.
- Leave to prove for an hour and remember to preheat the oven to 200°C after half an hour has passed. That way, the oven will be ready to go just as the bread has finished proving.
- Once the dough has undergone its second proved, glaze the Pan de Muerto with beaten egg and bake on the middle shelf for around 40-45 minutes. They should be quite dark on top and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
- Leave to cool fully. Meanwhile, melt 2-3 tablespoons of butter in a pan.
- Brush each Pan de Muerto with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar (you can colour your sugar by adding 1-2 drops of food colouring, if you like.)
- Serve with hot chocolate.