The avenues are lined with cempasúchil flowers, elegant death stalks the streets, and there's a bit of a controversy over the four million peso mega ofrenda the city built in the central plaza—yes, it's Day of the Dead in Mexico City.
There are so many beautiful aspects to this holiday, but for me Day of the Dead means one thing: pan de muerto, a special bread available during the autumn weeks surrounding El Día de Muertos. Growing up on Mexico's Pacific coast, I didn't see much pan de muerto. In fact, I wasn't exposed to many traditional Mexican breads other than bolillo, birotes and conchas. My first taste of pan de muerto didn't come until much later when, as a university exchange student in Mexico City, my host family, teachers and friends fed me the stuff until I was nearly muerto myself from overeating. I quickly fell in love with the seasonal treat.
The emergence of pan de muerto dates back to the Colonial period. In an essay in Sylvia Kurczyn's anthology Azucarados afanes, dulces y panes, José Luis Curiel Monteagudo points out that a version of the bread—leavened with pulque and flavored with agua de azahar (orange blossom water)—was sold in the Plaza de Armas (now known as the Zócalo) even in the early days of New Spain.
Like the Día de Muertos celebration itself, which blends the Catholic tradition of All Saints' and All Souls' day with prehispanic rituals honoring the dead, pan de muerto is the product of a delicious mix European and native elements.
As a key element of most ofrendas, or Day of the Dead altars, pan de muerto traces its roots to the Mexica (Aztec) practice of placing food offerings on the tombs of those who'd died of natural causes. As Mercedes Jiménez Velásques notes in Azucarados afanes, the food sustained these spirits on their journey to their particular underworld, Mictlán. The road to Mictlán was long and arduous, filled only with "poisonous plants and indigestible things."
There is another, perhaps more sinister to our Western sensibilities, link to prehispanic traditions in pan de muerto: anthropophagy. In his Diccionario enciclopédico de la gastronomía mexicana, Ricardo Munóz Zurita describes how the shapes and form (as well as the type of dough used) varies by region. In Hidalgo state, the bread traditionally takes the shape of human figures or hands, and is sprinkled with red sugar. (In Mexica tradition, the bodies of illustrious figures were covered in red dust when buried.)
Elsewhere, the loaves bear the names of one's deceased relatives. And the iconic Mexico City pan de muerto is shaped like a funeral mound...with a few extra bumpy protrusions. The ball and strips of dough decorating the top of the loaf represent the skull and limbs of the muerto peeking through the top of the mound. As if the implications weren't clear enough, Curiel Monteagudo writes: "For Mexicans, eating the dead is a true pleasure... bready, sugary anthropophagy."
In Mexico City, at this time, you can find pan de muerto pretty much everywhere, from supermarkets to bakeries to impromptu streetside stands. The Pastelería Suiza in the city's Condesa neighborhood serves up a special pan de muerto filled with nata (a sort of Mexican clotted cream) every year. They don't take pre-orders, and sources tell me that the morning of November 1st the line out the door is impossibly long by 8 a.m.
I decided to try the pan de muerto at Café El Popular in the city's Centro Histórico. I remembered ordering concha along with some midnight coffee to recharge halfway through Mexico's Bicentennial celebration in September. It was one of the best conchas I'd ever tried (more on that some other time). "These folks know their baked goods," I thought.
The pan de muerto did not disappoint. I was lucky enough to get there just as a fresh batch was coming out of the oven. The loaf had a lovely, spongy texture, wasn't cloyingly sweet, was very delicately spiced, and had the merest touch of citrus. Chef Adriana Eng Marín explained that the secret to their bread was in dairy: extremely high quality butter (a challenge to find in Mexico, according to several bakers I've spoken to), and fresh, locally produced milk. The bread is leavened with a fermented starter, and the recipe skips the orange blossom water.
I took my pan de muerto with a cup of unbelievably creamy hot chocolate, prepared with Oaxacan chocolate and served with a sizeable dollop of nata. Not to rub it in, but I think I have a new Day of the Dead tradition.
The recipe I've included is not Chef Adriana's. But don't fret, I have a recipe by Patricia Quintana, a dean of traditional Mexican cuisine. To all: ¡Buen provecho y feliz Día de Muertos!
Café El Popular
Av. Cinco de Mayo, 52
Centro Histórico, México, DF
+52 5512 1860
About the author: Steven McCutcheon-Rubio is a Mexico City-based food writer. His work has appeared in the Mexican editions of Elle, Travel + Leisure and Endless Vacation, as well as Chilango and CNNMéxico. He is currently eating an enormous tamal de cazuela.