When is bread more than bread?

bread at Temple Bar Market

bread at Temple Bar Market

A topic  smoldering in the back of my mind for some months as I’ve seen variations on this theme for months because of numerous holidays. When is bread more than bread?  Or perhaps a bit more generally, when do baked goods serve a higher purpose? I’ve unearth a few instances, and I am sure there are more, in fact I know there are.  I thought with the Mexican celebration of Day of the Dead and the preparation of Pan de Muertos this was the perfect time to consider the possibilities.  This glimmer of an idea took hold when I saw several articles on bread shaped like people, or at least various body parts; specifically the post of a baker in Thailand that created some of the most disturbing lifelike creations I’d seen.  Around the world bread fashioned to convey something more than calories and nutrition has held cultural significance.  The following are a few samples of what I’ve encountered.


On November 2 (Día de los Difuntos, literally Day of the Deceased, or All Soul’s Day) families gather at cemeteries to clean gravesites and feast with their deceased. Blueberry-based colada and bread “babies” (guaguas) are traditionally served. Families remember their deceased loved ones by visiting their grave sites with food and flowers.  Roads are often closed as people make their way to the cemeteries to visit the dead and decorate their graves with fresh flowers.  Colada morada, a blueberry and blackberry corn-based drink, is paired with guaguas de pan, sweet bread in the shape of babies are two foods often consumed.

photo courtesy of Regina Marchi

photo courtesy of Regina Marchi

Anthropologists believe that this tradition began with the prehispanic indigenous Andean people, who shared food with the deceased. These prehispanic groups viewed death, not as final, but a transition to a different dimension; the living were inextricably linked to the dead. When the Catholic Church dedicated November 2nd as a day for the living to pray for souls in purgatory; the indigenous folks equated this with their customs of sharing food and anecdotes with the dead, and a festival marrying Catholicism and paganism was born.  The two foods previously mentioned are a perfect example;  Colada morada, the thick, hot drink that characterizes this holiday, takes Andean products such as blueberries, blackberries and corn and unites them with bread (guaguas de pan), the European counterpart. The dark purple-red colada symbolizes blood (death), while the bread, shaped like a baby (guagua), represents the body of the deceased, thus incorporating Catholic ideals (the blood and body of Christ) and a pagan ritual, a practice the missionaries used while recruiting believers in the New World.


photo from spices-today.com

photo from spices-today.com

Gingerbread men and houses are perhaps the most obvious bread that goes beyond food, at least for someone with a European heritage.  A gingerbread man was the first image to jump into my mind when I conceived this post.  Ginger became popular in Europe during the Middle Ages, probably reintroduced by returning Crusaders (the ancient Romans had used it previously). Originally used as a delicacy, Europeans soon discovered ginger’s preservative properties, and began treating their meat with it. As ginger became more widely used, it became more expensive, and was one of the most precious spices traded in Medieval Europe.

By the 15th century, Europeans relied heavily on ginger and imported it in vast quantities, which also served to drive down the cost as more suppliers took up the demand.  They incorporated it as the chief flavoring for baked goods.  Most countries developed unique gingerbread recipes, which they showcased at the gingerbread “fairs” popular throughout Europe at the time.  Eventually, gingerbread-making became a highly respected profession, distinct from other bakery professions. In Germany, England, and France, gingerbread bakers formed their own guilds.

image from lebkuchen.nuernberg.de

image from lebkuchen.nuernberg.de

Gingerbread baked goods became associated with the holidays, and were shaped as appropriate for special celebrations. The Germans became famous for their shaped ginger creations. Nuremberg, in particular, was the unofficial ginger capital of Europe, where artisans from other crafts, such as sculptors, and woodcarvers fashioned elaborate molds used by gingerbread bakers to make beautiful delicacies  When the Brothers Grimm published their collections of fairy tales, the witch’s house in “Hansel & Gretel’ was described as a house of candies and cakes, along the lines of the German bakers tradition of crafting “Hexenhaeusle”, or witches’ houses, which morphed into the gingerbread houses of today.

Going back even earlier, gingerbread began as honey-sweetened doughs cut or molded into animal shapes. Why animal shapes? Anthropologists believe that the roots of today’s festive cookies and breads evolved from ancient traditions.  Before converting to Christianity, many pagan societies sacrificed both humans and animals. If there was nothing to sacrifice, people baked breads in the appropriate form and offered those to the gods instead.  After Christianity became common, people retained their traditions of baking festive sweets in human and animal shapes.

Jewish Food

photo from thedallasnews.com

photo from thedallasnews.com

Purim – is essentially the story of Ester who risks death to save the Jews from the clutches of the evil Haman by pleading their case to Ahasuerus, the King of Persia.  Ashkenazic Jews celebrate this holiday by making hamentaschen (literally Hama’s pockets).  This triangular shaped cookie represents Haman’s three cornered hat, or another version of the story indicates it could be his ears.  Blogger, 5 Star Foodie has a delicious recipe for Hamentaschen and the story behind these cookies.


photo from elsoldeyakima.com

photo from elsoldeyakima.com

Rosca de Reyes – Three Kings Bread – a holiday wreath with a small Jesus figurine baked in.  The “lucky” person who finds the figuring is suppose to provide the tamales for the next party.  Not a problem, as everyone apparently pitches in, so no one is left holding the bag, or baby as it were.

Pan de Muerto is Day of the Dead bread, and is made for the feasts to celebrate deceased loved ones at the beginning of November.  Note that the bread is sweet, so as to soften the bitterness of death.  Other Latin American countries offer up similar versions.  In El Salvador, cooks fry up hojuelas, flat crunchy dough drizzled in honey, and in Nicaragua, buñuelos, or doughnuts, made from ground yucca flour are shaped into balls.

photo from laeastside.com

photo from laeastside.com

Pan de Muerto (Day of the Dead bread)  — From Rosa Mexicano restaurant


4 c flour
2 ½ T yeast
½ cup sugar
½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp anise seeds
3 eggs
¼ c vegetable oil
2 T butter, room temperature
1 c water
1 T sesame seeds


In a large bowl, mix together the flour, yeast, sugar, salt and anise seeds until well incorporated. Make a well in the center and add eggs, vegetable oil, butter, water and mix to make a sticky dough.  Knead dough for 15 minutes, until it has softened. The dough should not be sticky. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and lightly oil the top of the dough so it does not dry out. Cover with a damp cloth and put in a warm, but not hot, place to rise. Let dough rise until double in size, about 45 minutes to an hour.  Punch down dough, knead a few times more and divide dough into two equal balls. Form round loaves and place each loaf on a sheet of parchment paper to allow bread space to increase in size.  Wet sesame seeds and drain. Place seeds in a bowl and, using your fingers, spread seeds onto bread lightly. Allow dough to rise for an additional 15 minutes. Cut a slit in the bread and let rise again for 15 minutes more.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees and bake bread for about 45 minutes, or until nicely browned on top. Bread should sound hollow when tapped with your finger. Allow bread to cool completely before cutting.


By now, most of you would have seen the following images (warning, while bread, they are incredibly realistic, and are disturbing).  Some of the anthropologists discussing this work speculated it was an extension of Buddhist desire not to kill plants or animals but rather replicate them.  This idea is in  evidence in many Asian markets where “fake meat” made from tofu to wheat gluten, you name it, is replicated into a realist proximity in terms of taste, odor and texture.  I have no ideas if that was this person’s intent, but since seeing the photos was what prompted this overview, so I felt compelled to include it.


December 13 (the longest night according to Sweden’s old calendar) is St. Lucia’s day and is widely celebrated in places such as Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Norway, Finland and Italy.  She was a 4th century Sicilian who became a Christian and devoted her life to serving the poor. She was tortured and killed in an unsuccessful attempt to get her to renounce her faith.

On this day in Sweden, the oldest daughter in the family dresses in a white robe and wearing a lighted candles in a wreath (representing the fire that refused to take St. Lucia’s life when she was sentenced to burn), or carries a candle in a procession.  The daughter treats her parents to breakfast in bed, serving hot coffee and saffron buns (Lussekatter) before dawn.   St. Lucia bread (Lussekatter) may be shaped in a variety of ways, including a crown, a cross, simple “S” figures (representing the eyes of St. Lucy), a wreath, or a cat. The lighted crown and saffron color dough symbolize that the sun will soon return in this Scandinavian country, and overcome the darkness of this, the longest night of the year.

An earlier interpretation of this bread, and the use of saffron also exists.  It started in 17th century Germany, and “lussekatt” was originally a reference to the lucifer.  The devil, Lucifer, was said to visit in cat form and terrorized misbehaving children, while Jesus (in the form of a child) distributed buns to good girls and boys.  The yellow coloring, coming from the saffron, was meant to ward off evil.  The story of St. Lucia came about later in the 17th century and made use of the bread as part of the celebration, continuing the idea that the color warded off evil or darkness.

Lussekatter (St. Lucia Buns)


¼ tsp saffron threads
1 cup milk
1 T yeast
½ c sugar
4 oz butter
5 c flour
1 tsp salt
½ c sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 beaten egg white for egg wash


Using a mortar and pestle, pound saffron threads to break down strands.  In a small saucepan, heat milk to lukewarm.  Mix yeast with ¼ cup milk and 1 tablespoon sugar. Set aside.

photo courtesy of wikipedia.org

photo courtesy of wikipedia.org

On low heat, melt butter in saucepan with milk. Add crushed saffron. Let cool.  In large bowl, mix together flour salt and remaining sugar.  Stir yeast into cooled milk mixture. Mix into dry ingredients, beating to mix well. Add beaten eggs. Knead in bowl for 5 – 7 minutes. Turn onto floured board and knead another 7 – 8 minutes.  Put dough in lightly greased bowl, turn to coat all sides, cover and put in warm, draft-free place to rise for about 1 hour.  When dough has risen, knead lightly to push out air and divide into small pieces (about 10 – 12). Using the hands, roll each small piece into a strip about 8 – 10 inches long. Shape each strip into an ‘S’ or a figure 8. Place on lightly buttered cookie sheets.  Cover with clean cloth and let rise again until double in bulk, about 1 to 1½ hours.

Preheat oven to 375°F.  When dough has risen, brush lightly with egg white. Bake for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Let cool on wire rack.

Yield: 10 – 12 buns

United States

image from almostvegan.com

image from almostvegan.com

Animal crackers were a staple in my life as a child, and I confess a go to snack today.  I used to take all the crackers out of the box and determine what animals I had in my zoo, eating my way through my duplicates until all that remained was one of each species (apparently the story of Noah and his ark had not fully sunk in yet).

Animal crackers were imported from England when “fancy” baked goods first began to be in demand here. Eventually the New York Biscuit Company took over making “Animals” and they became one of their staples.  What made these crackers a success was the redesign of their packaging so that the box looked like a circus wagon.  Their name was changed to “Barnum’s Animals Crackers,” named after P. T. Barnum, showman and circus owner who was so famous during this era. Barnum’s Animals Crackers provided the nation with a new type of animal cracker.  Soon Animal (the s was dropped) Crackers became part of the Americana.  Thirty-seven different shapes of animal crackers have existed since 1902. The current 17 varieties of crackers are tigers, cougars, camels, rhinoceros, kangaroos, hippopotami, bison, lions, hyenas, zebras, elephants, sheep, bears, gorillas, monkeys, seals, and giraffes.

Animal Crackers became such a part of American life that Christopher Morley (1890-1957), American humorist, playwright, poet, essayist, and editor, captured the sentiments of thousands of kids with this poem:

Animal Crackers

Animal crackers and cocoa to drink,

That is the finest of suppers I think;

When I’m grown up and can have what I please

I think I shall always insist upon these.

What do YOU choose when you’re offered a treat?

When Mother says, “What would you like best to eat?”

Is it waffles and syrup, or cinnamon toast?

It’s cocoa and animals that I love most!

The kitchen’s the coziest place that I know;

The kettle is singing, the stove is aglow,

And there in the twilight, how jolly to see

The cocoa and animals waiting for me.

Daddy and Mother dine later in state,

With Mary to cook for them, Susan to wait;

But they don’t have nearly as much fun as I

Who eat in the kitchen with Nurse standing by;

And Daddy once said, he would like to be me

Having cocoa and animals once more for tea!

photo from germanbakery.com

photo from germanbakery.com

New Orlean’s King Cakes eaten during Mardi Gras each year in New Orleans, Louisiana, are a requirement for an Mardi Gras party.  The cake is made with a rich dough, baked and covered with a sugar topping in Mardi Gras colors; purple = justice, green = faith, and gold = power. The cakes are easy to make, and every New Orlean’s baker has their special version.  The cakes are prepared for the period between the Twelfth Night and Ash Wednesday. Many are shipped throughout the United States for those displaced New Orleanians longing for a taste of Mardi Gras.

The Mardi Gras or Carnival season officially begins on January 6th, or the Twelfth Night. Originally objects such as coins, beans, pecans, and peas were hidden inside each King Cake.  In the mid-1900s, a small plastic baby became the symbol of this Holy Day, and was inserted in every King Cake. The New Orleans tradition is that each person takes a piece of cake hoping to find the plastic baby inside. The recipient of the plastic baby is “crowned” King or Queen for the day and that person is obligated to host the following year’s party and supply the King Cake, very similar to Mexico’s Rosca de Reyes.

The King Cake tradition came to New Orleans by way of the French settlers around 1870, continuing a custom dating back to twelfth century France. Similar cakes were used then to celebrate the coming of the three wise men calling it the feast of Epiphany, Twelfth Night, or King’s Day.  The Irish have something similar with Barnbrack.

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26 comments for “When is bread more than bread?

  1. November 2, 2009 at 6:37 AM

    Wow! This has brought back all kinds of happy memories of my childhood in Germany and going to the baker’s to buy gingerbread men and admire the cute houses displayed in the window. How do you find the time to write these informative posts?!

  2. November 2, 2009 at 6:55 AM

    Wonderful post about baked goods around the world! I would love to try the Day of the dead bread, thanks for the recipe! And thanks so much for the link to my hamentaschen post!

  3. November 2, 2009 at 7:37 AM

    I love pan de muerto!It is absolutely delicious! Great post as usual 🙂

  4. November 2, 2009 at 8:21 AM

    What a gorgeous post! It’s wonderful to see how different cultures/religions have their own take on breads but it is something that brings us together.

  5. November 2, 2009 at 11:02 AM

    The pan de muerto is great, I have a friend that bakes it- it’s so nice that you post recipes for some of these delicious things. There is just so much wonderful baking and holiday tradition from around the globe. It’s nice to read such detailed info about how other cultures celebrate with a simple food that we all share.

  6. November 2, 2009 at 1:02 PM

    I saw Rosco de Reyes for the first time in Seville last winter. Getting very excited for Gingerbread time! Its amazing how each culture seems to have some sort of variation of “bread” and the rich histories about them are equally interesting and amazing.

    Day of the Dead almost went by without me knowing today – Mexico is so underrepresented here!

    I have never been to New Orleans, but have always wanted to go (especially for Mardi Gras). Must make sure I go, if only to try that bread from the source. Will travel for bread!

  7. November 2, 2009 at 4:11 PM

    I don’t think I need to tell you how much I love bread of any kind. I love king cakes, too. Especially when one finds the little baby. It’s always funny to see people picking their piece apart before eating it.

  8. November 2, 2009 at 7:15 PM

    I loved this! I have heard of almost all the breads here except those very realistic ones from Thailand. Creepy! I always had animal crackers at my Grandparents – those and cracker jacks – two treats I didn’t get at home. Happy memories.

  9. November 3, 2009 at 12:05 AM

    Pan de muerto is something never tasted before. It’d be nice to find a bakery with one.

  10. November 3, 2009 at 12:36 AM

    I was surprised to see animal crackers in there!
    I’ve tried Pan de muerto before, but wasn’t very impressed…I didn’t really care for the fluffy, airy texture.
    But yes– bread is freaking awesome. It is life!

  11. admin
    November 3, 2009 at 6:34 AM

    Helen – Thanks, I can only imagine what a special time it was to find and have that German ginger bread.

    Natasha – my pleasure

    Erica – =)

    Claudia – I agree it is fascinating, and I’d love to have added which culture affected the other, etc I’d have either have had a book or a topic for a second post. After I hit the “publish” button I thought of a host of other cultures that have multi-purpose bread as well.

    Lisa – I agree baking is such a wonderful bonding activity and to see the broader signifigance of it only makes it more special

    Gastro – I envy your close proximity to great sources of ginger bread. I know there was a Mexican food event at, I think the British History Museum, did you go?

    Jenn =)

    Reeni – I agree that bread was a bit creepy, but I was in awe of the talent.

    Duo – I bet you should find a bakery with relative ease in SoCal – my fingers are crossed for you.

    Sophia – sometimes its the stuff under your nose.

  12. November 3, 2009 at 7:41 AM

    How delightful, I love all of these symbolic breads. I didn’t know the stories about most of them, thank you for such an informative article! I hope you continue this piece and go on to Italy and England. My favorites are hot cross buns (my mom makes them every Easter) and panetone at Christmas (a side effect of living near North Beach most of my life). My childhood favorite remains circus animal cookies, with the pink and white icing!

  13. November 3, 2009 at 9:42 AM

    I didn’t know one could do so much with bread. The saffron St. Lucia buns are on my to-do list. The body parts are very interesting…amazing what people think of!

  14. November 3, 2009 at 10:20 PM

    Oh my gawd. I’ve never seen the bread body parts before. It’s both unnerving and awe-inspiring at the same time.

  15. November 3, 2009 at 10:49 PM

    I think bread is my favorite food topic. My previous work in a bakery created a fondness for it. I especially love the information about the gingerbread. And those animal crackers were my treat each time I went to the supermarket with my mom. Such great memories they bring.

  16. admin
    November 4, 2009 at 6:43 AM

    Heather – I already have enough ideas for a part 2 and Italy is definitely included along with Sweden. I’d really like to set it up so that its easier to see how one culture influenced another, but alas that fine balance of time and effort may get in the way.

    Crystal – I love saffron laced breads, and that one does sound tasty

    Carolyn – It was freaky, but I was in awe of his talents. I for one have never thought to turn my bread into body parts – some people just have so much creativity.

    Lori – I felt compelled to add the animal crackers for the nostalgia factor alone, but I have to say that ginger bread at some point will get its own post, what with the history of the spice route and just the incredible creativity around its use.

  17. November 5, 2009 at 7:22 AM

    As I read about Rosca de Reyes, I wondered if you’d include King cake, and of course you did! It’s so interesting to see the similarities between different customs and celebrations. This was a fun read.

  18. November 5, 2009 at 11:00 AM

    I love bread! It’s interesting to note that with the exception of the Thai breads (very dismaying and not quite the thing to whet the appetite), there are few instances of the bread symbolism from Asia, although there are pastries that carry important meanings. I would’ve had a pan de muerta this past weekend but I stuffed myself silly with lengua tacos and didn’t leave any room! Thank goodness there are other bread-related holidays to come . . .

  19. November 5, 2009 at 3:52 PM

    Just another great post! It’s great to learn the role of bread in different cultures and interesting to learn how it is related to death and diseased ones. But I still can’t understand why people want to give the shape of human body or its parts to their bread, definitely disturbing.

    Bread is so important in Turkish culture that even if it goes bad, throwing it away is thought to be a kind of sin. And if someone sees a piece of bread on the street, he is supposed to take it kiss it and put it on his forehead, repeat this three times and then put the bread on a wall or on something high. This shows that bread has undoubtly a different place in our culture.

  20. November 5, 2009 at 4:14 PM

    Pan-Bread is a gift of the Gods! Now matter the culture is essential! Terrific post showing us different breads across diverse cultures.. mmm I can eat all of them…..and need to make a triathlon to compensate 🙂



  21. November 5, 2009 at 5:15 PM

    What a feast of bread and culture! I had some vague awareness of the significance and history of gingerbread but you’ve filled in a lot of blanks for me. Another bread of religious significance here would be hot cross buns – sweet yeasted rolls that have a pastry cross on top and are served at Easter as a reminder of the events that Easter commemorates. I actually see that hot cross buns are available year-round here now which somehow seems wrong to me!

  22. admin
    November 5, 2009 at 8:21 PM

    Lisa – Thanks =)

    TN – Agreed, thank goodness for the opportunity to opportunity/excuse to sample breads that the holidays provide. To your point about lack of bread examples in Asia, agreed, none really come to mind. You are right, there are certainly a lot of pastries with mean, like the mooncakes that I recently wrote about http://oysterfoodandculture.com/2009/10/03/giving-thanks-with-mooncakes

    DS – Thanks, I agree, there are so many options, and you are right, hot cross buns is a great example, there are just so many out there, that I may need to do a second post.

  23. November 8, 2009 at 1:28 AM

    Thank you for sharing the different types of breads around the work. You are soooo funny about the Animal Crackers, hehehe!

    I think my favorite in this list is the Jewish one. It looks soo good. I wonder if someone can make it for me.

    This is worth all the read. Thanks for sharing!

    I love all the wealth of information on your site.

  24. November 8, 2009 at 5:04 PM

    Great post, LouAnn. There are several other symbolic/ceremonial uses of bread that I can think of: the significance of unleavened bread and the so-called “shew bread” as part of the Temple accoutrements in the Jewish tradition, the kind of bread originally used in the Eucharist, etc. Fascinating topic.

  25. November 9, 2009 at 4:27 AM

    Oh, I believe that gingerbread men are so popular in Australia that every kid would have eaten once at least, maybe some are addictive to this bread.

  26. admin
    November 9, 2009 at 9:39 AM

    Ryan – I had a lot of fun and could certainly kept going on the varieties.

    Leela – Thanks. I agree, there are just too many takes, and I was afraid of getting into a monster post, but there is plenty of topics for future posts. It is fascinating and as Tangled Noodle pointed out Asian bread does not immediately come to mind – why is that ?

    Christine – I think I am addicted to ginger bread, its just so darn tasty and good for you too!

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