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Dia de los Muertos

November first and second are a joyous time in Mexico.

The Day of the Dead is celebrated without tears, for tears can make the return path way a slippery one. These two days are the time when the souls of the departed return to join their family and friends. All the souls, whether they are in heaven, hell or purgatory return to Earth.

The two day tradition dates back to Aztec civilization. The same two days are also two Catholic holy days, All Saints' and All Souls' days. In Mexican culture, it isn't uncommon for ancient folklore and the customs of the Spanish Conquistadors to combine. The Aztecs believed that death was merely a porthole to another existence. Families pay homage to their dead, they are welcomed back with respect and reverence. The first day is reserved for the children. On the second day, the adults are remembered. Almost everywhere you look, you can find both young and old, living and dead, sharing round loaves of bread, dusted with colored sugar.

Preparing the graves and altar includes the entire family. Every site is decorated with the deceased personal items, favorite foods and drinks. Flowers such as Marigolds and chrysanthemums, along with candles are placed on the graves to help guide souls home. Stories, featuring the dead, are told and a bell is rung periodically through the night to summon spirits.

Statues, candies, breads and other gifts that are known to please the dead begin to fill the market places weeks in advance. The Day of the Dead is one of the most important holidays, one were the Dead are full of Life. Miniature Skeletons are dressed like punk rockers, or put on the end of rods to dance wildly. Papier maché skulls don flowers and bows. Skeletons, red devils and skulls are displayed playing happily.

Throughout the open markets, you will see sugar skulls stacked in huge pyramids. These are gifts, tokens of love that are both to be eaten and adorn home altars and grave sights. Pan de Muerto is a sweetbread baked expressly for this holiday. Bread and sugar help the dead on their journey to the next level. Food plays an important part in the celebration, though the edibles do vary from region to region. Time is taken to prepare the best foods, things like moles, marzipan, tamales, Calabaza en tacha, as well as the pan de muerto and sugar skulls. You can also find traditional liquors like mescal and pulque.

The Day of the Dead is not meant to be scary, it is meant to be fun. We need to remember our loved ones, and all the souls of the past. If you are planning a Día de los Muertos celebration, decorate your home with plenty of merry skeletons and laughing skulls. Bring out only the finest ingredients to honor your loved ones, write your name and your family and friends names, weather they are living or deceased, onto the sugar skulls. And most of all enjoy the holiday with both the living and dead.

Sugar Skull Cookies

You must keep the dough chilled at all times to be able to work with it, try using dental floss to cut your dough, knives tend to smash the dough.

For the Vanilla dough 
2 cups all purpose flour1/2 tsp baking powder 
1/4 tsp salt8 Tbs (1 stick) butter, softened 
1 egg1 1/2 vanilla extract 
For the chocolate dough 
1 cup all purpose flour1½ cups unsweetened cocoa powder, Dutch process 
1/2 teaspoon baking soda1/4 tsp baking powder 
1/8 tsp salt8 Tbs (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened 
1/2 cup (packed) brown sugar, lump free1/2 cup granulated sugar 
1 egg1 tsp vanilla extract 

To make vanilla dough

Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together, and set aside.

Beat the butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer until fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Beat in egg and vanilla. On the lowest speed, beat in the flour, until just combined. Roll dough into a log about 2 inches in diameter and place in refrigerator.

The chocolate dough

Whisk the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together thoroughly and set aside.

Beat the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer until smooth and creamy, not fluffy, 1 minute. Beat in egg and vanilla. On the lowest speed, beat in the flour concoction and mix just until just combined. Form dough into a log the same length as the vanilla log is. Place in freezer if dough is too sticky, it will firm up faster this way.

The skulls

Reshape the round logs by making one side narrow - chin and jaw - and leave the other side wide - cranium. Wrap chocolate dough in wax paper and refrigerate.

Using a long handled wooden spoon, poke holes through the entire length of the vanilla dough. Use a skewer, to poke two holes for nostrils. Insert a narrow table knife and wiggle it back and forth to make the mouth. Irregular holes give the skull character, so don't worry about perfection. Wrap the vanilla dough in wax paper and place in fridge. Do not do the same thing with the chocolate dough. Leave both rolls in the fridge overnight.

Place oven racks in the upper and lower third of the oven. Preheat to 350° F. Cut the chocolate dough first, into 1/8-inch slices and place them at least 1½ inches apart on parchment lined baking sheets. Cut the vanilla dough, 1/8-inch slices. Place one slice on top of one chocolate slice; you might need to reform the faces once you've cut them.

Bake until a pale golden on edges, 12 minutes. Rotate the baking sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through the baking. Remove from oven and let cool for 2 minutes before transferring them onto a cooling rack. Cool completely before stacking or the might stick.

Cookies can keep up to 1 week in an air-tight container. Use royal icing to make flowers in the eye sockets or other personalized decorations. You can use the gels to write names on them.

Royal icing recipe

This icing is for the skulls.

2/3 cup water½ cup meringue powder
2 lb powdered sugar 

Mix with an electric mixer until icing peaks, about 9 minutes.

Keep in a tightly covered container. DO NOT REFRIGERATE. Royal icing is a cement type icing. You can shape marzipan and use this to "glue" it onto the cookie. Use ONLY concentrated paste food colorings -NOT liquid food- and mix icing & paste colors in disposable cups. You will need a least 7 colors.


8 oz almond paste2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup corn syrup3 drops any color food coloring

Break the almond paste into small pieces into a medium sized bowl. Add 1 cup of the sugar, work it in with your hands until incorporated and crumbly. Add another 3/4 cup of confections' sugar, still using hands, and work in very well. Pour in corn syrup, and work it in until evenly mixed. Pour out the remaining sugar on a clean work surface, and knead the dough until smooth; between 3 to 5 minutes. If it is too sticky, knead in more sugar. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for about an hour. It should have the consistency of modeling dough.

Break off small pieces of marzipan to color; knead until you achieve the desired color. Knead the small piece into a larger piece. Dust a work surface and rolling pin with more confectioners' sugar, and roll out to 1/4 inch thickness. Cut into shapes using small cookie cutters.

Calabaza en tacha recipe

1 pumpkin, 4 to 5 lb approx.8 cinnamon sticks
1 orange, juiced4 cups water
2 lbs Piloncillo (brown sugar or raw sugar) 

You will need to cut the pumpkin into 2½ - 3 inch squares. Remove the strings and seeds. Using a sharp knife, make diamond shaped into the pulp.

In a large pan, bring to a boil the water orange juice, sugar and cinnamon. Stir until the sugar (piloncillo) has dissolved.

Lay down a single layer of pumpkin pieces, meat side down. Then lay a second layer, meat side up, over top. Cover and allow simmering until glazed; the pulp will be soft and a golden brown.

Allow to cool and serve with syrup.

Pan de muerto (bread of the dead)

½ cup butterfrac12; cup milk
½ cup water5 to 5½ cups flour
2 packages dry yeast1 tsp salt
1 tablespoon whole aniseed½ cup sugar
4 eggs 

Over medium flame, heat the butter, milk and water in a sauce pan until very warm, not boiling. In the meantime, measure out 1-1/2 cups flour, setting the rest aside. Combine the 1-1/2 cups flour, yeast, anise seed, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Beat in the warm milk mix until well combined. Add eggs and beat in another 1 cup of flour. Keep adding more flour until dough is soft and not sticky. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead for about ten minutes until smooth and elastic.

Lightly grease a bowl, place dough in it, and cover with plastic wrap. Allow it to rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1½ hours. Punch the dough down, then shape into loaves resembling skulls, skeletons or round loaves with "bones" placed ornamentally around the top. Allow loaves to rise for 1 hour.

Preheated oven to 350°F degree and bake for 40 minutes. Remove from oven and paint on the glaze.


½ cup sugar1/3 cup fresh orange juice
2 Tbs grated orange zest 

Boil for 2 minutes; apply to bread with a pastry brush. You can sprinkle on colored sugar while glaze is still damp.


12 guajillo chilies, roasted, skinned, stemmed and seeded3 tomatoes, roasted and peeled
1/4 cup lard1 onion, peeled and sliced
8 garlic cloves1 stick of cinnamon torn into small pieces
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano1/4 cup unsalted peanuts or unsweetened peanut butter
1 clove1/4 cup masa
1 tsp cocoa powder1/4 tsp thyme
1/4 tsp aniseed1/4 cup raisins, soaked in water to soften (optional)
3 peppercorns4 cups chicken broth

Melt the lard in a large saucepan. Add onions and garlic, cook until translucent.

Puree the peanuts in a blender and then add in the oregano, anise, peppercorns, cinnamon, thyme and cloves and blend with the tomatoes. Puree all to make a smooth paste. Throw in the onions and garlic and puree once more. Finally, add chilies to blender and puree until smooth.

Place the chicken broth into a pot and add the pureed ingredients. Make a roux; mixing the masa with 1/4 cup of the chicken broth. Whisk the roux into the broth until smooth. Add the pureed ingredients, cover and simmer. After 1 hour uncover and simmer until sauce has thickened.


Serves: 20

2 lb lard2 lbs corn flour (white corn Mexican)
4 chicken breasts, chopped into bite sized pieces5 jalapenos
½ onion8 small green tomatoes or 3 red tomatoes
20 corn husks, dry1 Tbs chopped parsley


Beat the lard until it gets soft, and fluffy. Add the corn flour, and continue beating until incorporated.

Put the jalapenos, onion, tomatoes, salt, and parsley into a blender. Add a little water, make a salsa.

In a separate pot, and a little water and the chicken, bring to a boil.

Using a large spoon, scoop up the lard mix and spread it out onto the dried corn leaves, then add a spoon full of salsa, then one piece of chicken. Wrap the husk so that the lard mix seals around the chicken and salsa. Repeat.

In an oversized pot, or Dutch oven, steam the filled corn husks. Allow to cook until the tamale is no longer fluffy, it will be solid to the touch.

Before eating, remove the corn husks, do not eat them.

Traditional food and drink

Bread of the dead - A sweet bread sprinkled with sugar and often flavored with anise or orange.

Sugar skulls - Skulls made of sugar, chocolate or amaranth, often decorated with bright colors and names of the deceased.

Tamales - Although they are eaten all year round, tamales are a common dish in offerings.

Mole - A dish made with a variety of ingredients, including chili peppers and chocolate, served with meat and rice.

Atole - A hot, thick drink made from corn dough and often flavored with vanilla or chocolate.

Masa - Spanish word for dough. In Mexico, masa refers to the traditional dough to make corn tortillas. It is made from dried corn kernels cooked in limewater (water with calcium oxide.)

Masa harina - literally, dough flour, would be flour made from dried masa.

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