This is now the annual post for this holiday. The image is one I took during a trip to Oaxaca during this festival period three years ago. These handmade items are ornaments for the ritual bread made during this time. It’s also the most requested image via Google Images. I’m certain that my photograph is being re-appropriated from here to Mexico. Good spirit karma, perhaps.
Last year during my two week visit to Oaxaca for Día de Los Muertos the aroma of sweet bread gently woke me during my stay in Oaxaca City. The inn’s neighbor was one of the largest family bakeries specializing in pan de muertos.
Día de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is celebrated throughout Mexico on Nov. 1st and 2nd, with some activities beginning on the evening of Oct. 31. The first evening, (Nov. 1) is for remembering los angelitos (children) who have died; the second evening is dedicated to honoring adults.
According to Chloe Sayer, author of The Mexican Day of the Dead, the festival period is a confluence of the “conquest of what is now Mexico by the Spanish in the early sixteenth century fused” with “the Aztec idea that life is but a momentary dream and the medieval European notion of death as the great equalizer, stripping the vanities and pretensions of rich and poor alike.” I think it’s a wonderful celebration of life, food and an experience that everyone should have at least once in their lifetime.
Día de Los Muertos is what happens when a conquering people show up after 1,000 years of cultural ritual. Accommodations were required for the new house guests stuck on staying. It’s a complex mix of indigenous pre-Hispanic spiritualism and Roman Catholicism which was adopted after the Spanish conquest. Today it still is a celebratory and honored time throughout Mexico and in some parts of California and Arizona. I would also say one vast difference between the two holidays is that the Anglo-Saxon holiday of Halloween is all about the scary aspect of the dead and in Mexico the dead are remembered and their lives celebrated.
The influence of traditional Aztec beliefs of death and afterlife, can be seen everywhere during this time. Each region of Mexico has it’s own cultural practices. The state of Oaxaca (wha-HAH-kah) is one of the most popular destinations due to it’s rich traditions around the period. I’d like to think it’s because of the connection of the food, family, friends and tradition. It probably has more to do with Oaxaca’s central geography in Mexico leaving it to be a bit more rural and as a result less apt to be influence by outside influences.
Unfortunately, it was a bit disappointing to me while in Oaxaca to see the influence of the Halloween holiday—and not in a positive way. According to some reports this holiday was first celebrated in the late 1960s but became even more of a presence in the 1980s and particularly in the 1990s, after Mexico joined the United States and Canada in NAFTA.
The Aztecs believed that strong scents could lure the dead back to the land of the living and as a result strong scent of copal incense is used to help spirits find their way to this world. It hangs heavy in the air where ever you go–graveyards, markets, and homes–where ever there’s an altar. Flowers adorning altars and tombstones symbolize the shortness of life. The traditional flower is the zempoalxochitl (literally "twenty flowers" in the Nahuatl language but commonly known as "the flower of the dead"), a type of marigold. Arranged on the altar they may also be found sprinkled from the dead’s gravesite to the home, creating a pathway. The pungent scent also helps the guide the souls.
During this time many Mexicans participate in masked processions, and build elaborate home altars covered with marigolds, candles, and photos. Ofrendas (offerings) of the deceased’s favorite food and drink are put out. Families stay up all night awaiting the arrival of the masked muertos who arrive with a small brass band to raise the dead through dancing and a lot of mescal drinking along the way.
Along with remembrances and prayers for the deceased, it’s also a time of rejoicing, a reunion for living family members who have come from afar and for those deceased, who presumably have traveled even farther.
Food traditions surrounding Día de las Muertos include bringing food and liquor to graveyard picnics, some bring along entire BBQ grills; placing photos of deceased loved ones, candles, incense, candied skulls and religious symbols on the tombstone and also on home altars.
Food and beverage offerings differ for children and adult spirits. Children are provided with fruits, tamales and sweets such as calaveritas de azúcar, candy and dulce de calabaza, or even a small pan de muerto. Beverages may include chocolate, atole and yes, even soft drinks.
Food offerings for adults tend to be spicier. Favorites are chicken or turkey mole, tamales, enchiladas or other foods the deceased was particularly fond of. Beverages include alcoholic mescal, pulque, beer, chocolate and coffee.
Water is always offered, on the altar, after all wouldn’t you be thirsty after a long trip?
One of the most important and commonly found foods during this time is the pan de muertos, (bread of the dead) a must as an ofrendas, at the cemetery or home altars. This sweet Mexican egg bread is baked beginning from mid-October to mid-November, specifically to celebrate the Day of the Dead.
The loaves of bread, weighing any where from 1 to 2 pounds, are shaped into large circular hojaldra (puffed bread). These are then decorated with bone-shaped pieces of the bread dough called huesitos (little bones). The bones are said to symbolize perpetual life. In some parts of Mexico the bread is decorated with sesame seeds; in Mexico City sugar is sprinkled on top.
Villagers in the more rural areas outside of Oaxaca City, will often bring a large sack of flour, dozens of eggs and the other necessary ingredients including embellishments, usually ovals with various faces painted on them (picture above), and take it all to the local baker for preparation and baking. Each loaf is said to represent an individual soul.
Now for the good and bad news. This bread is addictive. That’s the good news. It’s also labor intensive. Bad news. The upside is that this recipe makes enough to satiate the obsessed. The last time I made it I was visiting my friends Samantha and Chris in Denver. I met them during the culinary tour of Oaxaca. Chris was always looking for this bread in Oaxaca. So it’s probably wise that his wife is a master at this recipe. She made it look simple. Between three of us we ate two large loaves in a 12-hour period. Chris is a King of Moles. He’ll be here tomorrow as guest writer.
What I like to do is serve it with a bowl of strong, frothy agua de chocolate so that I can dip the soft pieces of bread into the chocolate.
PAN DE MUERTOS
Excerpted from My Mexican Kitchen by Diana Kennedy
The starter can be made ahead or the day before. (Any leftover can be frozen but is best used right away.) In fact, the final mixture can be kneaded and then left overnight in the refrigerator – which I do to help it develop a better flavor – and brought up to room temperature before forming an the final rising.
Yield: 1 large bread, about 11 inches in diameter, or three small ones
1 pound (roughly 4 cups) unbleached flour, plus extra for bowl and working surface
1 ¼ teaspoons sea salt, finely ground
2 ounces (1/3 cup) sugar
Scant 1 ounce (3 scant Tablespoons) crumbled cake yeast or 1½ scant Tablespoons
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons water
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
Put the flour, salt, sugar and yeast into a mixing bowl and gradually beat in the water and eggs. Continue beating until the dough forms a cohesive mass around the dough hook; it should be sticky, elastic and shiny about 5 minutes. Turn the formed dough onto a floured board and form into a round shape. Butter and flour a clean bowl. Place the dough in it and cover with greased plastic wrap and a towel and set aside in a warm place – ideally 70°F – until the dough doubles in volume, about 2 hours.
The Starter torn into small pieces
8 ounces (1 cup) sugar
7 ounces (14 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing baking sheets
1 pound unbleached flour, plus extra for board and bowl
8 egg yolks, lightly beaten with 2 Tablespoons water
¼ cup water, approximately
1 teaspoon orange flower water and/or grated rind of 1 orange
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
¼ cup melted unsalted butter, approximately
1/3 cup sugar, approximately
Liberally grease 4 baking sheets (for both breads while proofing).
Put the starter, sugar and butter into a mixing bowl and mix well, gradually beating in the flour and egg yolks alternately. Beat in the water and flavoring, you should have slightly sticky, smooth, shiny dough that just holds its shape (since eggs, flours and climates differ, you may need to reduce or increase the liquid). Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and form into a round cushion shape.
Wash out mixing bowl, butter and flour it, and replace the dough in it. Cover with greased plastic wrap and a towel and set aside in a warm place – ideally about 70°F – for about 1½ hours, until it almost doubles in size, or set aside overnight in the bottom of the refrigerator.
Bring the dough up to room temperature before attempting to work with it. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and divide the dough into two equal pieces. Set one aside for forming later. Take three quarters of the dough and roll it into a smooth ball. Press it out to a circle about 8 inches in diameter – it should be about 1-inch thick. Press all around the edge to form a narrow ridge – like the brim of a hat – and transfer to one of the greased baking sheets. Cover loosely with greased plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place (about 70°F) to rise about half its size – about 1 hour. Taking the remaining one-quarter of the dough, divide it into four equal parts. Roll one of the parts into a smooth ball. Roll the other 3 strips about 8 inches long, forming knobs as you go for the "bones." Transfer the four pieces to another greased tray, cover loosely with greased plastic wrap, and set aside to rise for about 1 hour.
Repeat these steps to form the second bread with the other piece of dough that was set aside. Heat oven to 375°F.
At the end of the rising period, carefully place the strips of dough forming the "bones" across the main part of the bread, place the round ball in the middle to form the "skull," and press your finger in hard to form the eye sockets. Brush the surface of the dough well with the beaten yolks and bake at the top of the oven until well browned and springy – about 15 to 20 minutes. Turn off the oven, open the door, and let the bread sit there for about 5 minutes more. Remove from the oven, brush with melted butter, and sprinkle well with sugar.