Bright gold marigolds, beautifully adorned calacas and sweet pan de muerto are commonly associated with Día de Los Muertos celebrations, but most people don’t know that there are different unique regional ways to make the seasonal bread.
Shortly after opening La Sureñita Bakery in 2015, Bernardo Cortez was excited to offer his very own pan de muerto during the season. He was using a traditional recipe from his home state of Guerrero, Mexico, that utilizes oranges, but found that it wasn’t what folks near the 4th Street bakery were used to.
“We barely sold any our first year here,” Cortez said. “One of the local señoras from Puebla told us we needed to make one with guayabas and canela, and that she had a really good recipe on how to make it. We struck a deal, that as long as I’m alive we’d make her a personal platter of the pan every year in exchange for the recipe.”
Commonly referred to as hojaldras, this unique bread is a regional variant enjoyed in Puebla, Mexico. Though identical in appearance to the orange zest variant, its taste is quite distinct with the unique sweetness of the guayaba.
Cortez says it’s not only a great way of acknowledging the large population of nearby residents with roots in Puebla, but also cost-effective, as the fruit becomes plentiful around the holiday.
“We have a really great community here in Boyle Heights that helps each other out,” Cortez said. “Folks around the block with their own guayaba trees bring baskets for me to make the bread. This helps us keep the ingredients as simple as possible, and there’s a little bit of the neighborhood in every bite. I’m so grateful to the people who support our family business.”
That communal love is translated into every pan, made from scratch at the family-run business. From mixing the dough with the gifted recipe and weighing it out in different sizes to creating the bread’s signature design by rolling the dough in between his fingers, it’s a hands-on process that produces one of the most beautiful breads you’ll find in Boyle Heights.
As Cortez describes it, the bread represents the duality of life and death at the core of Día de los Muertos. The small ball upon its center symbolizes a skull, and the four pieces that lay on the bread in the shape of a cross are bones and tears of those who have passed.
When not being enjoyed by the living, the bread is often displayed on ofrendas for deceased family members to savor in the afterlife.
Seasonal breads are always popular at the shop, located at 2950 E. 4th Street. The Beat talked with Cortez earlier this year in the days leading up to the Epiphany, to get a look at how the rosca de reyes, another cultural staple, is made in the neighborhood.
If you’re looking for a bakery closer to you in the neighborhood, here are a few options throughout Boyle Heights with their own pan de muertos this season: