day of the dead bread
Cole Saladino / Thrillist
Cole Saladino / Thrillist

After Halloween, the Dead Rise for This Treat

In 2017, Pixar dropped arguably the single most important animated film in Latinx-American pop culture with the release of Coco. The critically-lauded film delved into the mythology surrounding the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos. For many Mexicans, Chicanos, and other Latin Americans, the film was Disney’s long-awaited love letter to the culture. And for other Americans, it was an entryway into a holiday that, in the US, is often intertwined with Halloween.

The film also further fed a growing fascination with some aspects of Mexican culture -- from Oaxaca emerging as one of the hottest culinary gems of the Americas and a Netflix series dedicated entirely to tacos, to the flood of Dia de los Muertos merch appearing on the shelves at Target for Halloween, folks know there’s something exciting about the holiday, but they don’t quite know what it is, or how to tap into it. That’s why you see women dress up as sexy calaveras, which is total cultural appropriation, or scenes of fake Dia de los Muertos parades in movies.

But there’s so much more to the holiday than cute-goth decor and face paint.

You see, Mexicans have a unique way of addressing death, and it’s best articulated during Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, which runs November 1 and 2. Instead of viewing death as a mournful end to life, Mexicans use this holiday to embrace it as part of the entire life cycle. The calaveras and skeletons you see around the festivities are expressions of the comfortable and welcoming attitude Mexicans have with their dearly departed. Colorful altars made with of all the things that their relatives enjoyed when they were alive are built at home or by the headstones in cemeteries to honor deceased loved ones.

Each fall, millions of Mexicans and Chicanos buy pan de muerto to place as offerings on these altars to feed their ancestors. In this way, it’s a treat that transcends the afterlife.

Pan de muerto roughly translates in English as bread of the dead. It’s a sweet, yeasted, round bread typically flavored with orange extract (and/or juice, zest), anise seeds, and cinnamon and dusted with granulated sugar or sesame seeds. Its spongy texture makes it perfect for soaking in Mexican hot chocolate.

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The shape of the dough is rich in the symbolism around the holiday itself. To some, the bread’s round shape resembles a skull, while others say it represents the cycle of life. A few long strips of dough are placed in a cross at the center of the bread, depicting the bones of the dead and tears of the living.

Since Coco’s debut, Mexican bakeries, or panaderias, like Fany Gerson’s La Newyorkina have seen a surge of demand for the holiday’s quintessential food. “I think, honestly, since the movie came out, we got a significant increase in awareness outside of the Mexican community,” she says. “The interest in our rich cultural traditions from universally recognized brands can only serve to inspire love of pan de muerto and Dia de los Muertos to an even wider audience, as the Day of the Dead holiday resonates so deeply across all demographics,” say Los Angeles’ La Monarcha owners Ricardo Cervantes and Alfredo Livas.

In fact, the influence of the film is so tightly connected to this Dia de Muertos tradition that La Monarca is partnering with Disney Concerts and Pixar for the Coco Live-To-Film Concert Experience (featuring Eva Longoria and Benjamin Bratt). The bakery's pan de muerto will be displayed on a large ofrenda, or altar for ancestors, at the concourse of the iconic amphitheater through the show’s run.

Whether shaped like undead children, punctuated with orange zest, dusted with glittery pink sprinkles, or stuffed with chocolate, pan de muerto captures the sweetness of life, while mocking the sharpness of death.

However you celebrate, you can find pan de muerto at panaderias in Latinx-concentrated communities across the United States. Here are just a few, from the West Coast to New York, Texas to down south.

Note: Pan de muerto, like most Mexican pan dulce, tends to dry out and go stale quickly, so it’s best eaten within a day. If you do have leftovers a day or so later, keep the pan tightly wrapped at room temperature and warm it in the oven in foil. Baked rounds can also be wrapped in plastic and stored in the freezer.

New York City
La Newyorkina’s Gerson, also a noted cookbook author, says Dia de los Muertos is her favorite time of year. In fact, she planned her wedding around the holiday. Gerson grew up eating pan de muerto as a kid in Mexico City and started making it herself as an adult when she moved to the US. She bakes a traditional-style pan, one loaded with chunks of Mexican chocolate, and ice cream sandwiches made with the bread. As of 2019, Gerson ships nationwide so fans far and wide can enjoy her holiday treat.

San Antonio
This bakery has been a staple in San Antonio for nearly 60 years. Founder Manuel Bedoy started baking pan de muerto at the request of priest and community activist Rev. Virgil Elizondo. The shop’s pan de muerto comes in many forms, from traditional to colorful breads shaped like figurines. Bedoy’s pan de muerto figures prominently in the city’s annual Dia de los Muertos celebration.

This popular Georgia panaderia is known for using organic ingredients and seasonal produce in its baked goods, as well as offering vegan variations. La Calavera also sells pan de muerto in small, individual sizes and gigantic, shareable rolls. They use orange juice and grapefruit juice for flavoring.

This Michigan panaderia is a favorite in Detroit and Pontiac’s predominantly Mexican communities year-round for its array of conchas, pasteles de tres leches, and chocolate flan. During the Dia de los Muertos season, the shops feel the crowds as one of the region’s go-to spots for pan de muerto as well as conchas decorated as pumpkins. The breads are available coated in granulated sugar, pink sprinkles, or dusted with sesame seeds.

Sisters Lizette and Marisol Espinoza launched their panaderia business from home in 2016 using a commercial kitchen built by their father and uncle. They went on to open their brick and mortar in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood in 2018. Using Marisol’s education in French pastry-making, the bakery offers both Mexican and European-style baked goods. Their pan de muerto reflects that intersection, with varieties including the traditional, stuffed with nutella or cheese, and a triple chocolate version with cocoa sourced from Urupan, Michoacan.

Boyle Heights
This panaderia and restaurant has been feeding Angelenos in the barrio of Boyle Heights for nearly 70 years. It is famous for its freshly-made tamales, early morning hours, and weekend menudo. As for their pan de muerto, expect to find the classic recipe, sugar-coated skulls, headless “children,” and pastel-colored pan de muerto muffins.

Twelve locations in the Los Angeles area
La Monarca founders Ricardo Cervantes and Alfredo Livas craved the taste of their hometown panaderias in the city of Monterey after they moved to the US, so they opened their first location in 2006 in Huntington Park, a predominantly Latinx community in southeast Los Angeles County. The bakery uses all-natural ingredients like agave nectar and avoids processed mixes and preservatives. For the pan de muerto, La Monarca sticks with tradition, using fresh orange zest. Then they dip their bread in butter and dust them in granulated sugar.

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Serena Maria Daniels is the Chingona-in-Chief and founder of online food and culture outlet, Tostada Magazine. She is also a 2018 Feet In 2 Worlds/WDET food journalism fellow. Catch her on Twitter at @serenamaria36 or @tostadamagazine.