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Pan de Muerto: The Bread Baked Just Once a Year

Photo Credit: Patricia Jinich

Pati Jinich, host of "Pati's Mexican Table" on PBS, educates us on the Mexican "Bread of the Dead."

In's Recipe Vault series, celebrity chefs and food bloggers share how recipes preserve our life stories and connect us to those we've lost.

If you had a recipe for a deliciously fluffy, sugary and aromatic bread, would you make it just once a year?

You would if it were pan de muerto, the Mexican "Bread of the Dead." It's a culturally important food that goes hand in hand with Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead; in fact, you typically won't find it at a bakery any time other than the holiday (celebrated from October 31-November 1).
We talked to Pati Jinich, host of "Pati's Mexican Table" on PBS, about the taste and tradition of this bread, which is meant to connect the living and the deceased. Click here for a mouthwatering recipe from Pati's Mexican Table and read our full interview below.

What is pan de muerto, in culinary terms?

"Pan de muerto is yeast-based dough bread that usually has orange blossom water, which was an ingredient brought to Mexico by the Spaniards... I love to use it in mine because it is very fragrant and aromatic. The pan de muerto has that name because it is decorated in the shape of a skull. Then it's varnished with butter or lard and completely covered in sugar. It is fragrant and delicious."

Tell us about Dia de Muerto (and how pan de muerto fits into the holiday).

"It is a very eclectic tradition that came to be by the intermarriage of native, indigenous Mexican beliefs and the beliefs of the Spanish conquerors, who colonized Mexico. Mexico was a colony of Spain for 300 years... By these two forms of religion and cultures combining, the month when Mexicans celebrated rituals for the dead people who had gone to the underworld, and also rituals that had to do with harvesting... this celebration that used to be a month long turned into two days, and it coincided with the day of the saints from the Catholic Church. You see a really eclectic mix of the Catholic Church's more somber beliefs and the very colorful expressions of the indigenous Mexican people."

What does Dia de Muerto mean to people in modern times?

"What predominates is that the Mexican families want to connect with the people who have passed away, those they believe are in an underworld. During the Day of the Dead celebration, the dead get a "license" to come from the underworld to connect and spend time with their loved ones. The night of October 31 is the day of the little souls, or the children that have departed, and the next day is for the grownups."

What might we see if we were to walk through a Mexican cemetery during Dia de Muerto?

"So what people do during those days is, on the eve of Day of the Dead, they will go to their cemeteries and they will clean up the area where their loved ones have been buried, and they decorate it, and they build a shrine in their homes. In the shrine, they place all the items that their loved ones used to really love. So if the person was a smoker, there'll be tobacco; if they were a tequila drinker, there'll be tequila. But most importantly they will cook and prepare the dishes that the people loved the most, which is usually tamales, or there's a certain kind of mole dish involved, but there is always, always, always a pan de muerto.

People will go to the cemetery and have a meal there to connect with the people that have gone, they mourn throughout the night. So they will bring food to eat and mourn throughout the night. They sing songs, and they light candles. It's a really beautiful ceremony." 

Is the pan de muerto something that, during the Day of the Dead celebration, is all going to be eaten? Is some of it going to be left as an offering and not eaten?

"So the two things – people of course eat it; it's really delicious. But they also leave some of it on the shrine. So some of it is untouched, and most of it is eaten. Some people will make a few pan de muertos, and one will just stay in the shrine the whole time."

How many people make it versus buying it? It seems like it's maybe a difficult recipe if you're not a confident chef.

"It's a very long process, yes. It's a beautiful process, because you make the dough; however, it needs a few chances to rise. It can take 24 hours or more. Most people buy it. In Mexico, panaderias, or bakeries, are standard in every neighborhood, every little village. The panaderias are everywhere, and every panaderia in Mexico is making and selling pan de muerto during this season... I'd say that most people buy it, but some people do pride themselves in making it."

But you make it yourself.  Is it something you make every year?

"Yes, I make it myself, I make it every year. I love the ritual and I love making it, I love the process. To be honest, if I had a panaderia near me that sold good pan de muertos, maybe I wouldn't be making it anymore! But I don't have a panaderia that sells pan de muerto near me in Washington DC."

Would you encourage people to give it a try? What would you say to tell someone who isn't sure if they should try making pan de muerto next November?

"Absolutely! I think that foods that are made for ceremonies or rituals that happen once a year, they have so much meaning. It's not only that it connects you to people you haven't connected with in a long time, but it also does something to your kitchen. The rise and the baking of the pan de muerto gives your kitchen a beautiful fragrance... And it's an addition to Halloween, you know? It can give a more spiritual meaning to the celebration of Halloween. People in the U.S. are starting to celebrate [Day of the Dead], to incorporate items such as skulls and decorations, and it is another part of Day of the Dead that is beautiful and full of meaning.

And it's a good way to incorporate your family and your kids in a topic that's difficult to tackle. This is a way that helps you talk to your kids about this stuff. I think that the beautiful thing about Day of the Dead is that it's festive and it's happy and it's a way to remember and celebrate the things that you love about the people that are gone. It doesn't have to be sad, and it's not scary or spooky, it's part of life. It doesn't mean you don't get sad; it's not only bitter but also sweet."

Related: Can Dia de los Muertos Help Us Grieve?