It’s early November meaning it’s time to eat bread of the dead, also known as pan de muerto! Day of the Dead comes with many traditions, and my favorite is going to the bakery with my mom and choosing which pan de muerto we are going to eat for this special day. But have you ever wondered about the origins of pan de muerto, a sweet, fluffy bread known for its circular shape and dusting of red sugar that is placed on altars for Día de Los Muertos?
It is common to think that pan de muerto was a tradition started by Mexicans. But the Aztecs started making this celebratory bread first. And it comes with a rather dark history. The story goes that the Aztecs would sacrifice a noble woman in order to appease the gods. They would use the blood of the woman and mix it with amaranth to make bread. Some legends say that the community would come together to eat the bread in a ceremony while other legends say that the priest in charge of the ritual would eat the bread to satisfy the gods.
Obviously that is not how pan de muerto is made today, and that’s because the Spanish Catholic priests decided that the rituals were too barbaric. Instead, pan de muerto is now made with wheat and designed to look like a heart. It is sprinkled with some red sugar on top to represent the blood of the sacrificed woman. This type of bread is referred to as hojaldra, or puff pastry.
Each region in Mexico has its own way of making pan de muerto. In larger states, hojaldra is the most common. In regions that have a more indigenous population, pan de muerto tends to be more unique and intricate.
Bakeries normally make a different type of pastry to represent and honor the children who have passed away. They make different shapes like chickens, bunnies and dolls to represent toys and put them on ofrendas (altars).
If you’re looking to find pan de muerto for Dia de Los Muertos, which falls on November 2 this year, Santa Barbara is home to several panaderias that bake this special bread, including Los Tarascos Bakery and Deli on 314 East Haley Street.
Owned by Enoch Brojas since 2007, the panaderia specializes in pan dulce, torta, specialty cakes and other baked goods. Yet it wasn’t until three years into operating Los Tarascos, that Brojas started selling pan de muerto for the Santa Barbara community after receiving requests from multiple customers. Since then, the demand for the sweet, brioche-like bread has grown. Every year, the bakery sells roughly between 600 to 800 pan de muerto in late October and early November in addition to fulfilling specialty orders for events throughout Santa Barbara.
Brojas’s recipe slightly differs from traditional pan de muerto sold in Mexico. Santa Barbara stores do not carry the orange essence used in Mexican pan de muerto, so Brojas adds in an alternative orange flavoring, butter and anise for flavor. Traditionally, the topping for pan de muerto is a dusting of sugar, but Brojas also wanted to offer a less sweet option, so he sells variations with a thin layer of glaze and sesame seed topping.
Los Tarascos’s medium-sized pan de muerto are large enough to serve two people and were sold for the affordable price of just $2.50 per bread. We tried medium sizes of both variations of pan de muerto, relishing each bite of fluffy, slightly sweet bread, our fingers covered in pink sugar afterward.
Additionally, Los Tarascos is the only bakery in Santa Barbara to offer vegan pan de muerto, an item that was inspired by another restaurateur in the area. Dalan Moreno of Rascal’s Vegan, owner of the vegan Mexican restaurant down the street from Los Tarascos, approached Brojas in 2020, asking him to sample one of his homemade vegan conchas. Brojas offered to adjust Los Tarascos’ pan dulce recipe to be made fully vegan so that the bakery could supply vegan treats for Rascal’s instead. Three years later, Los Tarascos has kept vegan conchas and pan de muerto on the menu, which they bake fresh every Tuesday. This year, Rascal’s and Los Tarascos collaborated on a Vegan Pan de Muerto Relleno, consisting of a vegan Los Tarascos pan de muerto filled with homemade, non-dairy whipped cream and jam, which were served during the last two weekends of October at Rascal’s.
Los Tarascos is only offering pan de muerto for a short time until November 3, so we suggest you celebrate Día de Los Muertos and pay this hidden gem a visit. The tradition of eating pan de muerto is not only accompanied by a centuries-long history, but is also an essential part of celebrating Day of the Dead.
A version of this article appeared on p. 12 of the October 26, 2023 version of the Daily Nexus.