Pan de muerto is an essential part of a Día de los Muertos home altar or shrine, also called an ofrenda. The bread adorns the altar openly or in a basket, and is meant to nourish the dead when they return to the land of the living during Día de los Muertos. The loaves share crowded space with photos of departed loved ones, a few of their favorite beverages or snacks, and garlands of bright marigolds. Ofrendas also commonly include calavera sugar skulls and a rosary, cross, or crucifix.
It has a complex sweetness that comes not just from sugar, but also from anise and orange blossom essence.
The result is a spongy, challah-like loaf rife with buttery and citrus notes, after which rides a light licorice finish. Sugar falls everywhere as you eat.
The choice of flour is significant. Although Día de los Muertos has pre-Hispanic roots, the bread itself is usually made from wheat flour, brought to Mexico by the Spanish. The ingredient ties it to conquest and conversion. “Wheat is connected directly with the Catholic Church and how the religion was imposed and taught to the indigenous people,” explains Iliana de la Vega, executive chef and co-owner at El Naranjo in Austin.