The Mexican celebration known as Dia de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead—celebrates and honours departed loved ones. Families prepare unique dishes and offerings to put on altars (ofrendas) to remember and honour the spirits of the deceased; therefore, food plays a big part in this festival. Here are eight of the most well-known Day of the Dead recipes, along with a brief explanation of the culinary features of this celebration.
1. Pan de Muerto
One of the most recognizable Day of the Dead dishes is this sweet, egg-based bread (known as Bread of the Dead). It frequently has a round loaf shape with “bones” on top to symbolize the deceased. Orange blossom water, zest, and sugar are used to flavour the bread.
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 packet of active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm milk
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
Zest of 1 orange
1 teaspoon orange blossom water (optional)
Sugar for sprinkling
Warm milk and yeast should be combined in a small bowl. To make it foamy, give it 10 minutes to sit.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt, and orange zest.
Add the yeast mixture, melted butter, eggs, and orange blossom water (if using) to the dry ingredients. Mix until a dough forms.
Knead the dough on a floured surface for about 10 minutes until it becomes smooth and elastic.
Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover it with a damp cloth, and let it rise in a warm place for 1-2 hours, or until it doubles in size.
Preheat your oven to 350°F (175°C).
Divide the dough into portions to form skull and bone shapes. Arrange them on a baking sheet.
Bake the bread for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown. While still warm, brush the bread with melted butter and sprinkle sugar on top.
2. Calaveras de Azúcar (Sugar Skulls)
Sugar skulls are an essential part of Day of the Dead celebrations, even though they are not a traditional food to eat. The names of departed family members are frequently engraved on them, and they are ornately covered with colourful icing.
Sugar skull moulds
Food colouring (optional)
In a bowl, mix together granulated sugar and meringue powder in a ratio of about 3:1 (sugar to meringue powder).
Add a small amount of water and mix until the sugar mixture reaches a dough-like consistency.
Divide the mixture and add food colouring if desired to create various skull colours.
Press the sugar mixture into the skull moulds, packing them firmly.
Let the skulls dry for several hours or overnight until they harden.
Decorate the skulls with royal icing or coloured icing pens.
Using ingredients like chocolate, chili peppers, spices, and occasionally even fruit, mole creates a thick, savoury sauce. It’s a favourite meal on this occasion and is often served over chicken or turkey.
4-5 dried ancho chilis
2-3 dried pasilla chilis
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup almonds
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
4 cloves garlic
1/2 onion, chopped
2-3 tomatillos, husked
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 tablet Mexican chocolate (about 2 ounces)
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Salt to taste
Sugar to taste (optional)
Toast the dried chillies, sesame seeds, almonds, raisins, and cocoa powder in a dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant. Remove from heat and set aside.
In the same skillet, toast the garlic, onion, and tomatillos until slightly charred.
Place the toasted ingredients in a blender along with the spices, Mexican chocolate, and a cup of broth. Blend until smooth.
Heat the vegetable oil in a large pot, then add the blended mixture and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for about 10 minutes.
Gradually add the remaining broth, stirring to combine.
Simmer the mole over low heat for about an hour, stirring occasionally. Add salt and sugar to taste.
Serve the mole sauce over cooked chicken or turkey.
4. Tamales (Chicken Tamales)
Tamales are stuffed with different ingredients, such as meat, cheese, veggies, or chili sauce, and are made from masa (corn dough). They are steamed after being wrapped in corn husks, making them a delectable and transportable treat for Day of the Dead celebrations.
2 cups masa harina
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups shredded cooked chicken
1 cup red or green salsa
Corn husks, soaked in warm water
In a large mixing bowl, combine masa harina, chicken broth, vegetable oil, baking powder, and salt. Mix until it forms a dough.
Take a soaked corn husk, spread a spoonful of masa dough on it, and add a spoonful of shredded chicken and salsa in the centre.
Fold the sides of the husk over the filling and fold up the bottom. Secure with kitchen twine.
Steam the tamales for 1 to 1.5 hours until the masa is cooked and no longer sticks to the husk.
Masa (corn dough), water or milk, and sweeteners like cinnamon and vanilla are the ingredients of atole, a warm, thick, and creamy Mexican drink. It is often served with pan de muerto.
1 cup masa harina
4 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
In a mixing bowl, combine masa harina with 1 cup of milk to form a smooth paste.
In a saucepan, heat the remaining milk with the cinnamon stick and salt over medium heat.
Once the milk is hot, whisk in the masa harina paste and sugar.
Cook the mixture while stirring continuously until the required consistency is reached.
Remove from heat, discard the cinnamon stick, and stir in vanilla extract.
Hominy, which is dried maize treated with an alkali solution, meat (usually pork or chicken), and a savoury broth are the main ingredients in the hearty Mexican soup or stew known as pozole. Ingredients like lime, radishes, and chopped cabbage are used as garnishes.
2 cups dried hominy (posole)
1 pound pork shoulder, cut into cubes
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 dried ancho chilis
2 dried guajillo chilis
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
Toppings: shredded cabbage, radishes, lime wedges
Rinse the dried hominy and soak it overnight in water.
In a large pot, combine the soaked hominy, pork, onion, garlic, dried chilis (stemmed and seeded), cumin, oregano, salt, and pepper. Cover with water and simmer for 3–4 hours until the hominy and pork are tender.
Remove the dried chilis, puree them with a little water, and add the puree back to the pot to thicken the broth.
Serve hot with shredded cabbage, sliced radishes, and lime wedges as toppings.
7. Candied Pumpkin (Calabaza en Tacha)
Slices of pumpkin are cooked slowly in a syrup that is sweetened with cinnamon and cloves and prepared from piloncillo (unrefined sugar cones). It’s a dish that is sweet and fragrant.
1 small pumpkin, peeled and cut into chunks
2 piloncillo cones (or 1 cup brown sugar)
4 cinnamon sticks
2 cups water
In a large pot, combine the pumpkin chunks, piloncillo cones (or brown sugar), cinnamon sticks, cloves, and water.
Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar or piloncillo.
When the mixture reaches a boil, turn down the heat and allow it to simmer. Cover the pot and allow it to cook gently for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the pumpkin becomes tender and translucent and the syrup thickens. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
Remove the pot from the heat and let the candied pumpkin cool to room temperature in the syrup. The pumpkin will absorb the delicious flavours of cinnamon and cloves as it cools.
Once cooled, you can transfer the candied pumpkin and syrup to a serving dish or container. It’s traditionally served at room temperature or even chilled.
Serve your Calabaza en Tacha as a sweet and fragrant dessert, often enjoyed during Day of the Dead celebrations.
Enjoy your homemade candied pumpkin as a delightful and traditional treat for this special occasion!
8. Tres Leches Cake
Tres Leches Cake is not exclusively associated with the Day of the Dead, but it is a well-liked sweet in Mexican cuisine. It is a sponge cake that has been covered in whipped cream and covered with a mixture of three different kinds of milk (thus the name “tres leches”).
For the cake
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 large eggs, separated
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
1/3 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat your oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease and flour a 9×13-inch baking pan.
In a mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
In another bowl, beat the egg yolks with 3/4 cup of the granulated sugar until they are pale and creamy. Stir in the milk and vanilla extract.
Gradually add the dry ingredients to the egg yolk mixture and mix until well combined.
In a separate clean and dry bowl, beat the egg whites with the remaining 1/4 cup of granulated sugar until stiff peaks form.
Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the cake batter until fully incorporated, being careful not to deflate the egg whites.
Pour the cake batter into the pan, smoothing the top.
Bake in the preheated oven for about 25–30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean and the cake is golden brown.
For the Three Milks Mixture (Tres Leches)
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk
1 cup whole milk
In a bowl, combine the sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and whole milk. Mix well.
Assembling the cake:
Once the cake is out of the oven and while it’s still warm, use a fork or skewer to poke holes all over the surface of the cake. This will allow the three milks mixture to soak in.
Slowly pour the three milk mixtures over the cake, making sure it gets evenly absorbed. You may not use all of the mixture; it depends on how much the cake can absorb.
Cover the cake with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 2 hours, or preferably overnight, to allow the cake to soak up the milk.
For the Whipped Cream Topping
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Just before serving, whip the heavy cream with powdered sugar and vanilla extract until stiff peaks form. Spread the whipped cream over the chilled cake.
You can garnish the Tres Leches Cake with a sprinkle of cinnamon or cocoa powder for added flavour and decoration.
Slice and serve your Tres Leches Cake chilled. Enjoy this moist and decadent dessert!
Tres Leches Cake is a delightful treat, and the combination of the three milks gives it a wonderfully creamy texture. It’s a popular dessert in many Latin American cuisines and is sure to be a hit at any celebration.
In conclusion, the Day of the Dead, also known as Dia de los Muertos, is a beautiful and significant event in Mexican culture that honours loved ones who have died. The significant role that food plays in remembering and honouring the deceased is at the heart of this custom. Traditional foods like Pan de Muerto, Mole, Tamales, and Calabaza en Tacha are offered as symbolic acts of love and remembering that unite families and communities in a common display of respect and dedication.
Food acts as a link between the living and the dead, nourishing both the physical and spiritual selves. A sense of continuity and solidarity between generations is created by the colourful ofrendas (altars) adorned with these culinary treats as a focal point for gathering, storytelling, and reflection.
The Day of the Dead serves as a reminder that we can honour the lives of our loved ones while preserving their memories and spirits through the power of cuisine and tradition. It serves as a reminder of the continuing value of culture, community, and the relationship between the past and present.
Check out more about the Day of the Dead here.