Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, I mean a chance to celebrate all things morbid and macabre? Yes please! Yet as a culture, we’ve incorporated the Mexican tradition of Dia de Los Muertos into our Halloween celebrations. Seeing sugar skulls, makeup tutorials and costumes has become the norm---yet do we really know what this holiday is?
I had the chance to chat with the lovely and accomplished Chef Margarita Corrillo Arronte to give me the low-down on Dia de los Muertos. First thing she cleared up? Dia de los Muertos is completely different from Halloween-- “it is a celebration of life.” It may seem grim or morbid to some (not me!), but Mexican culture’s response to death is not only through mourning, but also through happiness and joy.
The traditional Mexican holiday is celebrated on November 1-2 (Nov 1st for dead children & Nov 2nd for all dead), and is believed to be a time “when dead loved ones come back for that day to enjoy.” Although Margarita did not grow up celebrating the holiday as a child, when she moved to Mexico City, her father would take her to little towns with celebrations in the graveyard, beautiful flowers, music and food.
Dia de los Muertos includes setting up an altar for your loved one, either at home or in the graveyard, presenting ofrendas, or offerings, typically with a sugar skull with their name written on the forehead, marigolds, things and food they liked. Margarita shared that for her grandmother who smoked, she places cigarettes on her altar during the holiday.
As with any holiday, there are dishes always made on Dia de los Muerto like Pan de Muerto (“Bread of the Dead” recipe below), a sweet soft bread, decorated with bone-shaped pieces on top. Sometimes a baked tear drop on the bread represents the goddess Chimalma’s tears for the living. Margarita’s recipe for Pan de Muerto is a simple bread dough, kissed with orange zest and orange blossom water. Other traditional dishes for the day are champurrado (a thick hot chocolate made with maza harina), pozole (a rich, spicy, soup with hominy) and tamales.
Margarita always likes to prepare Pan de Muerto, pozole and tamales, all recipes which she included in her new book (more like a bible!), MEXICO: The Cookbook, with over 700 authentic recipes she has collected in her life traveling through Mexico and collecting recipes, stories and traditions from friends and family.
While Margarita Carrillo Arronte is in the country promoting her new book, which has already garnered praise as an expert to the full spectrum of Mexican cooking, she has one take-away message from her book. “Dare to cook, you’ve got nothing to lose!”
PAN DE MUERTO
“DAY OF THE DEAD” BREAD
Adapted from MEXICO: THE COOKBOOK by Margarita Carrillo Arronte
Origin: Central Mexico, Federal District
Preparation time: 1 hour, plus 4 hours rising
Cooking time: 45 minutes
Serves: 2 (1-lb 2-oz/500-g) loaves
1 cup (9 fl oz/250 ml) milk
4 cups (1 lb 2 oz/500 g) plain (all-purpose) flour
½ cup (3 ½ oz/100 g) sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
1 ½ teaspoons active dry (fast-action) yeast
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1–2 teaspoon orange blossom water, to taste
¾ cup (7 oz/200 g) butter cold, diced
melted butter, for greasing and brushing
1 egg, beaten
pinch of salt
pinch of sugar
Bring the milk to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, then remove from heat and let cool. Set aside.
Put the flour into a large bowl and make a well. Sprinkle in the sugar and the yeast and pour in the milk. Close the well by flicking flour on top of the milk and let it sit for 1 hour.
Add the remaining ingredients except the melted butter and form into a ball. Transfer to a clean work surface and knead for 10 minutes. Add the butter and knead again for 10 minutes. Return to the bowl and cover. Let rise for 2 hours, until double in size.
Grease two baking sheets with butter. Divide the dough in three pieces. Take two of those pieces and roll them into tight balls and then press them gently to flatten a bit. Cover and let rise for 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 400° F (200°C/Gas Mark 6).
After 1 hour, take the remaining piece of dough and divide it into 10 little pieces. Roll two of these pieces into small balls and eight of these pieces into long, thin logs.
To make the glaze, combine all the ingredients and 1 tablespoon of water in a small bowl and mix well. Brush the loaves gently with the glaze. Take four of the logs and drape them in an “X” shape over one of the disks of dough. Repeat for the other disk of dough. Brush these with egg. Take a little ball of dough and place it on the top of one disk of dough, where the “X” meets. Press down gently so it sticks. Repeat for the other little ball of dough.
Glaze the dough balls and baking the loaves in the oven for 30–35 minutes or until golden. Remove from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool. While they are still warm, brush with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar