There is nothing like the smell of freshly baking bread. The aroma makes a promise to your taste buds and floods your mind with anticipation and memories.
That smell carries a double meaning when the enticing scent is from pan de muerto, an essential part of Día de Muertos. And no one understands that more than the team behind San Antonio’s La Panadería.
The bakery’s co-owners and brothers José and David Cáceres firmly believe bread brings people and families together. And that’s what makes pan de muerto so special: it helps reunite the souls of the departed with their families. Pan de muerto plays a central role in Día de Muertos, or Día de los Muertos as we usually say in the United States.
Day of the Dead is a rich cultural tradition of the Mexican people, celebrating and honoring loved ones who have died. Festivities stretch across two days on November 1 and November 2, coinciding with the Catholic calendar days of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. It is believed that on these days the souls of the deceased return to earth to be with their families and loved ones. In turn, families and loved ones remember how the deceased lived by setting up an altar. With photographs and the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks, the altars honor and celebrate the individual who has passed. Pan de muerto is a key part of that celebration.
Those who embrace the traditions of the Day of the Dead create personal altars, or ofrendas, that honor and welcome loved ones home. The holiday is filled with warmth and love, sweet memories and familia, and the things – like pan de muerto – that bring us together.
Step through the doors at either of La Panadería’s locations and you’re lovingly enveloped in the bread’s sweet smell. Literally translated, pan de muerto means bread of the dead, and is a traditional sweet bread made with egg and butter and flavored with orange blossom or anise. The top of the loaf is decorated with bone-shaped pieces of dough often arranged in a circle to represent the circle of life, or sometimes loaves are baked in the shape of little people and then dusted with sugar.
Take a bite through the thin, crunchy shell—the taste of butter melting in your mouth—and inside you’ll find a brioche-like bread. One delicious bite and you’ll be thanking the Spaniards brought the bread to Mexico, as well as the Aztecs who incorporated it into their cooking.
The first fall La Panaderia was open, the brothers introduced the bread to their customers. Their recipe is based on their mother’s but David has tweaked it, playing with the orange blossom flavor and using only the best European butter. Part of the process is letting the dough rest for a minimum of 72 hours.
Customers fell in love with the bread, not realizing it’s typically a seasonal offering tied to the holiday. Now, La Panadería carries personal size 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 2019 Festival at La Villita Historic Arts Village in San Antonio November 1 – 3. To truly showcase pan de muerto, La Panaderia will have an oven onsite, baking the bread so that people can watch and learn how it’s baked.
Allowing people to see the baking process is part of the brothers’ mission to share their culture. Building culture requires three things: art, language and food, José explained, “And that’s why we are here.”
La Panaderia’s pan de muerto is definitely an art to be enjoyed.
Cover: A display of pan de muerto with candles and Mexican marigolds known as cempasúchitl, or flower of the dead.
Photo Karissa Rangel