Nov. 1, All Saints Day and Nov. 2, All Souls Day, known as Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, are times for traditional Mexican family observances honoring dearly departed ancestors and friends.
Celebrations in cemeteries feature elaborately decorated altars erected on grave sites with pictures of loved ones and tastes of their favorite food and drink.
But recently in the U.S., Day of the Dead has been translated into a cross-cultural phenomenon, as symbols such as sugar skulls and skeleton art lend themselves to a lively party atmosphere for the living as well as the dead.
Nidia Zuart, who works in the kitchen at Muss & Turner’s in Smyrna, Ga., and has become known for her weekly Sunday evening dinners at the restaurant, has fond memories of Dia de los Muertos with her family in Mexico — made even more special because she was born on Nov. 1.
“We were a very traditional family, and every time, it was like a party in my grandfather’s house,” Zuart said. “Everybody was cooking, and everybody would stop by.”
Zuart has continued those traditions with her children, including creating a family altar, and making special foods, such as Pan de Muerto, a Day of the Dead bread baked to honor ancestors that’s often eaten graveside.
“My daughter and son love Dia de los Muertos and all the traditions,” Zuart said. “And they know it’s not just a party. It’s a sacred time.” At Muss & Turner’s, Zuart regularly features tamales as part of her weekly multicourse menus.
But the tamales she makes for Day of the Dead are filled with a special ground beef mixture.
“This kind of picadillo tamale is special for Dia de los Muertos,” Zuart said. “It’s kind of sweet and spicy at the same time, with apples and raisins and jalapeno.”
Bone Garden Cantina, a colorful Atlanta Mexican restaurant and bar with artwork inspired by Dia de los Muertos, has been celebrating the holiday with music and food and drink specials for the past five years.
As she’s done every year, Bone Garden owner Kristen Benoit has been molding and decorating dozens of sugar skulls for the occasion. And new chef Mark Nanna has been getting up to speed for this year’s event by researching Day of the Dead recipes.
“I love it,” Nanna said. “My wife and I actually got married in Cabo San Lucas on the Day of the Dead, so that’s our anniversary, and we each have a skull tattoo to mark the occasion.”
One of the recipes Nanna has been working on is Calabaza En Tacha, a slow-simmered, candied pumpkin dish.
“It’s traditionally more like a dessert,” Nanna said. “It’s seasonal because that’s what’s happening at farms this time of year, and it’s a neat way to do pumpkin, with long, slow cooking and sugar and spices.”
He’s also coooked up a Mexican rice pudding that’s often eaten for breakfast on Dia de los Muertos. “In addition to being a dish for the holiday, it’s a traditional breakfast food and morning snack,” Nanna said.
Kristen Benoit and her artist husband Michael Benoit grew up in Southern California, where they were surrounded by Mexican culture, and came to love Day of the Dead celebrations.
“When we decided we wanted to open an authentic Mexican-style cantina, we wanted to bring in the meaning behind that holiday by collecting and creating artwork,” Benoit said. “The idea of bringing family and friends together to honor ancestors and departed loved ones seemed to translate to a small family-run restaurant.
“And because this is our theme and we really appreciate the meaning of the holiday, we made it our big celebration of the year. We set up a shrine to honor people who have been friends and family of the restaurant, and we just try to have a fun time.”
Mexican Bread of the Dead
Hands on: 30 minutes Total time: 2 ½ hours Makes: 1 large loaf
A special round loaf baked for Dia de los Muertos is traditionally decorated with dough skulls, bones and tears.
3 star anise pods
6 tablespoons cold water
6 cups unbleached white bread flour
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 ounce yeast
1 ½ cups warm water
4 tablespoons orange zest
½ cup melted butter
½ cup confectioner’s sugar
2 tablespoons orange juice
Grease a 10-inch round cake pan.
In a small pan, combine the star anise and cold water. Bring to a boil and cook for 3-4 minutes or until the liquid has reduced to 3 tablespoons.
Discard the star anise and allow the liquid to cool.
In a large bowl, sift the flour, sugar and salt together. Make a well in the center of flour mixture.
In a pitcher, dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Pour into the center of the flour and mix until a smooth, thick batter forms. Cover with plastic wrap, and leave the batter in a warm place for 30 minutes, or until the mixture starts to bubble.
In a medium bowl, beat the eggs, the reserved liquid flavored with star anise, orange zest and melted butter. Gradually incorporate into the flour mixture to form a smooth dough. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 5-6 minutes until smooth and elastic. Shape the dough into a 10-inch round and place in the pan. Cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap and leave to rise in a warm place for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 375. Bake the loaf for 45-50 minutes until golden. Turn out onto a wire rack to cool. In a small bowl, whisk together the confectioner’s sugar and orange juice. Pour the sugar mixture evenly over the top of the cake to make a sweet glaze.
Adapted from a recipe provided by Nidia Zuart.
Per serving: 251 calories (26 percent from fat), 7 grams protein, 39 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 7 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 55 milligrams cholesterol, 207 milligrams sodium.
Hands on: 15 minutes Total time: 2 hours and 15 minutes Serves: 6
Slow simmered, Calabaza En Tacha is served as a traditional dessert, but could be served as a side dish, like candied yams. Another option is to use acorn squash instead of pumpkin.
1 4-6 pound pumpkin, stemmed, seeded and cut into 2 inch pieces, with skin on
2 tablespoons brown sugar
6 whole cloves
6 allspice berries
5 cinnamon sticks
Juice of 1 orange
Zest of 1 orange
4 cups of water
In a saucepan, add pumpkin pieces, brown sugar, whole cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon sticks, orange juice, orange zest and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cook for about 2 hours until the liquid has reduced to a syrup-like glaze. Remove from heat, let cool to room temperature before serving.
Adapted from a recipe provided by Mark Nann.
Per serving: 45 calories ( 4 percent from fat), 1 gram protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 1 gram fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 10 milligrams sodium.
Mexican Rice Pudding
Hands on: 20 minutes Total time: 30-45 minutes Serves: 4-6
This pudding made with short grain and golden raisins is usually served at breakfast on the Day of the Dead.
3 cups whole milk
1 ¼ cups water
1 cup short grain rice
1 cinnamon stick
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup golden raisins, softened in a cup of warm water, and drained
In a large pot over medium heat, combine whole milk and water and bring to a slow simmer. Stir in rice, add cinnamon stick and continue to simmer, uncovered until rice is soft, approximately 20 minutes.
When rice is soft, remove cinnamon, stir in sweetened condensed milk, vanilla, salt, and raisins. Return to simmer for about 10 or 15 more minutes or until most of the liquid is absorbed. The rice should have a pudding consistency.
Serve with a sprinkle of cinnamon, and a pat of butter on top, if desired.
Adapted from a recipe provided by Mark Nanna.
Per serving, based on 4: 678 calories ( 20 percent from fat), 18 grams protein, 119 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 15 grams fat (9 grams saturated), 59 milligrams cholesterol, 336 milligrams sodium.
Tamales de Picadillo
Hands on: 1 hour. Total time: 2 hours Makes: 12 tamales
Though steamed tamales can be filled with almost anything, picadillo, made with ground beef, spices, apples and raisins, is a Day of the Dead tradition. Masa harina and cornhusks are available at Mexican markets or some farmers markets.
For the tamales:
12 corn husks, soaked until soft
½ cup lard or vegetable shortening
2 cups masa harina
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 ½ cups warm chicken stock
For the picadillo:
1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
1 pound ground beef
½ onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped
1 ¼ cups tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 fresh jalapeno, seeded and chopped
½ cup raisins
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cumin
salt and ground pepper, to taste
For the picadillo filling:
In a large frying pan over medium heat, heat the oil and add the ground beef, chopped onion, and garlic and cook, stirring, until the beef is brown and the onion is tender. Add the apple, tomatoes, jalapenos, raisins, cinnamon, cumin, and salt and pepper. Cook uncovered for about 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.
For the masa: In a large bowl, cream the lard or vegetable shortening until it’s light and fluffy. In a separate bowl, mix the masa harina with the salt and baking powder, then gradually beat it into the lard, taking care not to add too much at once.
Finally, slowly beat enough of the warm chicken stock into the masa mixture to make a mushy dough. To see if the masa is ready, place a small piece on top of a cup of water. If it floats, the masa is ready; if it sinks, continue to beat until the texture is light enough for it to float.
To assemble the tamales: Place softened cornhusks on a flat surface. Spread 3 tablespoons of the dough on each husk, leaving plenty of room all around for folding. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the picadillo in the center of the dough. Roll up the husk from one long side, so that the filling is completely enclosed, then fold the ends of the husk under. You can tie with strips of husk or kitchen twine, if desired.
To steam the tamales: Layer the folded husks seam side down in a flat-bottomed steamer colander. Bring to a boil and cover tightly. Reduce heat and steam the tamales for 1 hour. Serve warm, unwrapping the husks to reveal the fluffy tamales inside.
Adapted from a recipe provided by Nidia Zuart.
Per tamale: 287 calories (57 percent from fat), 9 grams protein, 22 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 18 grams fat, (7 grams saturated), 28 milligrams cholesterol, 516 milligrams sodium
Distributed by MCT Information Services