This is the time of year for Pan de Muerto. It’s a traditional baked bread flavored with orange and anise that is placed as on offering on Dia de Los Muertos altars everywhere to nourish the dearly departed souls. This bread is also eaten at cemeteries by families celebrating their loved ones’ passing into another realm. Many Mexican-style bakeries have some form of Pan de Muerto variation available for the November 1-2 holiday.
The loaves of bread can be shaped into people, angels, skulls, bones, or any combination thereof. The most common design is usually a round loaf with a knobby “skull,” or calavera, topper that is surrounded by bone-shaped pieces of dough. The most traditional loaves have an orange-flavored sugar glaze and are sprinkled with colored or white sugar.
For the more adventurous and less culinarilly challenged celebrants of Day of the Dead, Pan de Muerto recipes can be easily found online. Unfortunately, it’s a yeast bread that will take about three hours to rise to full potential. Making your own Pan de Muertos is definitely a labor of love that requires patience and perseverance.
For those with little time for shaping and reshaping dough, a few local bakeries offer Pan de Muerto. The breads range in shape, size, and price. Make sure and call ahead, as the larger sizes are becoming a popular novelty to have at Halloween parties even amongst people that aren’t very familiar with Dia de los Muertos. (Pan de Muerto and Mexican sugar skulls are getting co-opted into Halloween party food about as often as Halloween decorations are placed as ofrendas on altars and gravesites.)
Many local bakeries absent from the below list didn’t have the bread stocked yet, so expect more options to appear closer to the November date; others told me they don’t even offer it anymore. My suggestion is that you call ahead and place your order, otherwise take your chances on not having any Pan de Muerto on your Dia de los Muertos altar or at your celebration. (You elementary school teachers planning on ordering for the class, be warned. The females have boobs — noticeable ones. So be prepared for some giggles.)
Panifico Bake Shop is located on the Westside of San Antonio, offering human figures in three sizes along with the round Calaveras. The smallest figurine looks gender neutral and is individually wrapped and sealed with a festive curly ribbon. The bread is fluffy, big on flavor, and generous with the anise and orange. It is also moist enough to be swallowed without coffee or chocolate chasers. For those worried about consuming whole anise seeds, worry no more: they’re mysteriously absent at Panifico. 602 NW 24 St, (210) 434-9290, panifico.com.
Horno Misión San José offers the flaky rounds at the most affordable prices at three locations. The loaves don’t have those familiar brown flecks but are heavy on the orange and very light on the anise (for those who aren’t too fond of the licorice-like seeds). This Pan de Muerto is moist and tender, with a generous helping of colored sugar sprinkled on top. Don’t expect to see the people figures, although the variation of all their other pan dulce selections may very well make up for the lack of variety of “Dead” bread. Plan to sit and eat a piece or two while you’re there. They offer dollar coffee (with refill) and a quaint little sitting area to enjoy your selection. 6208 S Flores, (210) 932-9700; 3313 S Gevers, (210) 532-9138; 507 S Gen. McMullen, (210) 431-8840.
Bedoy’s Bakery, a popular San Antonio tradition, has the female and male figures along with the round Calaveras. This bread is noticeably denser and tastes more like semita de anis, without the whole anise seeds, and is very light on orange flavor. These figures are definitely larger than any I saw, and the colors are equally eye-catching. Bedoy’s was the only of the three that also carried the traditional decorated Mexican sugar skulls along with the Pan de Muerto. A few tables provide some space to sit down and enjoy a mini Pan de Muerto. The eye-catching in-store altar and other Dia de los Muertos decorations round out the Pan de Muerto buying experience at Bedoy’s. 803 W Hildebrand, (210) 736-2253, bedoysbakery.net.