This traditional Mexican sweet bread, with its distinctive shape, is commonly made as an offering during Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos), November 1-2. Aside from being eaten with gusto and deeply loved, Pan de Muerto often serves as an altar decoration to both honor and celebrate those who’ve died. Our thanks to Pati Jinich of PBS’ Pati’s Mexican Table for sharing this recipe with us.
To make the starter: In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the lukewarm milk, yeast, sugar, and flour. Stir with a whisk or fork, cover, and set aside until the mixture begins to bubble, about 20 to 25 minutes.
To make the dough: Add the remaining ingredients (except the butter) to the starter. Using the flat beater attachment, beat at low speed until everything is combined.
Scrape the bowl and beater and switch to the dough hook. Knead at medium speed for 10 to 12 minutes, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed, until the dough pulls away from the sides and makes a slapping sound.
On low speed, add 3 tablespoons of the butter at a time, incorporating each addition before adding the next. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl as necessary.
Once all the butter has been incorporated, increase the speed to medium and beat for another 8 to 10 minutes, until the dough slaps against the bowl. It will be smooth, yet still a bit sticky; resist the urge to add more flour.
Shape the dough into a ball and place it in a lightly greased bowl. Cover and allow it to rise until almost doubled, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly greased surface and gently fold it over on itself. Place the dough back into the bowl, cover, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or overnight.
To shape the bread: Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator and let it rest in a warm spot for about 30 to 45 minutes to come to room temperature.
Portion off one-quarter of the dough (about 280g). Divide that quarter into two pieces (140g each). Set them aside.
Divide the remaining three-quarters of the dough into two pieces (about 425g each). Shape each piece into a ball, then press down gently to make flatter rounds about 6” in diameter. Place the rounds on the prepared baking sheet.
Divide each of the smaller pieces of dough into thirds (about 46g each), to make a total of six pieces. Shape two of the pieces into balls and roll the other four into ropes about 6” to 7” long. Pinch the ropes at intervals to make them look like bones.
Place two of the “bones” over one of the large dough rounds, crossing them in the middle. Place one of the small dough balls in the center and press down firmly to anchor it as securely as possible.
Shape the rest of the dough the same way you shaped the first loaf, making a second loaf.
Cover the loaves and allow them to rise in a warm spot until doubled, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
While the loaves are rising, preheat the oven to 350°F.
To bake the bread: Bake the loaves for 20 minutes, until lightly browned on top. Open the oven and loosely cover both loaves with foil. Bake for another 20 to 25 minutes, until the loaves are fully baked and dark golden brown on the bottom and top, and their internal temperature is 190°F.
Remove the loaves from the oven and let them cool slightly on the baking sheet, about 20 minutes.
To top the bread: Brush the loaves with melted butter. Repeat a second time, brushing a section of the loaf with the melted butter and immediately covering that section with a generous amount of sugar, so the sugar sticks before the butter cools and dries.
Continue buttering and sugaring the loaves section by section. Transfer them to a rack to cool completely before slicing.
Storage information: Store the loaves, well wrapped, at room temperature for several days.