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Making Pan de Muertos: Bringing to life the Day of the Dead

One of autumn’s most important Mexican traditions involving food is El Dia de Los Muertos—the Days of the Dead. Marta V. Martínez, RILA’s Founder and Chair shares a family recipe.


My family in Southwest Texas has celebrated El Día de Los Muertos, which falls on November 2, for as long as I can remember. Now I have introduced the custom to my children in Rhode Island.

I was born in Mexico and moved to Texas when I was five. I remember as a little girl going to the cemetery with baskets of food, candles and some cempasuchil (marigolds, the traditional flower of the dead). After carefully cleaning each tombstone and clearing any brush from the area, we would place tamales, atole, cacao and a favorite dish of the deceased on the family gravesite.

My family members would then join in to eat this meal and reminisce about our loved ones who are no longer in this world but, as my mother would say, “are content in the after-life.”

The feast ended with the children eating candy skulls, or calaveras with a cup of atole, and the adults returning home and sitting around the kitchen table eating Pan de Muertos and drinking cinnamon-flavored coffee. I can still smell this aroma and taste the sweet-flavored bread.

Pan de Muertos is a traditional specialty made only on November 2. It is actually of European origin, part of the Spanish-Indian marriages during the early years of the Conquistadores.

This rich, sweet yeast bread—much like the Portuguese bread found in Rhode Island—was originally used on altars as special feast day offerings everywhere in Europe, from Spain to Sweden. Mexican tradition reshaped the breads to fit the fancy of el Dia de Los Muertos celebrating. Today in Mexico they are molded into shapes such as human figures, alligators, lizards and other animals. But most often, they’re shaped as skulls and crossbones or tear drops and crosses, all gaily decorated with purple or pink-colored sugar crystals.

This recipe is from my cousin, Zarella Martínez, a well-known Mexican chef from El Paso, Texas who currently resides in New York City and manages a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan.

Every November 2, I get up early and while my husband and three boys sleep, I watch the sunrise while I bake Pan de Muertos to remember my long-gone relatives and to honor my culture as I sit in my kitchen far from my childhood home.

Pan de Muertos was originally made with flour, yeast, eggs, sugar and aromatic flavorings like orange-blossom water. Today, the bread is often enriched with sweetened condensed milk.

¡Buen Provecho • Enjoy!

  • Marta V. Martínez, Chair, RI Latino Arts

pan de muertos 1

Pan de Muertos • Bread of the Dead


2 envelopes dry yeast
½ cup lukewarm water
3½ to 4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, or as needed
½ teaspoon salt
9 tablespoons (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon; 5 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into small pieces, plus extra for greasing
3 large eggs (2 for the dough, 1 for glazing the loaves)
3 large egg yolks
½ of 1 can (14 ounces) condensed milk (about 7/8 cup)
1 tablespoon orange flower water (available in gourmet stores and Italian and Middle Eastern markets)
Sugar or colored sugar crystals for sprinkling

In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water and let sit in a warm place five (5) minutes. Make a sponge by stirring in 4 to 5 tablespoons of the flour. Cover with a damp towel and let sit in a warm place until full of bubbles and about doubled in bulk, roughly 45 minutes.

Combine a scant 3½ cups flour with the salt in a large bowl or on a pastry board or clean counter. Cut or rub in the butter with a pastry blender or your fingers until the dough resembles texture of coarse cornmeal.

Beat together 2 of the whole eggs and the 3 egg yolks. Have ready the condensed milk and orange flower water. Gradually add these ingredients to the dough, working them in with your fingertips. Add the yeast sponge and work it in, adding flour as necessary to make a soft but kneadable dough. Knead on a highly floured work surface until smooth and silky, about 10 minutes. (Alternatively, use the dough hook of an electric mixer.) Lightly grease a large bowl with butter and place the dough in it, turning to coat both sides with butter. Let sit in a warm place, covered with a damp cloth or plastic wrap, until doubled in bulk, 1½ to 2 hours.

Punch the dough down. If not making decorated loaves, shape into 3 equal-sized round loaves. Or, to make 2 decorated loaves, proceed as follows: Cut off about one fourth of the dough and set aside. Divide the rest into 2 equal portions, shaping each into a ball. Place side by side on a greased and floured baking sheet, remembering that the loaves will expand in baking. With the remaining dough, shape skulls and crossbones: First divide the dough into 4 parts; roll 2 pieces between your palms into long, narrow strips for crossbones and cut each in half. Crisscross 2 strips over each loaf. Shape the remaining 2 pieces into 2 small balls for skulls. Lightly press them onto the loaves just above the crossbones (if you have difficulty getting them to stick, make gashes in the loaves with a small, sharp knife and press the balls into the gashes). Lightly cover with damp towels and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Beat the remaining egg and brush lightly over the loaves and decorations and bake 40 minutes. When done, the loaves will be golden brown and sound hollow when tapped. Sprinkle the loaves with sugar and return to the oven for about 1 minute to melt it.

Yield: 3 plain round loaves (about 6 inches across) or 2 decorated loaves (about 7 inches across)

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