Five Mexican recipes to make for Day of the Dead


October 24, 2013Recipes16 Comments

Homemade pan de muerto

Up until this year, I wasn’t quite sure what the typical Day of the Dead Foods were in Mexico, beyond the traditional pan de muerto, candied sweets and hot chocolate. I had an idea of the sweets, but what about the savory stuff?

I did some research and it turns out that Day of the Dead foods vary across the country. According to the excellent Sabor a Mexico magazine, which publishes recipes and articles about Mexican culinary traditions, savory Day of the Dead foods can include tamales (both zacahuil-size in Puebla the Huasteca and the smaller Mucbi Pollo in Yucatán), enchiladas, barbacoa, pozoles, mole, caldos, atoles, and the requisite candied sweets and pan de muerto, in all shapes and sizes. The foods seem to be as varied as the styles of altars.

Many of these regional Mexican foods haven’t quite made an inroads in popular American home kitchens yet. But here are five Mexican recipes I found that would do perfectly well for any Day of the Dead meal in the U.S. The holiday is celebrated in Mexico mostly on Nov. 1 and 2.

1. Champurrado.

Champurrado, courtesy of Muy Bueno Cookbook.

Champurrado, courtesy of Muy Bueno Cookbook.

Champurrado, generally speaking, is a thick drink made from masa diluted in water, chocolate and cinnamon. Grandmothers and food vendors in Mexico City, according to Ricardo Muñoz Zurita’s Mexican food dictionary, insist that real champurrado contains only water, piloncillo, cinnamon and pinole, a non-nixtamalized, toasted corn. The drink is also made in various other ways across Mexico. Muy Bueno Cookbook’s recipe calls for making it with masa harina, star anise, milk, cinnamon and piloncillo.

2. Pumpkin and Chorizo Tamales.
Pumpkin and chorizo tamalesThis is my own recipe from a few years back, which creates small, sweet-and-savory tamales that are perfect for breakfast. (Or placing on an altar.) I used nixtamalized coarse-ground harina de maíz that I bought at Mercado de la Merced in Mexico City, but if you don’t have access to that, any coarse-ground masa harina for tamales would work fine. The chorizo here is also more of a Spanish style, not the softer Northern Mexican style, but of course you’re free to use what you like best.

3. Mole.

Frida Kahlo's mole, by Tasty Trix.

Frida Kahlo’s mole, by Tasty Trix.

The Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City actually has the artist’s mole recipe on a billboard. Blogger Tasty Trix took a picture on her last visit and then made the dish at home. Trix herself says: “I absolutely fell in love with the food in Mexico City, and I knew when I got home I wanted to try to recreate as many of the wonderful dishes I had as possible. …It was beautifully complex and there were notes of bitter chocolate, cinnamon, peppers, and nuts.” I’d highly recommend the cookbook Frida’s Fiestas if you’re interested in learning more about dishes of the time period, and what Frida might’ve eaten.

4. Calabaza en Tacha (Candied Squash).

Calabaza en Tacha by Spicie Foodie.

Calabaza en Tacha by Spicie Foodie.

Calabaza en tacha is a typical fall dessert in Central Mexico, comprising squash that’s been cooked in a sugar syrup until it softens into creamy pudding. In Mexico City markets, you’ll often see a whole small squash poked with tiny holes, shellacked in syrup, a dark-brown wedge sitting out for passersby to try. (Vendors will offer a taste with a small spoon. You must try it if you’re visiting.) There aren’t many recipes for calabaza en tacha in English on the Internet, but I really liked Spicie Foodie’s version, which contains molasses and cardamom.

5. Pan de Muerto.
Pan de Muerto
The most well-known Day of the Dead food, pan de muerto is a sugary, buttery bread that’s lightly flavored with orange blossoms (agua de azahar), and draped with what are supposed to be knobby “bones” on top. I love Pati Jinich’s step-by-step recipe. Or here’s the version I recreated from Fany Gerson’s My Sweet Mexico.

How to Make a Día de los Muertos Altar

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16 Responses to “Five Mexican recipes to make for Day of the Dead”
  1. Don Cuevas

    Lesley, your pan de muerto photo, above, has good bones. I haven’t made mine yet this year. Lacking orange flower water, I sub orange zest or orange liqueur.

    Last night I made on Orange Cornmeal Cake, with the addition of a little homemade anís liqueur. Not at all traditional, but easy to make, delicious, and eerily reminiscent of a delicately textured Pan de Muerto.

    Recipe here:

    Don Cuevas

    • Lesley Tellez

      Hi DC: Looks good, and fairly easy. I’ll have to bookmark it for the mornings when I’m craving something sweet. (And I’m bored of muffins). ¡Saludos!

  2. Yvette @ Muy Bueno

    Thank you Lesley for including our champurrado recipe. All the recipes sound amazing! I have been craving mole and must try out that recipe. Yum!

    • Lesley Tellez

      You’re welcome! Let me know how the mole turns out, if you end up making it. Hope you’re well.

  3. Didi

    I really am amused how many Filipino dishes have the same names as Mexican dishes! We also have champurrado BUT it’s not exactly the same. The Filipino champurrado is a sweet chocolate rice pudding served hot (though I prefer cold), paired with a salty meat: dried herring / anchoives or beef tapa (cured beef), usually served for breakfast.

    We also have tamales, prepared the same way, BUT using ground rice instead of corn and banana leaves instead of corn husks :)

    We also have menudo. Though I have yet to try the Mexican version :)

    It is the Spanish connection I suppose :)

    • Adriana Pérez de Legaspi

      You should know that “the adelantado de las Filipinas” Miguel López de Legaspi departed from México to conquer Filipinas. He is an ancestor of my in laws and we know the story well. I imagine that living all that time in México and taking with him so many mexicans as tripulation, that would be a reasonable explanation.

    • Lesley Tellez

      Thanks for sharing, Didi. I’m enchanted by all the connections between Filipino and Mexican cuisine, too — the trade route that existed between the two for 250 years still lives on in the food! I admit the idea of sweet rice pudding paired with something salty sounds especially awesome. More reasons for me to visit the Philippines someday. :-) There are a few Filipino restaurants near my house here in Queens — I wonder if they’d have any of the dishes you’re talking about?

      • Didi

        Hmmm…Maybe worth asking the restos :) Let me know which restos and I can help you navigate your way around. Would be awesome to!

        But maybe you could also ask the chef if they could prepare it for you :)

  4. Adriana Pérez de Legaspi

    Hola Lesley! solo para mencionarte que la “Huasteca” de donde es original el Zacahuil comprende los estados de Tamaulipas, Veracruz, SLP e Hidalgo pero no Puebla. El tamal es ritual de esta temporada y se cubre con hojas de Papatla que se cultiva específicamente para ello. Uno de los platos tradicionales sin duda de la temporada de muertos. Todos los platos tradicionales de ingrediente precolombino tienen la característica de la reciprocidad por ello las dimensiones o cantidades. En muertos nadie come solo.
    Te comparto la receta de mi calabaza en tacha que he escuchado que es “inolvidable”
    Tiene además de 2 piloncillos partidos en trozos, clavo, canela en rama, anís estrella, pimientas gordas (allspice), hojas de naranjo y guayabas en trozos y un vaso de agua. El sabor es literalmente de una delicadeza especial.

    • Lesley Tellez

      Hola Adriana: Gracias por la aclaración. Pensaba que leí Puebla en la nota, pero acabo de leerla de nuevo y no pude encontrar la referencia. Ahorita cambio el texto. Y la receta de calabaza en tacha suena rico — me encantan las cosas con hoja de naranjo y guayaba. Gracias por compartirla. ¡Saludos!

  5. Trix

    Thank you so much for including me – I am in fabulous company : )

  6. Nancy/SpicieFoodie

    Hi Leslie,

    This is such a great roundup of recipes and information about el dia de los muertos. All of the recipes look delicious — happy to see my friend Trix’s mole. Thanks for including my recipe, going to check out your yummy tamales.

    • Nancy/SpicieFoodie

      Oops, sorry I spelled your name with an ie instead of a ey. I have a friend that spells it that way so I always misspell it.:)

    • Lesley Tellez

      Thanks Nancy. Glad you liked the post!

  7. Coco in the Kitchen

    These are all so interesting….especially the candied pumpkin.
    And a good mole, I can’t resist it.

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