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A Feast for the Living and the Dead: Traditional Day of the Dead Food and Drink

When the squat, fat, brown calabazas begin appearing in the market, you know it’s time for Day of the Dead. Here in Oaxaca, the calabazas — fatter, shorter, green-brown Mexican versions of pumpkins — started appearing about a week ago, alongside blinding orange marigolds (also known as la flor de muertos, the flower of the dead), heaping piles of chocolate, and the characteristic bread of the dead with its rich yellow hue and a little sugar skull on top.

For el día de los muertos, Mexicans are preparing altars, planning fiestas, and most importantly, cooking. The traditional food surrounding día de los muertos tends to be sweet, the kind of indulgent and luxurious treat that would entice a soul to return for a few days to its earthbound home.

The Day of the Dead is actually a 3-day celebration, taking place on October 31, November 1 and November 2, in connection with the All Hallows' Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.

Muertos is all about indulgence, wooing the dead back to their families by way of food. The idea is that families will build altars to their dead relatives, called ofrendas, and decorating these altars with the dishes and drinks that their relatives loved. The deceased are honored with sugar skulls, marigolds (such as in the photo above), and their favorite foods and beverages. Relatives of the departed and visit graves with these as gifts. They also leave possessions of the deceased. The living can also indulge, celebrating the holiday by way of traditional food and drink.

Credit: Laura Lyn Lopez

Not surprisingly, many Day of the Dead recipes revolve around pumpkin. In what might be the most popular Day of the Dead drink, pumpkin flesh is boiled, blended, and then heated with milk, brown sugar, cinnamon, and the slightest dash of pepper or anise to make atole de calabaza, or pumpkin atole. The result is a creamy, comforting fall drink that goes well with tamales and mole, year-round Mexican staples which most Mexicans indulge in around the Day of the Dead holiday.

Dulce de calabaza

Pumpkin is also used to make dulce de calabaza, (often translated as “pumpkin candy”): soft, crystallized pumpkin flesh cooked in brown sugar with slight hints of orange or lime . The process involved in making it can be simple or intensive, depending on how you’d like the end product to turn out. For a hands-off approach, boil the flesh of a whole pumpkin in just enough water to cover it, with either a cup of orange juice or the skin of an orange or mandarin, several cinnamon sticks, a touch of vanilla and several cones of piloncillo, a condensed Mexican version of brown sugar. Let the mixture boil for several hours until the liquid develops a syrupy texture, and then let it cool. With a dash of brown sugar on the top, it’s ready to eat. The intensive version involves soaking the pumpkin overnight in lime water, draining it, washing it, boiling it, coating it with sugar, and baking it.

Pan de Muertos

The most important Day of the Dead food is the pan de muertos or, rather ominously, the bread of the dead. This is a bread that is at once dense and light; it contains the weight of eggs, butter, and sometimes, shortening, but it maintains the flaky, fluffy quality of a good soft roll. The bread is called pan de yema at other times of the year, meaning “yolk bread”; it is made with four or more eggs and has a deep yellow color. What distinguishes pan de muertos from pan de yema is décor; pan de muertos is often shaped into the figure of a skull, and long pieces of the dough are pressed into the top of the bread to resemble bones.

Sugar skulls

Mexicans do not share the same qualms as Americans in playing with and embracing the idea of death, and nowhere is this more evident than during the Day of the Dead. The food, drink, and fiesta are meant not to fend off death but to welcome it; sugar skulls, easily sculpted from a mixture of powdered and granulated sugar, water, and meringue powder, adorn altars where glasses of pulque (a traditional liquor made of fermented corn), photographs, marigolds and the preferred treats of the dead are piled. The effect is one that makes you want to give in to the fiesta, eat a big plate of mole, have a glass, and another, and another, of mezcal, and spend the night in the graveyard dipping pan de muertos in a steaming cup of pumpkin atole.

Dulce de Calabaza

1 medium pumpkin
1 dried mandarin/orange/lime peel
1-3 cinnamon sticks
4 piloncillo cones
sugar to taste


Cut the pumpkin into wedges. You can leave the skin and the seeds or remove them; it's up to you. Traditionally, dulce de calabaza in Mexico is made with the seeds and skin intact.

Leaving them, in my opinion, makes for a more aesthetically appealing wedge of pumpkin, but taking them out won't drastically change the recipe.

Cover the pumpkin with water and set it to boil. Once it begins boiling, add the dried peel of your choice, the piloncillo cones, and the cinnamon sticks. You can add as many sticks as you'd like to increase the cinnamon flavor. I love cinnamon, but if you'd prefer just a hint than maybe you'd choose to add a half-stick here. You can also add a touch of star anise and/or cloves as compliments.

Bring the boil down to a simmer, and stir every 5 to 10 minutes to ensure the pumpkin is absorbing the ingredients.

When the pumpkin has turned a rich brown and the water has taken on a syrupy consistency, the dulce de calabaza is almost finished. When you take it out of the pot, it should be soft and sticky, and the water should be a thick syrup. Leave it to cool for 5 or 10 minutes. You can eat it warm or at room temperature.

Pan de Muertos

5 cups of flour
1 cup of lukewarm water
8 spoonfuls of yeast
5 egg yolks
5 eggs
2 sticks of butter
1 cup of sugar
3 spoonfuls of orange or lemon essence
2 eggs for glazing
A pinch of salt
Sugar for sprinkling on top


Preheat oven to 200ºF.

Mix four spoonfuls of yeast with the cup of lukewarm water. Add a cup and a half of flour and knead until the mixture forms a small ball. Let sit for around 15 minutes or until the ball is double its original size.

Sift flour, sugar and salt. Add eggs, yolks, butter, and orange essence, and knead well.

Add the remaining yeast and the small ball of dough to the egg and butter mixture, and knead well. Set aside for one hour in a lukewarm area.

Knead again and form the bread into loaves of your desired size. Set aside strips of dough to use for decoration.

Beat the two remaining eggs and use them to glaze the loaves. Stick the strips of dough cross-wise atop the loaves, using the eggs as a glaze. Sprinkle with sugar.

Bake for 40 or 50 minutes.

Pumpkin Atole Recipe

1 medium-sized pumpkin
1-2 cups of brown sugar, or 1-2 piloncillo cones
1 quart of milk
cinnamon sticks
pinch of star anise


Cut the pumpkin into wedges and remove the seeds. Boil with cinnamon sticks until soft. Remove the skin if desired. Blend the pumpkin until creamy. Boil it again, this time adding the quart of milk (you can add more or less to make a thinner or thicker atole), the brown sugar (again, you can vary according to your desired level of sweetness) and the pinch of star anise. Boil on low heat until the mixture is thoroughly combined. Serve with a cinnamon stick as a garnish.

Note: This article was originally published on 10/26/10.

To learn more about the Day of the Dead, see Wikipedia's very informative article.

Credit: Laura Lyn Lopez

Views: 7891

Tags: atole, bread, day of the dead, dia de los muertos, feast, food, mexico, recipes


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