Posted by: Hil | November 1, 2009

Pan de Muerto


Happy All Saint’s Day, everybody.  I hope you are all enjoying the beginning the the Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities.  Dia de Los Muertos is a traditional Latin American holiday that fuses elements of an ancient Aztec festival with the Catholic celebrations All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.  Dia de Los Muertos is officially on All Soul’s Day, but the festivities often start as early as Halloween night.  Like Halloween, Dia de Los Muertos is supposed to be a day when the living and the dead are especially close, but Dia de Los Muertos is friendly and festive rather than spooky.  It is a time to remember and celebrate loved ones who have passed away.  People set up homemade altars with religious symbols, flowers, candles, pictures, candy skulls, and things that remind them of loved ones.  Food and its connection to memory is a big part of the holiday, and people frequently prepare favorite dishes of deceased loved ones.  In some parts of the world, people hold picnics on top of graves.

The Lemonator and I have enjoyed participating in public Dia de Los Muertos festivities for several years, but for the first time, we are having a home celebration, as well, complete with pan de muerto:  a delicious brioche-like sweet bread that is arguably the one indispensable part of a Dia de Los Muertos celebration.  

Here is the recipe he used:

• 1/4 cup milk
• 1/4 cup (half a stick) margarine or butter, cut into 8 pieces
• 1/4 cup sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1 package active dry yeast
• 1/4 cup very warm water
• 1 eggs
• 3 cups all-purpose flour, unsifted
• 1/2 teaspoon anise seed
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 2 teaspoons sugar

Instructions: Bring milk to boil and remove from heat. Stir in margarine or butter, 1/4 cup sugar and salt.

In large bowl, mix yeast with warm water until dissolved and let stand 5 minutes. Add the milk mixture.

Separate the yolk and white of one egg. Add the yolk to the yeast mixture, but save the white for later. Now add flour to the yeast and egg. Blend well until dough ball is formed.

Flour a pastry board or work surface very well and place the dough in center. Knead until smooth. Return to large bowl and cover with dish towel. Let rise in warm place for 90 minutes. Meanwhile, grease a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Knead dough again on floured surface. Now divide the dough into fourths and set one fourth aside. Roll the remaining 3 pieces into “ropes.”

On greased baking sheet, pinch 3 rope ends together and braid. Finish by pinching ends together on opposite side. Divide the remaining dough in half and form 2 “bones.” Cross and lay them atop braided loaf.

Cover bread with dish towel and let rise for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix anise seed, cinnamon and 2 teaspoons sugar together. In another bowl, beat egg white lightly.

When 30 minutes are up, brush top of bread with egg white and sprinkle with sugar mixture, except on cross bones. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

The Lemonator and I set up a small shrine on the end of our kitchen table today.  It’s really nice to have time set aside to reminisce about the people we miss.  Our culture is so uncomfortable with death that it can be hard to find space to grieve a loss.  This holiday is an occasion to do that.


I bought a traditional decorated sugar skull at the farmers market.  The rosary is made of seeds called Job’s tears, which felt appropriate


The Lemonator added some German figurines that remind him of his Opa.


The beerstein is also for Opa, naturally.  The book is for my grandfather, who was rarely found without a paperback thriller within arms reach.  We used to sit and read together.


My grandparents gave me the pen for my eighth grade graduation.  It’s the only nice pen I’ve ever owned.  My grandpa was a cheerleader at heart and liked nothing better than taking pride in the people he loved, especially his grandchildren.


I inherited the jewelry from my mom’s Aunt Buzzy, who was the only redhead in my family besides me.  She brought them back from a trip to Scotland.   I don’t know if Aunt Buzzy ever celebrated Day of the Dead in her life, but I know deep in my gut that she would have absolutely loved everything about it, and I always think of her when the holiday rolls around.


And, of course, a bouquet of marigolds, which are the traditional flower of the holiday.


It smells good in the apartment right now–like a mix of flowers and cinnamon sugar and burning candles.  It feels really good to be able to talk about the people we miss.  Our society is so uncomfortable around death, and this holiday is a reminder that death doesn’t have to be scary or even always sad.  Death is a part of life, and the link between them is worthy of recognition and even celebration.  The Lemonator and I are planning meals for the next two days that incorporate foods that remind us of our loved ones.  I will post the recipes and the memories tied to them tomorrow.  Until then, be well, and may all your memories be sweet.

[EDIT:  I just remembered this post Heather wrote recently–while not about Day of the Dead specifically, it’s a very appropriate reflection about food and loss and memory.]

Like last year, I would like to offer the comment space for anyone who would like to share a memory–food related or otherwise–about someone who has died. 



  1. Once when I visited her in San Diego Aunt Buzzy was so excited about a cocktail she’d just learned: the Pimm’s Cup. Pimm’s is a liqueur from England. I must have been at least 30 but this was the first time an adult relative had offered me alcohol! I felt so excited and grown up. Aunt Buzzy was thrilled about the garnishes of the cocktail. This is the version she made me.

    2 ounces Pimm’s No. 1
    ginger ale
    Slice of orange
    Stick of cucumber
    Pour the Pimm’s and Ginger ale into a chilled highball glass or metal cup over ice. Squeeze a slice of orange well as you drop it in the glass; then stir gently and garnish with a cucumber stick.

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