Day of the Dead
Rebecca organized an excursion to Huaquechula and Atlixco, two towns not too far from Puebla city. Rebecca had gone to Huaquechula a few years earlier, and she'd had the kind of experience that you'd hope to have on an intimate holiday like Day of the Dead. Locals had invited her into their homes to view their altars, and to eat and drink a little something. Festival organizers had created a map of the neighborhood, so visitors could walk from house to house and peek in open doors. Somehow the place wasn't overrun by tourists. The Huaquechula festivities didn't start this year until at least 2 p.m., so beforehand we stopped in Atlixco, a pretty, quaint city known for its flowers. Here are some photos from the day. Rebecca said Huaquechula's festivities had grown considerably from the last time she visited. I admit I wasn't as interested in sitting around the center of town, which had carnival games, blaring music, food stands, and huge cups of beer edged in chile salt. The neatest part of the day was wandering the empty streets and greeting everyone with a cheerful "buenas tardes." And of course seeing the amount of beauty and detail that families had put into their altars, and the warmth they extended to strangers. Hope you had a meaningful Day of the Dead celebration this year, too.Due to a quirk in my travel schedule, I was able to spend this year’s Day of the Dead in Mexico. My friend
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, 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. This 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. 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 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. 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. Related: How to Make a Día de los Muertos Altar
Day of the Dead is celebrated tomorrow and Friday in Mexico. This week I'm finally feeling the spirit. Here is the altar I put up yesterday in our living room: ... and the Pan de Muerto I had for breakfast, purchased from La Puerta Abierta Bakery in Roma. (Verdict: thumbs up, although it didn't have any orange-blossom water.) Here’s our small-but-growing collection of oficios, which are palm-sized figurines depicting various professions. This year we scored with the chef lady and some skeleton dudes reverse-dunking a basektball. (Those dudes aren’t pictured, because they’re on the altar itself.) And the skull-shaped earrings I bought at Mercado de Medellín! Hope you all have a fantastic Day of the Dead, and that you remember your loved ones who've passed on. More on Day of the Dead from The Mija Chronicles: How to Make a Day of the Dead Altar A Plain but Lovely Pan De Muerto A Visit to Toluca’s Fería de Alfeñique (Sugar-Skull Market) Traditional Day of the Dead Candy
Feria de Alfeñique in Toluca. After the holiday was over I didn't want to take my altar down. It made me feel centered, like I knew where I came from. This year I was curious about all the altar decorations I kept seeing in the markets. So I took the Día de Los Muertos Ofrendas y Tradiciones course at the Escuela de Gastronomía Mexicana, where I recently (last week!) finished up a diploma program in Mexican gastronomy. The course would teach us about the tradition of the altar and the history of Día de los Muertos, and we'd get to cook some typical Day of the Dead foods: bean tamales, pan de muerto and calabaza en piloncillo. Here's what I learned. The Elements of a Day of the Dead Altar First off, you can really make the altar any way you want. There's no right or wrong way to do it -- the idea is that it's something personal that speaks to you. That said, here are some general elements to include if you've never built one before: 1. Flowers Cempasúchil, also spelled cempoalxochitl and other various ways, is an orange marigold. It's Mexico's traditional Day of the Dead flower and it grows wild in many parts of the country. During Day of the Dead season here, the Mexico City government plants rows of cempasúchil on Reforma. In Mexico it's customary to include vases of cempasúchil, petals, or rings of flowers on one's altar. If you live elsewhere, any other seasonal flower would work as a substitute. 2. Fruit -- specifically tejocotes and oranges. Tejocotes are a mild, seeded fruit that taste like a cross between an apple and a pear. No one I know eats them raw. Instead, you boil the fruit in syrup or cook it to make ponche. In the case of the Day of the Dead altar, the fruit, along with oranges and other seasonal items, symbolize the earth's bounty. And it's something for your loved ones to eat on their journey into the next world. 3. Papel Picado. Papel picado symbolizes wind. It's draped around the edges of the altar, or used to decorate the area behind the altar, if needed. 4. Foods your loved ones liked eating. These little plates of food are made out of sugar and sold at almost any market in Mexico City. In general, the food element of the altar is one of the neatest ways to find out about your loved ones who've passed on. Two years ago, when I was building my first altar, I wasn't sure what my grandfather liked to eat. He died when I was little. So I called up my mom and asked her. She said spaghetti. (Me: "Spaghetti? Really?") This year, I put out a little plate of quesadillas for my grandmother. I may also put a few dried spaghetti noodles for my Grandpa Joe. 5. Alfeñique. Alfeñique, the art of making animals and other shapes out of sugar, was imported into Mexico from Europe. Today it's customary to put a few of these animals on your altar. They're sold at Mercado Merced and Mercado Jamaica, but the best place place to get them if you live in Mexico is the Feria de Alfeñique in Toluca, which occurs annually in October. Toluca is about 45 minutes to an hour west of Mexico City. 6. Pan de muerto. I didn't realize how regional pan de muerto was. In Mexico City, we're used to seeing the round domes with thin, knobby "bones" draped on top; in parts of Oaxaca they don't make bread like this at all. That bread is larger, more eggy, with a woman's face painted and baked into the top. Other areas of Mexico make bread in the shape of skulls, rabbits, pigs, crocodiles, hearts, or a pretzel shape that symbolizes fertility. It's customary to place a few loaves on your altar. 7. Bean tamales. The bean symbolizes fertility, too. There's a lot of fertility associated with this holiday, no? 8. A Xoloescuintle. It's thought that Xolos helped spirits cross the river into the next world. 9. A glass of water. In case your loved ones are thirsty. 10. Salt. It's nutritive and it restores bodily fluids. This is usually displayed in a little dish or bowl. Here's a final photo of the altar we built at school... ... and here's mine at home, which I put together on Sunday. Did you build an altar this year? What did you include? Feliz Día de los Muertos! UPDATE: If you want to make your own pan de muerto, here's a recipe from Fany Gerson's My Sweet Mexico that I posted last year.I had never built a Día de Los Muertos altar until two years ago. It was my first year in Mexico, so I put up a few photos and some candles, and a sugar skull I'd bought at the
Día de los Muertos is my favorite holiday in Mexico City. I love the orange cempasúchitl flowers that suddenly pop up in the street medians and parks, and the altars sprinkled with flower petals and candles. I love watching the seasonal fall foods finally arrive in the markets: pan de muerto, calabaza en tacha, tejocotes. Sadly, the Día de los Muertos season pretty much passed me by this year. I was traveling in the States through most of October, and then I got home and promptly caught a head cold. I was too sick to visit the Sugar Skull Market in Toluca like I did last year, or wander around checking out ofrendas. One thing I could do, though, was make my own pan de muerto. Last year I took a class on how to make the round, orange-flavored loaves, so I was already familiar with what the dough contained -- basically flour and a lot of butter -- and how to form the ropes on top to make "bones." The bread has a delicate orange taste, which comes from a few spoonfuls of orange blossom water, known in Spanish as agua de azahar. I wanted to use Fany Gerson's Pan de Muerto recipe from My Sweet Mexico. But I had to tweak a few things, because I was too tired and/or I didn't have enough time to seek out the proper ingredients. Watered-down orange blossom essence became my substitute for agua de azahar, because it was all I could find. I dipped into my abundance of mascabado -- unrefined cane sugar -- and used that instead of regular white sugar, even though it made the dough less sweet. Once I started baking, more issues popped up. My yeast starter, made from instant yeast and not active-dry as the recipe had stated, didn't bubble, sending me into a panic. I couldn't tell if my dough was too sticky, or not sticky enough. The dough also rose sloooowly: three hours during the first rising, and a whopping five after the dough chilled in the fridge overnight. (Note to Future Lesley: Do not place buttery dough in an heated oven to speed things up, as it'll turn it into a greasy, sloppy mess.) While my loaves baked, I discovered my oven temperature was whacked-out. My first batch looked pretty and golden-brown. When I sliced into it, the insides were still doughy and chewy. So yeah. What I'm trying to say here is that both of my pan de muertos turned out kind of flat and homely. I didn't care too much in the end. The bread was the centerpiece of my Día de los Muertos celebration this year, and I was going to enjoy it. I sprinkled one loaf with sugar and the other without, as an experiment. I actually liked the un-sugared one better -- it was lightly sweet and perfect with a cup of hot chocolate. Crayton and I each had a wedge for dessert on Nov. 1, while the candles burned on our altar. (Yes, that's a bottle of Coke below. It's for Crayton's relatives in South Carolina.) Here are the shots of my flattish, but still tasty, breads. For more pan de muerto adventures, check out Three Clever Sisters (she also used Fany's recipe, resulting in these cute, plump little loaves) and Steven McCutcheon-Rubio's post on Serious Eats. If you made pan de muerto this year, send me a picture of it and I'll post it here. UPDATE: Here's a picture of reader Isabel's pan de muerto... And Don Cuevas's bread: ...
All the Day of the Dead festivities officially ended yesterday. Boo. I did want to share with you, though: The Feria de Alfeñique had some of the neatest looking Day of the Dead candy, much of it from dulce de pepita, which is a thick, moldeable paste made from pumpkin seeds. It's lightly sweet. Almost everything was in miniature, which of course made the girlie side of me cry out. Especially when I saw the tiny pieces of sweet bread. And then the teeny tortas. I bought one, just because they were so adorable. The man selling them joked, "Would you like one with ham or milanesa?" There were also candy rats.... And hundreds of chocolates... And tiny pieces of fruit, made from dulce de leche. (This is different from the dulce de leche in Argentina -- it's sweeter, and doesn't have that warm caramel taste.) I liked dulce de pepita better, because it wasn't as sweet. And that's not even mentioning the sugary fruits and vegetables. They're regular old pieces of fruit (or squashes, or sweet potatoes) that have been boiled down with sugar and slathered in honey. They're eaten a piece at a time, so you can savor their extreme-sugar state. My faves, for their pure unique value, were the shriveled carrots and the nopal. Lastly, I saw chongos zamoranos, which I'd read about in a few cookbooks but never seen up-close. I pictured little knots of honeyed curds -- not sure why. These looked kind of like fried pastry dough, and ended up tasting like thin, ultra-concentrated sheets of dulce de leche. Basically, another big mouthful of pure sugar. The chongos were too sweet for me. Looking at all these now, I wish I would have bought more dulce de pepita. It's 8:24 a.m., and I could really use a teeny torta right now with my coffee.
I'm loving this time of year. Here I was, thinking the city went crazy for El Dieciséis, but Day of the Dead is so much more colorful, and soulful. Brightly colored sheets of papel picado hang in store windows. Velvety, crimson terciopelo flowers sit in vases at restaurants. Orange marigolds, the traditional Day of the Dead flower (called cempasúchil in Spanish) have suddenly bloomed in the street medians. Some stores have even set up altars, which look like a series of steps draped in white cloth, and then covered in oranges, bananas, and bread. Yesterday I saw one at El Tizoncito, the tacos al pastor place. I even got into the mood and created a small altar in our house. I draped a white crocheted doily on our buffet, and placed candles, cempasúchil in old jam jars, and photos of my grandparents, great-grandparents and my stepdad, who died when I was in high school. I've also got a tiny sugar skull wearing a wide-brimmed catrina hat, which I bought at the Feria de Alfeñique in Toluca. This is my first altar ever, by the way. I didn't celebrate Dia de los Muertos growing up. You absolutely have to go to the Toluca sugar skull fair, if you live anywhere close in Mexico or if you're traveling during this time of year. They've got chocolate skulls. Sugar skulls. Skulls in cowboy hats. They've got all the traditional Mexican sweets, which I'll write about in another post, because they're just too detailed to try to cover here. I ate so much sugar -- and a taco de quelites, to balance it all out -- that I had a stomach ache on the car ride home. Here are a few photos. If you're interested in going, the fair is located just off the colonial square, about two blocks from the church.
It's Day of the Dead season in Mexico City, meaning pan de muerto has suddenly appeared in all the bakery windows. The light, sugary loaves taste faintly of orange, and they're criss-crossed with doughy ropes meant to signify "bones." After trying them on my last Concha Taste Test, I wanted to learn how to make my own pan de muerto. So I trolled around the Internet and found a four-hour class at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Santa Fe. I hesitated signing up at first, worried that I might not understand Spanish baking terms. Or, heaven forbid, that we'd have to stand in front of the class and introduce ourselves. Would I say I was an ama de casa, or an escritora? What if we had to say why we're taking this class? "Me gusta hacer panadería" would probably sound really lame. Then again, fearing something means you should probably jump right in. So on Tuesday, I arrived at the class kitchen with an apron and two dish towels tucked into my bag. ...
Remember my trip to Patzcuaro? It was a research for an article on Día de Los Muertos there. The article was just published American Way magazine, American Airlines' in-flight publication. Check it out here. And now, since I'm currently sick, I'm going to go back to sipping manzanilla and ordering groceries online from Superama. But I can't pick anything too crazy, because then they might not have it, even though it appears right there on the screen. (They let you order it, and then they call and say, "Señora Lesley? No tenemos espinacas. Lechuga romana está bien?") If you know of any homeopathic ways to relieve sinus pressure, I'm all ears.