The Day of the Dead, or Dia de Los Muertos, is a time to visit those we’ve lost and celebrate their lives with picnics and sweet goodies. So why not add some ghoulish fun to your picnic while remembering the good times?
Halloween may only be a few days away, but there’s another holiday coming up that’s just as much fun and even more important. No, it’s not Thanksgiving. It’s Dia de Los Muertos or the Day of the Dead, a Mexican celebration rooted in Aztec culture that honors those who have died. The celebration occurs on the evening of Nov. 1 or the day of Nov. 2.
Dia de Los Muertos is a ritual that began with the Aztecs and is still celebrated in Mexico and in various places in the United States today. While most people consider death to be the end of life, the Aztecs believed that it was simply a continuation of life and so they embraced death. Instead of mourning those who have passed away, Dia de Los Muertos is about celebrating life. It’s a way to remember all the good deceased family members and friends did while they were alive. The common tradition involves visiting the cemetery, decorating the tombstones with family photographs, orange marigolds, toys or tequila, and then celebrating with a picnic. Participants often wear skull masks called calacas and dance to lively music. It’s even believed that the festivities are so welcoming that the dead return to celebrate with those they left behind.
There are a few traditional baked goods that families make to celebrate the occassion and to honor the dead. Some of the classics include Pan de Muerto, which is a sweet bread that has extra strips of dough covering it to simulate bones, and Chongos Zamoranos which is kind of like sweet cottage cheese. Skulls made out of sugar and decorated with brightly colored frosting are placed as an offering on tombstones as well. Since Dia de Los Muertos is a day or two after Halloween, you have to have something with pumpkin in it, right? To appease those pumpkin-craving tummies, there’s Calabaza en Tacha which is a sweetened pumpkin dish. With delicacies like these, don’t be surprised if the spirits join you in your celebration.
Desserts for Dia de Los Muertos
Pan de muerto
- 2 envelopes dry yeast
- 1/2 cup warm water
- 4 cups flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup butter, cut into small pieces
- 3 eggs, separated
- 3 egg yolks
- 7 ounces condensed milk
- 1 tablespoon orange flower water
- Sugar for sprinkling on the loaves
- Dissolve the yeast in the water in a medium bowl and let sit for five minutes. Stir in five tablespoons of flour, cover with a damp cloth and let sit in a warm area until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.
- Meanwhile in another bowl, combine the four cups of flour and salt. Cut in the butter until the flour resembles the texture of a coarse cornmeal.
- Beat together two eggs and the three yolks. Gradually add the egg mixture, condensed milk and orange flower water to the flour mixture. Add the yeast mixture, working it in with your fingers until you have a soft, kneadable dough. Place the dough in a large bowl, cover with a damp cloth and leave it in a warm place until it’s doubled in size, about one to two hours.
- Once the dough is ready, cut off about 1/4 of it and set aside. Then separate the remaining dough into two equal shaped balls. Place the balls side by side on a greased baking sheet, remembering that they’re going to expand when cooked. With the remaining dough, make skulls and crossbones: Divide the dough into four equal parts. Roll two pieces between your fingers into long, narrow strips for the crossbones. Cut each strip in half and criss cross them over each loaf. Take the remaining dough and shape into two small balls for the skulls. Lightly press them onto the loaves above the crossbones. Cover the loaves with a damp cloth, place in a warm dry place until doubled in size, about one hour.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
- Beat the remaining egg and brush egg mixture over each loaf. Bake for 40 minutes or until golden brown. Sprinkle loaves with sugar and bake for one to two minutes more, or until sugar is melted. Serve.
Calabaza en Tacha
- 1 (4 pound) pumpkin
- 8 cinnamon sticks
- Juice of 1 orange
- 4 cups water
- 2 pounds brown sugar
- Slice the pumpkin into 3-inch squares. Remove the strings and seeds but keep the skin on.
- Place the cinnamon sticks, orange juice, water and sugar in a large sauce pan. Bring to a boil and stir until the sugar has completely dissolved.
- Place the pumpkin pieces in the syrup in the pan pulp-side down so they absorb as much of the syrup as possible. Cover and simmer for one to two hours, or until the skin of the pumpkin looks glazed and the pulp is fork tender and golden brown. Let cool and serve with the syrup.