Sitting in the literal sweet spot of Mexican comfort food season, one kicked off by pozole in September and rounded out by tamales during Candlemas, is the October arrival of pan de muerto into the bakeries of Mexico. While the name evokes suitably seasonal spookiness–pan de muerto means "dead bread," after all–there’s nothing horrifying about these lightly-orange flavoured pan dulces. Even if they are shaped to look like bones.
While high praise is often lauded upon the Christmastime roscas de reyes and their Jesus figurine innards, pan de muerto is the bread that really proves Mexico knows its way around a seasonal pan dulce. Shaped like a concha minus the only part of the concha anyone really enjoys—the crumbly cookie crust—pan de muerto and its buttery, orange-infused dough manages to comfortably land its consistency somewhere between the milky, moist texture of a Mexican pastel de tres leches, and the dreaded dryness of an over-floured bread.
It also swaps out that concha cookie crust for the distinctive four-pronged pinwheels of knobbly bread "bones" which help the pan de muerto stand out in a sea of baked good compadres, simultaneously offering a pleasantly crunchy counterbalance to the somewhat brioche-like bread itself.
Yet while this seasonal Mexican sweet bread is atypical in so many ways, a pan de muerto done right will almost always have a lightly browned exterior doused in lavish levels of sugar. (Admittedly, some variations do swap out the crunchy sugar for sesame seeds.)
However, pan de muerto is not just for consumption by the living, playing an important (but little known beyond Mexico) role in the country’s celebration of life and death. While the pan de muerto origin story is murky at best (read: assumed to be a mash up of Mesoamerican ritual and Spanish sensibilities), the bread itself is inextricably connected with one modern-day Día de Muertos celebration in particular: the altar.
Across Mexico on November 1 and 2, ofrenda-laden altares built to honor the dead come to life, complementing their colorful papel picado backdrops with items which once held sentimental value to the deceased. Sure, beer and football shirts often count among the offerings, but rarely is a Mexican altar complete without, amongst other things, bright orange cempasuchiles, salt and, of course, the sugar-dusted dome of a pan de muerto.
Many families nowadays will make their own batches of scene-stealing pan de muerto, sometimes consuming them in the midst of their vigil. Arguably, these homemade versions are the best, given that the rougher around the edges the better when it comes to panes de muerto. In fact, they should ideally look like they just emerged from your grandma’s oven, hand-molded and perhaps slightly uneven; they should be as imperfectly charming as the dead they honor.
And honor the dead they do. Those aforementioned bone-shaped toppers aren’t just there for the fun of it. Instead, the central "skull" from which they fan out signifies the circular nature of life and death, with some suggesting the pan de muerto itself is a baked representation of the body. This is taken literally by some regional variants, which opt for a dusting of red sugar to complete the corporeal comparisons.
So, don’t have your head turned by the sugar skull, that quintessential Day of the Dead icon with its added shards of shiny foil and swirls of multicolored icing, as they adorn altares not dinner tables, to be admired not devoured. No, pan de muerto is the real Day of the Dead MVP.
But what if you’re not using the bread to honor the dead, instead enjoying it just as a seasonal snack? Well, you can’t go wrong with wolfing it straight from the bag as soon as you get home from the supermarket, although quickly blasting it in the microwave first to combat end-of-day dryness is never a bad idea either. If you’re feeling fancy, try a chocolate version that’s been stuffed with a rich hazelnut crème patissiere, or some healthy scoops of pistachio ice cream. But always, always serve with a frothy Mexican hot chocolate.