Learn more about el dia de los muertos

El dia de los muertos, or the day of the dead, is a national holiday celebrated throughout Mexico, especially the Central and South regions, and by people of Mexican heritage around the world. The multi-day holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends. Celebrations are meant to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died and help support their spiritual journey. Today, many cities have celebrations that include parades and parties. The reaction to those events is mixed; some people are unhappy with them because el dia de los muertos was originally a family celebration.

Prior to Spanish colonization in the 16th century, the celebration took place at the beginning of summer. Gradually, it became associated with October 31, November 1 and November 2 to coincide with the Western Christianity triduum of All Hallowtide: All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.

Traditions associated with the holiday include building private altars called ofrendas, honoring the deceased using calaveras, Aztec marigolds, making the favorite foods and beverages of the departed and visiting graves with these as gifts. Each ofrenda, or offering, must include the four elements of earth, wind, fire and water. Visitors also leave possessions of the deceased at the graves. The origins of the holiday date back hundreds of years to an Aztec festival honoring the goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl, also known as the Lady of the Dead.

Some of the foods that can be found on the altars for the dead are cochas (small sweet breads), calaveras (small skulls molded of sugar and decorated), tequila, tamales, enfrijoladas, Mexican hot chocolate spiked with cinnamon and chile peppers, and fiambres, a traditional Guatemalan dish composed of sausages, cold cuts, vegetables, cheeses and more. Each item is chosen based on the favorite food and drink of the departed, and of course they would make enough for the living to enjoy at the feast as well.

Items infused with marigold or cinnamon are also placed on the altars. Marigolds are an important flower for the celebration because they are referred to as the flower of the dead. They are used to guide the spirit of the dead to the altars with their fragrance and vibrant color.

Sopa azteca is a traditional food for el dia de los muertos.

Sopa Azteca

  • 1 large ancho chile soaked in warm water for 15 minutes
  • 1- 15 oz can diced tomatoes
  • 1- Medium white onion chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and diced
  • 2 Tbsp oil
  • 5 cups chicken broth
  • 1 cilantro sprig, chopped (optional)
  • 4 cups cooked shredded chicken breast
  • Salt to taste
  • 6 corn tortillas, thinly sliced
  • 4 cups oil for frying tortillas

For Garnish

  • Sliced fried tortillas (divided)
  • 1-2 cubed avocado
  • 2 cups queso fresco, crumbled – cheddar or a Mexican blend will work in a pinch
  • 1 cup Mexican crema or sour cream
  • Lime Wedges

Blend soaked chile, along with diced tomatoes, garlic and onion until smooth. Heat oil in a medium saucepan and transfer blended tomato mixture. Cover and cook over medium high heat until thick, 8-10 minutes.  Add the chicken broth and cilantro. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, add the salt and pepper and chicken and cook 10 more minutes.

While letting the soup cook, heat the oil and fry the tortillas until crispy and brown. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towel and let drain.

To serve: ladle the soup into a bowl, add the tortilla chips, cubed avocados, cubed queso fresco and crema. Serve with a lime wedge on the side.  Serves 2-4

Marigold-Infused Tequila

  • 1 cup organic marigold petals
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 4 cups tequila

Combine all ingredients and allow to infuse for 4 to 7 days. Strain when ready to serve.

Black mole is delicious for el dia de los muertos

Black Mole

  • 4 pieces chicken
  • 4 cups water
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • ½ cup raisins
  • ½ cup sesame seeds + 1 Tbsp for garnish
  • ½ cup peanuts
  • ½ cup pecans
  • 1 tablet Mexican chocolate
  • 1 banana, mashed
  • 1 tomato, chopped
  • ½ yellow onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, diced
  • 5 oz dried guajillo chili, deveined and seeded, roughly chopped
  • 5 oz dried pasilla chili, deveined and seeded, roughly chopped
  • Salt to taste

Boil chicken in water for 25 minutes or until fully cooked. Set aside and save liquid.

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add chili skins, raisins, sesame seeds, peanuts and pecans. Fry for 5 minutes stirring rapidly. Add tomato, onion, garlic and stir for another 5 minutes.

Add banana, 2 cups of liquid from boiled chicken breasts and chocolate tablet. Stir and incorporate all ingredients until chocolate tablet melts. Cook for 10 more minutes on medium to low heat.

Add the rest of chicken stock and place in blender. Blend until mixture is smooth. Run sauce through a strainer.

To serve: Place chicken on plate and pour mole sauce on top. Garnish with sesame seeds. Enjoy with a side of white or yellow rice.

Sugar skulls, las calaveras du azucar, are an important component for the celebration of el dia de los muertos.  Used both as a representation of those who have departed as well as a common gift for children, they can be molded out of sugar or chocolate and are often ornately decorated.  In pre-Columbian era celebrations of el dia de los muertos, the images were portrayed in paintings and on pottery, representing the rebirth into the next stage of life. They are used for decorations and eaten as a sweet.

A skull-shaped candy mold is essential for crafting these at home.

Sugar Skulls
Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup meringue powder
  • 6 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 7 1/2 teaspoon meringue powder
  • 6 teaspoons water
  • 1-pound powdered sugar

Directions:

Mix the sugar, meringue powder and water together until all the granules of sugar are wet. Pick up a handful of the mixture and squeeze in your hand. If it holds together, it’s ready. If it falls apart, it will need a tiny bit more water.

Fill your skull mold with the wet sugar, pressing down on the sugar, compacting it as you go. Fill both the front and back skull cavities with the sugar. Scrape off the excess sugar.

Cut a piece of parchment paper and a piece of cardboard just a bit bigger than your mold. Set the parchment paper down on top of the mold. Set the cardboard on top of the paper. Grab onto the mold and cardboard, and carefully flip the whole thing upside down. Set it on the counter, then carefully lift the mold up off the sugar skulls. The mold should pop right off. If the sugar sticks, it’s too wet. Scrape it out of the mold, clean the mold, and add some more dry sugar to the mixture and try molding it again. If your sugar skulls do not hold together, the mixture needs more water.

Your sugar skulls now need to dry. Midway through the drying cycle, you need to carefully flip them over so the back sides can dry out at well. They should be ready to decorate in 12-24 hours.

Make royal icing. Beat together powdered sugar, meringue powder and water until it’s shiny and will hold stiff peaks.

Once your skulls are dried, spread a thin layer of royal icing on the flat part of the back side of each skull. Press the front and back sides together. Use your finger to wipe off the icing that oozes out from in between the two pieces. Allow the skulls to dry for at least an hour.

After your skulls are dry, they are ready to decorate. Color small amounts of royal icing using food coloring gel, liquid or paste – use several bright colors. If you won’t be using the icing right away, be sure to cover each bowl with plastic wrap.

Pipe royal icing onto the skulls. Any simple or elaborate designs. Get as creative as you’d like and use lots of bright colors on each skull for a dramatic appearance. Allow your sugar skulls to dry for several hours before using them as decorations for your el dia de los muertos event.

Concha bread is a traditional sweet for el dia de los muertos

Conchas/Pan Dulce/Pan De Huevo

Ingredients:

  • 1 packet (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast
  • ½ cup warm water
  • ½ cup warm evaporated milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup butter, melted
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ cup butter, softened
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions:

  1. In a large bowl stir together yeast and the warm water. Let stand for 10 minutes. Stir in evaporated milk, the 1/3 cup sugar, the melted butter, egg, and salt. Stir in 2 cups of the flour. Gradually stir in another 2 cups flour and the ½ teaspoon cinnamon to make a dough.
  2. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead for 3 to 5 minutes or until smooth and elastic. Shape into a ball. Transfer dough to a large greased bowl; turn to coat surface of dough. Cover and let rise in a warm place until double in size (1 to 1 ¼ hours).
  3. Meanwhile, for topping, in a medium bowl beat the softened butter with an electric mixer on medium speed for 30 seconds. Add the 2/3 cup sugar, beating until well mixed. Stir in the 1 cup flour, the teaspoons cinnamon, and the vanilla.
  4. Punch down the dough. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes. Divide dough into 12 portions. Shape each portion into a smooth ball. Place balls about 3 inches apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Press down on balls slightly. Divide topping into 12 balls; pat each ball flat. Place one round of topping on each dough ball.
  5. Using a sharp paring knife, cut grooves on a scallop shell. Cover rolls and let rise in a warm place until nearly double in size (about 45 minutes).
  6. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Bake rolls for 18 to 20 minutes or until light golden brown. Remove from baking sheets. Cool on wire racks. Serve warm or cool.

Remember that the celebrations of el dia de los muertos, the day of the dead, are exactly that: celebrations, of those who have gone on ahead of us to help guide us when it’s our time to join them.

Lila Roth is a trained chef who works at FirstService Residential in Calgary, Alberta. 

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