Pan de muerto is a relatively sweet yeast bread traditionally prepared and served during the Mexican celebration of Día de los Muertos, translated as “Day of the Dead.” It is usually prepared and sold or served in the weeks leading up to the holiday and is also featured in festivities on the day itself. Though different recipes can be used to prepare the bread, it is typically slightly sweet and often covered in a glaze or sugar after baking. It is usually shaped into hands, skulls, or other shapes associated with death.
Meaning “bread of the dead,” pan de muerto is often served and used in celebrations of Mexico's Day of the Dead in November. This celebration likely stems from a combination of Catholic celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, mixed together with ancient customs from Mexican civilizations prior to the introduction of Catholic and Spanish influences. The holiday is often celebrated with parades and other activities, including eating foods that were favored by dead relatives. Various foods are often left by people at the graves of dead loved ones, as well as altars created to remember those who have died.
Different recipes for pan de muerto are available, much like any other type of bread. In general, however, these recipes usually involve milk, butter, and water brought together in a pan and heated until hot but not boiling. This is then added to dry ingredients such as yeast, sugar, salt, some flour, and anise seeds and combined. Eggs are usually added once the wet and dry ingredients are combined and then additional flour is mixed in until the dough is soft but not sticky.
After kneading, the dough is allowed to rise in a warm, covered bowl. It rises once, then is punched down and shaped into loaves before being allowed to rise again. Some recipes call for the loaves to be brushed with egg wash and sprinkled with sugar prior to baking, while other recipes have the bread coated in a sweet glaze after baking. This sugar or glaze may even be colored to make the bread colorful and visually striking.
When the loaves are formed for pan de muerto, it is quite common for them to be shaped into various symbols of death. Hands, especially skeletal hands, are quite common, as are loaves shaped like skulls. Round loaves are also frequently prepared, often crossed on the top with two pieces of dough to resemble bones.