Saturday Studio: Bread for the Dead

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

A print showing a family cooking tamales together in the kitchen.
Carmen Lomas Garza, American, b. 1948. Tamalada (Making Tamales). Lithograph, 1990. Gift of June E. Enoch, 1997.13

What traditions surround your favorite holidays? For my family, like the one in Carmen Lomas Garza’s Tamalada, they revolve around food. As FWMoA prepares for our annual (but scaled-down) Day of the Dead celebration, we’re thinking about the holiday traditions that bring us together in the kitchen, like the tamale assembly line pictured above.

Tamalada doesn’t explicitly depict Día de los Muertos preparations, but tamales are often part of the celebration! During Day of the Dead special foods, especially the favorites of the deceased, are placed on ofrendas to entice and welcome them back to the land of the living. Traditional beliefs that the souls of the dead are nourished by the essence of foods on their ofrenda mean that the offerings are usually fragrant with spices. If you visited FWMoA’s Day of the Dead exhibitions or celebrations in past years, you may have noticed a particular round, sugar- or sesame-coated bread.

Pan de muerto.

It’s pan de muerto, or bread of the dead! Flavored with orange or anise seed (or both!), pan de muerto is produced and sold by the thousands in Mexico each late October. Unlike sugar skulls, which are too tooth-aching for most to enjoy actually eating, living observants of Day of the Dead will often leave the sweet bread as an offering and include it in their own feasts and celebrations. Many homes in Mexico do not have ovens, so while other celebratory foods might be cooked at home, pan de muerto is usually bought from a bakery. My first introduction to “dead bread” was through a good college friend whose mother would ship her a home-baked loaf from San Antonio each fall. It was shaped like a person, rather than the rounds we usually see in our local celebrations–the decorations, forms, and flavorings tend to vary by region.

Like most modern Day of the Dead traditions, the pan de muerto that we enjoy today likely is the result of Spanish influence on indigenous Aztec practices. The history is not entirely clear, but the Aztecs likely made some kind of bread from amaranth flour (wheat wasn’t yet cultivated in the Americas) and possibly human blood (human sacrifice was a regular and important ritual). When the conquistadors arrived in the 1500s, it seems that this was replaced by wheat bread coated with red sugar to represent blood. Today, the most common shape, like all Day of the Dead traditions, is rife with symbolism: the round shape represents the circle of life, reflecting pre-Hispanic beliefs about death, while the ball on top and the crossed strips signify a skull and bones. 

Whether you place your pan de muerto on an ofrenda or just eat it yourself, the act of making it with family can be a chance to reflect and remember lost loved ones (it’s also very tasty). I’m sharing the shaping process for the common round bread, but you can get creative!


½ cup milk

½ cup water

½ cup (1 stick) butter

4 ½ – 5 cups flour, plus more for surface

1 tsp salt

½ cup sugar, plus more

1 packet (or 1 scant tbsp) yeast

Flavorings: 1 tbsp anise seed, zest from 1 large or 2 small oranges, and/or 1 tbsp orange flower water

4 eggs


Cut the butter into small pieces (so it’ll melt faster) and combine with the milk and water in a small saucepan (or microwavable bowl). Heat on the stove or in the microwave just until the butter melts and the mixture is warm. Set aside to cool slightly.

In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients: flour, salt, sugar, and yeast.

Add your flavorings of choice to the milk mixture, which should be warm but not hot (if it’s hot, let it cool for a few more minutes). Whisk in the eggs.

Now, make a well in the dry ingredients and add the milk mixture.

Begin stirring the flour into the center well and continue until there are no more dry spots–you might have to switch from a spoon to your hands! If the dough seems too wet and more batter-like, add more flour until it comes together (it will still be sticky).

Turn the dough out onto a clean, floured countertop and knead for about 10 minutes, adding more flour as needed until it’s very smooth and stretchy. It should still be soft and a bit tacky.

Clean the large bowl from before and lightly coat it with vegetable oil (or nonstick spray), then place the dough in and cover the bowl. Let the dough rise for 1 ½ – 2 hours, until doubled.

Mine went a bit longer and filled the bowl! Now it’s time to shape.

You can make any size loaf you like, and shape it like a person, animal, or the bone-topped round as I did (adjust the baking time if your loaves are larger!). Here is how I divided and shaped my dough to make 12 individual-sized, round breads:

  1. Set aside about ⅓ of the dough (place it back in the bowl and cover).
  2. Divide the larger portion of dough into 12 pieces: first divide in half, then split each half in half, then each fourth into 3 pieces. If you have a kitchen scale and want to weigh them, they should be about 3 ounces each.
  3. Roll each of the 12 pieces into a smooth ball, then place them on a baking sheet and flatten slightly (6 fit comfortably on each baking sheet).
  4. Now, for the bones! From the dough you set aside earlier, pull off another piece about the same size as the buns (3 ounces) to stay covered in the bowl.
  5. Divide the rest of the dough into 12 pieces as described above (they’ll be about 1 ounce).
  6. Take one piece and divide it (again) in half. Roll each into a coil, then spread your fingers apart and press as you roll to create the bone-like knobs. Lay these perpendicularly across one of the shaped buns, pressing lightly to make sure they stick.
  7. Repeat for the remaining 11 sets of bones.
  8. Finally, divide the last piece of dough into 12 marble-sized bits and roll them into balls. Place one on top of the crossed bones on each bun, pressing gently to adhere.

Once your dough is shaped, cover the baking sheets with a clean towel and let the bread proof for about another hour until puffy. Preheat the oven to 350° for the last fifteen minutes of rising. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes for the size I made.

While the pan de muerto is baking, melt 4 tbsp more butter. While the bread is still warm, brush with the melted butter and sprinkle with sugar (colored or plain). Enjoy!

Come celebrate Día de los Muertos at FWMoA on Sunday, November 7th.

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