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El Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead

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Pan de Muertos

Halloween-Time Foods and Traditions of a Mexican Celebration

In anticipation of El Dia de los Muertos, altars are assembled for the first and second days of November throughout Mexico in honor of departed loved-ones. Spirits of loved-ones are expected to visit at this time, so food is prepared to sustain them along their journey, as well.

The altars are filled with elaborate ofrendas of favorite foods and drinks for the returning spirits and they are richly adorned with flowers, photographs, calaveras (little sugar skulls), skeleton toys, chocolate, breads and candles.

Other cultures might find it morbid to celebrate the dead but for Mexicans El Dia de los Muertos is a happy holiday. It is a time when Mexicans commemorate their dead but also celebrate life. Friends and families will visit one another with sugar skull gifts to remind them that they are loved and to wish them good health.

Catholic Feast Days Connection

The Day of the Dead also coincides with the Catholic feasts of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, when Catholic faithful honor and celebrate the Saints who are in Heaven and pray for the faithful departed who are yet in Purgatory. During this time families will go together to cemeteries to wash tombstones and to leave fresh flowers, portraits and refreshing drinks. In some areas families make trails of flower petals from their houses to the cemetery to help returning loved-ones find their way back home.

Day of the Dead Foods

There are also many special food traditions associated with the Day of the Dead. In Valle de Bravo little breads called Pan de Muertos or Bread of the Dead are made and fashioned into figures resembling people. In some areas an egg bread known as Pan de Yema (yolk bread) is also popular. Some localities prepare tamales in corn husks or banana leaves – enough for the whole family; both the living and the dead.

El Dia de los Muertos – Other Popular Dishes

The Nuns of the Santa Rosa Convent in Puebla are thought to have been the first to make delicious Tinga, a popular meat dish which is versatile enough to serve over rice as a main course, in tortillas or even as a simple salad with lettuce and salsa. Moles (rich sauces made of numerous ground spices, seeds and nuts) are also popular during the celebration of El Dia de los Muertos, and each region boasts its own distinctive mole recipe.

Pan de Muertos

Pan de Muertos is often made in a round shaped loaf with a cross design formed of dough on top. But in Michoacán, the most typical Pan de Muertos has the shape of a human figure. Below is a simplified quick-bread recipe for Pan de Muertos, although yeast dough would be considered more traditional.

Bread of the Dead Recipe


Colored Sugar

  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 – 3 drops Red food coloring

Bread Dough

  • 2 cups biscuit mix
  • 2 tablespoons additional sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons anise tea
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted

Sugar Glaze

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • Confectioners’ sugar


  1. To make the colored sugar, seal ½ cup of sugar and the red food coloring in a jar with a tight-fitting lid.
  2. Shake vigorously until the sugar achieves an evenly-colored pink tone; set aside.
  3. Prepare a greased baking sheet and pre-heat oven to 400°F.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, mix all dough ingredients together until very well combined.
  5. To make the little breads, pinch off pieces and roll them into a large egg shape.
  6. Make a ½” snip in the narrow end of the dough ball with kitchen shears to form two legs.
  7. Make two more snips, one on each side of the dough ball to form arms.
  8. Pull the arms forward so they meet in the front.
  9. Place each dough figure 1” apart on baking sheet and bake for 20 to 25 minutes.
  10. In the mean time, make a sugar glaze by stirring the butter, milk and vanilla together while adding powdered sugar a little at a time.
  11. Continue stirring and adding the sugar until a thin glaze is formed.
  12. When the pan de muertos are done baking, brush each little figure with the thin sugar glaze.
  13. Sprinkle each figure with the pink sugar while the glaze is still wet.

Huesos de los Muertos

Huesos de los Muertos is a recipe which some think may have originated with the Italian cookie recipe known as Ossi dei Morti. The names of both mean, “bones of the dead men”. Children will especially enjoy helping to prepare these fun cookies for the Day of the Dead.

Bones of the Dead Men Cookies Recipe

Makes between 3 and 4 dozen cookies


  • 2 eggs
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 8 tablespoons butter (1 stick), softened
  • 1½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 cup almonds, finely chopped
  • Confectioners’ sugar


  1. Prepare a greased baking sheet and pre-heat oven to 400°F.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, cream together eggs, sugar, butter and vanilla.
  3. Add the flour and almonds to the bowl, mixing them into the creamed ingredients until very well combined.
  4. Take a spoonful of cookie dough at a time and shape into little bone figures, placing each on the cookie sheet approximately 1” apart.
  5. Bake for approximately 10 minutes or until cookies are lightly browned.
  6. Allow to cool slightly before removing to a platter.
  7. Dust with powdered sugar while still slightly warm.