- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Americans might deem a holiday named Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, diabolic or disrespectful, but to Mexicans, creepy, morbid or sad it’s not. While we in the United States seem to have a hard time just talking about aging, Mexicans have created a holiday to celebrate death.

The holiday is a chance for the living to flirt with, mock and even joke about death by inviting departed loved ones to come home for a one-night visit. It comes not from a place of disrespect, but from a deep belief that death isn’t the end; it’s the road to a better existence.

Depending on circumstance of death and age, those who have passed on are enticed home with offerings arranged on homemade altars to honor individual souls (a photograph of the departed person is displayed on each altar) or placed outside homes, in churches or around graves.

Spirits who left no survivors to greet them are honored Oct. 27 with modest offerings such as bread and jugs of water hung outside houses or placed in church corners. Those who died accidentally or violently are invited back the next day with offerings left outside homes to keep the diabolical spirits associated with their deaths at bay.

On Oct. 31, dead children come home to visit to find toys, sweets or something new to wear, but they must leave again by noon the next day.

Then on Nov. 1, departed adults are lured home by offerings of their favorite foods and beverages, cigarettes, candles and fragrant petals of marigolds and copal, an amber incense. Tamales are almost always offered.

Pan de muerto, a sweetbread baked especially for the day, is decorated with knobby dough bones or teardrops and colored sugar or frosting and is placed on altars and graves. Discs of dough or porcelain are often painted with the faces of saints, the Virgin Mary or Christ and baked into the dough to represent someone’s soul. Cups of cinnamon-scented Mexican hot chocolate are a must with the bread. Full bottles of tequila or mescal are often set on altars of adult imbibers.

Days ahead, families begin marketing and cooking one or more moles or other stews. The living congregate at cemeteries to clean and decorate graves with the deep orange petals of marigolds and fuchsia cockscomb and to personalize altars with their departed’s favorite items.

Families spend a candlelit night there, some kneeling and praying, sitting in silent communion with the dead or picnicking and socializing by sharing mescal and gossip amid strolling musicians. Children are treated to whimsically decorated sugar skulls with their names written in frosting across the foreheads.

By the next evening, the spirits are encouraged to return to their world by masked mummers whose job it is to scare away any stubborn souls who try to linger past 10 p.m. The food offerings can then be enjoyed by the living even though their aroma and flavor have been “consumed” by the departed.

Chances are, if you put on such a bash here, you’d be arrested or at least escorted from your loved one’s burial place, but you can celebrate in a simpler way by planning a Day of the Dead dinner at home.

Instead of setting up an elaborate altar, use the dinner table to present your offerings or at least set a place for a departed loved one and include his or her photograph and a few items he or she would enjoy consuming.

For our Day of the Dead dinner, we plan to create a candlelit path of marigold petals leading from outside through to the dining room to help the spirits find their way home. The table will be covered with colorful paper flags, papel picados banners (see note), with cutout skeleton designs that are normally strung up like banners.

A decorated Day of the Dead bread and a saint’s head brought home from a trip to Oaxaca will be the centerpiece, and each place will be marked by a comical sugar skull to serve as a place card. A multitude of candles is a must.

Guests will also be invited to decorate their own blank sugar skulls with colored frosting, sequins, foil, feathers and other shiny bits and beads while they sip margaritas and dunk into guacamole before dinner.

Dinner will include chicken in a green mole sauce made with pumpkin seeds, peanuts, sesame seeds, tomatillos, lettuce, radish leaves and chilies. Instead of labor-intensive tamales, we’ll make a fresh corn tamale casserole and line the dish with corn husks. Black beans and rice will round out the menu. For dessert, there will be a typical Dia de los Muertos sweet: pumpkin stewed in a syrup of brown sugar and cinnamon.

While we eat, guests will be invited to share a memory of a departed loved one, and the living and dead will be left at peace with each other for another year.

Note: Mexican sugar skulls and papel picados banners are available on line from www.mexicansugarskull.com. The site is also an excellent source of information about Day of the Dead, how to make your own sugar skulls and the supplies needed to do so.

Chicken mole verde(chicken with green mole)

This is not the dark chocolate-and-cinnamon-infused dish most Americans associate with mole. There are many different moles, including red, yellow, fruit-based and those with nuts and seeds, such as this jalapeno-fired green version.

1 onion, roughly chopped

3/4 pound tomatillos, husked and quartered

2 or 3 jalapeno chilies, stemmed, seeded and roughly chopped

5 or 6 cloves garlic

3 romaine lettuce leaves

1 cup cilantro leaves, lightly packed

¼ cup radish leaves

1½ cups hulled pumpkin seeds, roasted

2 quarts chicken broth

3/4 cup dry-roasted peanuts

¼ cup sesame seeds, toasted

4 to 5 pounds chicken pieces, baked or poached

Radish slices and cilantro sprigs

In a large pot or Dutch oven, combine onion, tomatillos, chilies, garlic and 3 cups water.

Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 20 minutes.

In food processor or blender, combine mixture with romaine, cilantro and radish leaves. Process to puree. Pour half of mixture into bowl and set aside. Add 1 cup pumpkin seeds and 2 cups broth to mixture remaining in processor and process until smooth. Return mixture to pot.

Return mixture in bowl to processor and add peanuts, sesame seeds and 2 cups broth. Process until smooth. Add to sauce in pot along with remaining broth. Bring to simmer then reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens, about 20 minutes.

If sauce appears grainy, whirl in blender, working in batches, until smooth, then press through strainer. (Sauce can be made several days ahead. Reheat just before serving.) Ladle about 3/4 cup sauce onto each plate, then top with chicken pieces. Pour small amount of additional sauce in ribbon over chicken. Sprinkle with radish slices, remaining ½ cup pumpkin seeds and cilantro, if desired. Pass additional sauce at the table. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Fresh corn tamale casseroles

In some regions of Mexico, tamales are wrapped in dried corn husks. In other areas, mainly in the south, they are enclosed in banana leaves. This recipe uses husks to line individual casseroles of fresh corn for added flavor and a nice presentation.

6 ears corn in husks

2 tablespoons butter

½ cup whipping cream

½ cup yellow cornmeal

½ teaspoon baking powder

Salt, white pepper


Remove husks from corn, reserving enough large leaves to line 6 individual (about 1¼ cup) ramekins, baking cups or souffle dishes. Cut kernels from corn. Place kernels in food processor, and pulse just to chop roughly or chop by hand.

In large skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add corn along with any liquid, cream and cornmeal. Reduce heat to low and cook 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in baking powder and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Line 6 ramekins or other ovenproof dishes with reserved corn husks, overlapping slightly and allowing ends to stick up over edges. Fill each dish with corn mixture. Gather extended ends of husks together and tie with a strip of cornhusk or kitchen twine.

Bake in 350-degree oven 20 minutes. Serve immediately. Let diners untie casseroles at the table and pass salsa. Makes 6 servings.

Pan de muerto (Day of the Dead bread)

This traditional bread makes a good centerpiece for the table. It can then be served as dessert or sliced and toasted for breakfast the next morning. Serve it with frothy cups of Mexican chocolate. Many ethnic sections of grocery stores carry the gritty chocolate discs used to make this delicious hot beverage.

1 package dry yeast

½ cup sugar

½ cup butter, softened

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon grated orange peel

½ teaspoon crushed anise seeds

1 cup hot milk

3 eggs, beaten

5 cups flour, plus additional for kneading

1 egg yolk

Coarse or colored sugar

In small bowl, dissolve yeast in ½ cup warm water. Add pinch of sugar. Set aside to soften.

In large bowl, combine remaining sugar, butter, salt, orange peel, anise seeds and hot milk. Stir in eggs and yeast mixture.

Gradually add flour to make a stiff dough. Turn dough out onto floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes, adding more flour as needed.

Place dough in oiled bowl, turning to coat all over. Cover with clean towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour. Punch dough down and turn out onto floured surface.

Cut dough in half. Pinch one golf-ball-size piece from each half and set aside. Shape large pieces into smooth round loaves. Place each on greased baking sheet. Divide the two small pieces into thirds and roll into knobby bone shapes about 8 inches long. Or pinch off small pieces and shape into teardrops. Beat egg yolk with 1 teaspoon water.

Brush undersides of bones and tears with glaze and attach to loaves. Cover with clean towels and let rise in warm place until doubled, about 45 minutes. Brush entire loaves with more glaze; sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 350 degrees about 30 minutes or until deep golden. Cool on racks. Makes 2 loaves.

Calabaza en tacha(candied pumpkin)

Pumpkin cooked in cinnamon-infused syrup is a typical sweet placed on altars as an offering to the dead. Originally sweetened with honey or the sap of the maguey plant, today it is made with the Mexican sugar piloncillo, but dark brown sugar can be substituted. I like to leave the skin on the pumpkin, but you can peel it if you prefer.

1 pound piloncillo or dark brown sugar (see note)

Juice of 1 orange

3 cinnamon sticks

1 (2- to 2½-pound) pumpkin, about ½ pumpkin, seeded and cut into 2-inch pieces

In large saucepan, combine piloncillo, orange juice, cinnamon and 2 cups water. Bring to a boil. Add pumpkin pieces. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer 2 hours. Uncover and return to boil. Boil until syrup is reduced and slightly thick, about 15 minutes. Serve chilled or at room temperature. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note: Piloncillo, compressed cones of Mexican brown sugar, is available in well-stocked Hispanic sections of many supermarkets.

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