The first and second days of November mark one of the most important cultural and religious festivals on Mexico’s events calendar: Day of the Dead, a festival that emphasizes remembrance of past lives and celebration of the continuity of life. Traditionally, November 1st honors deceased children and November 2nd honors deceased adults.
An important feature of the festivities is the creation of an ofrenda – an offering – that usually manifests as an alter in Catholic homes; placing upon this photographs of the remembered dead, accompanied by a number of traditional foods and decorations, including caramelized pumpkin, small sugar skulls, and orange marigold flowers called cempaxochitl, colloquially referred to as Flor de Muerto.
Another traditional food oftentimes found on ofrendas is Pan de Muerto: literally translated, Bread of the Dead. This bread is sold by most bakers (and all supermarkets) only in the weeks leading up to Day of the Dead. As of November 3rd, the bread disappears from shelves until next year.
Like Easter eggs, or turkey dinner at Thanksgiving, Bread of the Dead is a treat that people look forward to and miss when its season passes. Of course, this passing of availability is the essential ingredient that creates its lasting allure: another example of how scarcity can make things attractive and endows them with some intrinsic value.
Bread of the Dead is like any other bread—except that it has a few treats added into the mixture which serve to make it special. The generous amounts of butter employed in its making, accompanied by a citrus glaze, and a good helping of sugar crystals dusted on top make this particular loaf a high-calorie sweet feast that, when fresh, also happens to melt deliciously on the tongue.
A remarkable feature of the bread is the presence of “bones”, formed from the same mixture, and laid over the dome-shaped dough. These give the bread a somewhat macabre look, but rest well with the theme it represents.
The recipe for Bread of the Dead is quite simple and you can find a range of recipes online, examples here. The succulent citrus undertones are bestowed by the addition of zest from a fresh orange and its juice or orange blossom water.
The bread is best when taken on the same day it was baked, accompanied with a cup of hot chocolate made the Mexican way (add ground cinnamon to the chocolate and whisk).
One of the long-standing traditions of people who attend the graves of their loved ones now deceased, is to take Pan de Muerto and drink Mexican hot chocolate; usually after dark, when the cool November temperatures begin to make their presence felt in the night air.
Pan de Muerto is one of those Mexican foods which many foreigners have yet to try. If you live in Mexico, or visit in late October / early November, then you’ll know (or come to know) about Day of the Dead and taste the delicious bread that accompanies this important festival. Pan de Muerto appears on bakers’ shelves as of early October each year.
Thanks for reading,
Stewart Rogers USA-South Carolina