Chocolate pan de muerto — bread of the dead

Día de Muertos, observed November 1st and 2nd in Mexico when families honor their departed loved ones, has its own bread, the unique pan de muerto, bread of the dead. This egg-rich bread decorated with skull and bones is offered in all the supermercados and panaderías (bakeries) throughout October. Homemade pan de muerto is far superior to what the panaderías sell. Most commerical pan de muerto doesn’t have much of a buttery flavor. Maybe there’s no butter at all. Formed huesos (bones) and a ball of dough for a skull, give this bread an appearance like no other. As I had already made a more traditional pan de muerto in 2015, this is a chocolate version of pan de muerto for something different.

A few days ago, trying to come up with a different take on pan de muerto, I made a sourdough version. That entailed getting a starter going, which is another story. Suffice it to say that my starter is bubbling along now and is named Niño. (Apparently, sourdough starters have names, so I’m told. If any of you need any starter, just ask. I have plenty of little niños I’ll happily give away.) But pan de muerto, sourdough-style (and without cocoa powder), turned out to be, perhaps, too complicated to expect you to devote the better part of a day to it, with a stretch and fold technique and overnight fermentation in the fridge. Russ and I can’t stop nibbling on it, so it was worth the effort, but I would not expect this bread effort of you, unless you happen to be a sourdough aficionado.

Orange blossom water, orange zest and green anise seed are the traditional flavors of pan de muerto. Green anise seed is not to be confused with star anise. While similar, they are from two different plant species, sharing a subtle licorice flavor, while anise seed is spicier than the milder star anise. The anise and orange pair well with chocolate.

It took three loaves for me to get the chocolate version right. Russell can’t believe his good luck. This might be better than Halloween candy any day.

Chocolate Pan de Muerto 1 loaf

  • 125 g whole wheat flour
  • 125 g white flour
  • 1 tablespoon gluten flour (optional, and not necessary if all white flour or bread flour is used)
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1/3 cup (80 ml) whole milk
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 tablespoon orange blossom water
  • 2 teaspoons roughly crushed green anise seed
  • 1 tablespoon orange zest
  • 1 egg for brushing on loaf before baking
  • Coarse sugar for dusting on loaf after baking
  1. Add all dry ingredients to bowl of standing mixer fitted with dough hook. Mix for 1 minute to thoroughly blend.
  2. Add milk, eggs, orange blossom water, anise seed and orange zest. Knead with dough hook for 10 minutes, or until dough forms a soft, slightly sticky ball of dough and no longer sticks to side of bowl. Add a very small amount of milk if dough is too dry, or milk if too wet, to form a soft ball.
  3. Place dough in a lightly buttered bowl, cover, and let rise until almost doubled in volume, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
  4. Punch down dough, cover, and let rest for 10 minutes.
  5. Cut off four 1-oz. (30-grams) pieces of dough.
  6. Form a smooth ball with remainder, placing seam on bottom of ball. Place on parchment lined baking sheet.
  7. Roll one small piece into a round ball. Roll remaining 3 pieces into 8″ (20 cm) long ropes. Using one finger, roll 5 equally spaced flat spots along each rope. (See 2nd photo.) There is no need to flour the work surface, as the dough is too buttery to stick. Place across large ball of dough, tucking ends underneath. Press small ball into indentation on top.
  8. Slide baking sheet into plastic bag or cover with plastic wrap and let rise until almost doubled in size. Depending on the temperature of your kitchen, this can take 30 minutes to 1 hour. (In my warm kitchen, it was ready for the oven in 30 minutes.) To test when rise is complete, gently press a finger tip into dough. If indentation remains, it is ready to bake. If it springs back, allow more time to rise.
  9. Pre-heat oven to 350°F (177°C).
  10. Beat 1 egg with 1 teaspoon of water. Brush lightly on loaf.
  11. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until bottom of loaf sounds hollow when tapped firmly by thumb. If you use an instant read thermometer, internal temperature should read 185°F (85°C).
  12. Remove from oven and lightly brush with egg wash again, then dust with coarse sugar. Return to oven for 5 minutes to set egg wash.
  13. Cool for 1 hour before slicing.

Notes ~

~ Fany Gerson’s pan de muerto recipe from “My Sweet Mexico” inspired this recipe, with my addition of cocoa powder.

~ Like all rich egg breads, pan de muerto is best the day it is baked. Leftover slices are wonderful when toasted, with morning coffee or as an afternoon treat.

~ Day old pan de muerto makes great French toast.

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