How Pan de Muerto Flavors Dia de Los Muertos

Two of the best things about San Antonio are its people’s love of food and the variety of options available to enjoy. When it comes holidays and traditions, there’s nowhere better to celebrate anything than our fabulous city. But it’s especially fun to dive into all things Día de Muertos, better known by many of us as its literal translation, Day of the Dead. From events to décor to marigold flowers and special foods, Day of the Dead is filled with culture, tradition, and flavor.

A traditional Day of the Dead altar with pan de muerto.

There are so many beautiful aspects of this holiday, but for many, Day of the Dead means one thing: pan de muerto, a special bread available during the autumn weeks surrounding the Day of the Dead. Families will build their personal altars, or ofrendas, and visit local cemeteries to honor and celebrate their deceased loved ones.

It’s a time filled with love, of cherished memories, of familia—and the things that bring us together, like food and drinks. Some regions of Mexico honor the occasion with special tamales and molés or drinks like the cornmeal-based atolé, but perhaps the most well-known culinary tradition of Day of the Dead is pan de muerto, which literally means bread of the dead.

That may sound odd, but if you’ve had it, you know how lovely it is. Sweet and buttery to the taste, freshly baked pan de muerto smells of anise or orange from orange blossom water that is mixed into the dough before baking.

La Panaderia’s pan de muerto. Photo credit Karissa Rangel.

And if you want to enjoy a fantastic example of pan de muerto, look no further than La Panadería, the bakery-cafe brothers David and José Cáceres opened in 2014 to share their Mexican heritage and love for baking with the people of their adopted hometown of San Antonio. The Cáceres’ passion for baking began when they were young boys selling loaves of their mother Doña Josefina’s fresh baked bread on the streets of Mexico City. Eventually José and David took over their mother’s homegrown business and started baking on a large scale, supplying bread and pan dulce for businesses throughout Mexico. After finding financial success in Mexico, the brothers realized they wanted to get back to the basics, and they decided to bring their passion for bread cultura to Texas.

The two introduced a traditional version of the bread to their customers when Día de Muertos rolled around. The buttery crust is dusted with sugar across the dough “bones” on top. Breaking into the brioche-like bread releases the scent of orange blossom water, which lends a delicate flavor to the soft slices. The smell is heavenly, and the taste, addictive and delicious!

“Día de Muertos is very special to us,” explains José. “For example, our mother—it’s our way to connect to her. It’s our way to celebrate. It’s our way to connect our little ones with our older ones. It helps bring people to the table, [our] pan de muerto.”

Customers fell in love with the bread and didn’t realize it was traditionally a seasonal offering. Now, La Panaderia carries personal-sized loaves year-round and larger ones during the Day of the Dead season.

Hoping to share the Mexican tradition with others, the brothers will be offering pan de muerto at the new Day of the Dead San Antonio festival November 1–3 at La Villita. They plan to take an oven and bake the holiday bread onsite so that people can watch and learn how it’s baked. And the festival will feature ofrendas, the beautiful altars where pan de muerto is a staple. There will also be a huge children’s area where kids can decorate sugar skulls (calaveras), another Day of the Dead tradition, enjoy puppet shows, make (and smash!) piñatas, enjoy musical performances from groups like the Children’s Ballet of San Antonio, and so much more. Like the holiday itself, Day of the Dead San Antonio is truly a family affair.

But back to that fabulous pan de muerto that you’ll find at the festival. What sets La Panadería’s bread apart? Using a blend of French technique and traditional Mexican pan dulce baking produces the best pan de muerto, said David, who does the baking.

The highest quality ingredients are important, so the bakery imports European butter for their pastries. That same butter goes into their pan de muerto recipe, a departure from the traditional lard used in Mexico. Butter contains about 20 percent water content on average, while shortening is purely fat. A dough with more moisture will rise more quickly than a dry dough.

Loaves of pan de muerto from La Panaderia. Photo credit Karissa Rangel.

The bread also rests for 48 hours at a minimum but up to 100 hours before baking—much longer than the traditional way of preparing Mexican dough. All of that time is worth the result: fluffy, buttery goodness.

“David took our family recipes and he elevated [them]. He took [them] to the next level,” José said. “For the [Day of the Dead San Antonio], we’re going to be having it rest for 72 hours.”

A home baker may follow recipes, but a professional baker measures everything—not just ingredients like flour and butter but also things like water temperature and humidity. That expertise allows La Panadería to innovate with flavors.

“David loves to create,” José said. “It’s easy to follow a recipe, but creating, that’s something else. It’s a gift. He has a gift.”

David will be putting that gift to work as he has been trying out new flavors for the pan de muerto. The first test involved using an almond-flavored cream in the middle of the bread. Day of the Dead San Antonio event attendees can expect a new flavor at the festival.

“We want to innovate around the flavors, improve, and play with different things,” David said. If you plan to bake pan de muerto at home, start with a simple recipe but use high-quality ingredients, he said. And be patient, as good bread takes time.

“It all starts with the heart,” David said. And we can’t wait enjoy pan de muerto at Day of the Dead San Antonio!

La Panaderia will be baking pan de muerto onsite at Day of the Dead San Antonio. Photo credit Karissa Rangel.