Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is traditionally made during the Dia de Muertos holiday celebrated in Spanish-speaking communities. Families make offerings of food, marigolds, calavera sugar skulls and pan de muerto to their deceased loved ones and eat their favorite foods to honor and remember them. The sweet bread differs slightly by region and is often shaped to look like a skull and crossbones, and is believed to help give the spirits strength after their journey back to the world.
Dia de Muertos originated in Mexico as many as 2,500 years ago as an Aztec holiday dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl who rules over the dead and the afterlife. It was recognized in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, which would be early August today. After Spanish colonization in the 16th century, the holiday shifted towards the Christian celebrations of All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day from October 31 to November 2. Today, Dia de Muertos is a national holiday in Mexico, and is observed across South America and around the world.
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The recipe for bread is relatively easy to make, but you will need several hours of prep time to allow the yeast to rise properly. The orange zest and the orange sugar glaze on top are a nice touch but aren’t overpoweringly sweet. When shaping the loaf on the greased baking sheet, before the dough rises a second time, make sure that the surface is smooth so it will bake more evenly. The loaf should be a deep golden brown before you remove it from the oven, otherwise the center may not be cooked all the way through. Toast leftover slices in a pan or toaster oven for breakfast.
“Quien con la esperanza vive, alegre muere.“
Translation: “He who lives with hope dies happy.”