If you aren't familiar with Dia de los Muertos, you really should be. Arguably one of the most badass holidays on the planet, it featured dancing skeletons before Social Distortion played their first chord or Tim Burton picked up his first Super 8. This life-affirming Mexican celebration is so aesthetically spellbinding, so unparalleled in originality and so spiritually nuanced, it's no wonder Disney tried to steal the holiday earlier this year. Right.
All throughout Los Angeles during the days surrounding Halloween, there are Dia de los Muertos celebrations bringing in Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and everyone else to witness the beautiful pre-Colombian tradition that honors the dearly departed with ginormous altars (ofrendas) covered in candles, photos, marigolds, sugar skulls and plenty of pan de muerto, or bread of the dead.
The holiday officially lands on the first two days of November — Nov. 1 traditionally celebrates the spirits of children (dia de los inocentes) and Nov. 2 celebrates the adults.
Pan de muerto is a fluffy sweet bread traditionally made from flour, water, yeast, sugar, pork fat, anise seed and eggs. Recipes adapted by Americans nix the lard and replace it with butter, but in Mexico lard is definitely the law of the land. Usually the bread is baked in mounds, which are decorated with little bone-shaped accents sculpted from the same dough and then arranged in circles on top of the roll. This circular design represent the cycle of birth, death and regeneration.
This bread is so popular within Mexican culture you can usually find it year-round at panaderias — Mexican bakeries — throughout Los Angeles. During the weeks leading up to Dia de los Muertos some bakeries sell larger versions of the bread in more theatrical shapes, made specifically for the decoration of altars. These altars are paramount to the holiday and, along with an assortment of various foods favored by the deceased, the bread is placed on the altars to draw the spirit of loved ones out from the netherworld during the celebration.
If you're on the hunt for larger-than-life pan de muerto to add spice to an altar, party, cubicle, etc., La Mascota is your destination. They sell grand skull-shaped bread covered in sugar, frosting and rainbow sprinkles. But be forewarned — if you want these special holiday versions you must order them in advance, at least one day prior. The bakery also sells small round pan de muerto, and these are far darker (and a bit drier) than their counterparts at other bakeries, though still good. You can purchase these small ones without any notice, but they come plain with a sprinkling of sesame seeds, so if you want the kind dusted with sugar, you'll have to head to the other bakeries. 2715 Whittier Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 263-5513.
The decor at the La Favorita Bakery in East L.A. doesn't make much sense. When you walk in to the panaderia, a bunch of statues of Greek gods and goddesses, all garbed in golden robes, practically jump from the periphery into your face, and between these dieties stands a massive industrial standing mixer painted in gold — perhaps a shrine to the pastry gods? If so, the shrine has done its job, because despite the incongruity the place knocks out some pretty mean breads and pastries, and the pan de muerto is no exception.
Ironically, they dump their stock of the bread unceremoniously in the pastry case just like all the other offerings — most bakeries set their pan de muerto on special display for the upcoming holiday. Theirs is soft, fresh and you can buy it dusted with sugar or plain sesame seeds, although more sugar is often the merrier with this bread. 2305 E. Fourth St., Los Angeles; (323) 265-4445.
La Morenita in Glassell Park doubles as a Mexican restaurant and bakery, serving some pretty good savory food in addition to the terrific breads and pastries. Here you can buy pan de muerto in large rounds, about a foot in diameter, or little baby ones a quarter of the size, and they only sell the sugared kind. These come wrapped up and ready to go, so no hassle with tongs and trays and deli papers and pastry cases, which is always nice. Don't skip out without trying their raved-about breakfast burritos. 1157 Cypress Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 222-7953.
2. El Gallo Bakery
El Gallo is the mother of all panaderias in Los Angeles, an emporium of delectable baked goods that's been an East L.A. fixture for more than 60 years. They serve up an impressive array of treats, including galletas (cookies), Mexican-style pastries, pan dulce, muffins, doughnuts, cakes — they even sell house-made sugar skulls. Though their pan de muerto isn't super-decorative, it is very tasty and, in addition to the small rolls, they offer larger breads in the shape of what appears to be skulls. This is one of those awesome bakeries that sells everything fresh and will stockpile a bunch of day-old pastries for dirt cheap. We love them all the more for that. 4546 East Cesar E. Chavez Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 263-1647.
Tucked along a stretch of dollar stores, pawn shops and vintage clothing stores on Sunset in Echo Park stands La Celaya, a cozy little bakery filled with the divine aroma of fresh pan dulce and a welcoming and spirited energy. The cheerful woman behind the counter proudly describes their wide assortment of pan de muerto, which is certainly the biggest in town. Here you'll find rolls dusted in pink sugar, smothered in rainbow sprinkles or sesame seeds, filled with pumpkin, even a few shaped like little humans, glazed in white icing with black detail. These breads live up to La Ceyala's vibrant and inviting atmosphere — they are tender and fluffy and super-flavorful. 1630 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 250-2472.
Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer and a pastry chef at Lucques. Follow her on Twitter. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.