We’re devoting the entire week to the celebration of Día de los Muertos – a Mexican holiday honoring deceased loved ones which has spread throughout the Americas with widespread Mexican migration – and honoring some of the traditional foods prepared in Mexico for the three-day celebration. We’ve asked several Mexican chefs and food bloggers to share with us their favorite recipes central to Dia de los Muertos and today, we’re kicking off our series with a special look at how chefs across the country are making this holiday mainstream with special menus with which to share their culture across the country.
The celebration of Día de los Muertos – known in English as Day of the Dead – sounds gruesome; scary even. But the truth is that this Mexican holiday is a beautiful observance that honors the memories of family members that have passed away. Families go en masse to visit the grave sites of loved ones; elaborate alters to commemorate the dead are decorated with ofrendas (offerings) of sugar skulls, flowers and strands of colorful punched paper (papel picado) while special prayers are conducted for the well-being of deceased souls and a variety of special foods are prepared for relatives to enjoy while gathered at the table.
The holiday – which officially kicks off midnight on Oct. 31 with Día de los Angelitos (a day of remembrance for children) and is followed by All Souls Day on Nov. 2 to rejoice in the memory of deceased adults – dates back to pre-colonialist Mexico when indigenous Aztecs gathered to celebrate children and the dead in a sacred festival devoted to the goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl. Following Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century, attempts to convert the Aztecs to Catholicism resulted in a blending of native custom and the Christian European celebration of All Saint’s Day – what we now know as Día de los Muertos.
And this is definitely one holiday that doesn’t have much to do with American-style Halloween. Skeletons and white sugar skulls aren’t considered scary; they’re playful representations of the dead. Sweet bread – pan de muerto – is decorated with bones, pumpkin is offered up to the deceased on altars and creamy chocolate is molded to resemble coffins.
These dishes and many more favorites are a playful, positive dedication to pleasant times spent with the dearly departed, says Chef Julian Medina, who each year creates a special menu in his Mexican restaurant Toalache, located in the heart of New York City. This year, Medina will be offering chipotle crab-stuffed mini pumpkin, tacos de cabeza (veal cheeks) and sweet breads on his annual Day of the Dead menu. And to end the meal, Medina is serving up pan de muerto bread pudding – a loving homage to his grandfather.
“I always have Pan Dias de Muertos as the dessert for my Day of the Dead menu,” says Medina, who moved to New York City on his own from Mexico City at just 21-year-old. “This dish was my grandfather’s favorite and he no longer is with us, so I feel that by offering this dish, I can celebrate my grandfather’s life.”
Other celebrated Latino chefs – like Roberto Santibañez, the creative genius behind Fonda restaurant in New York City; Sue Torres, whose Sueños restaurant has long been one of the most critically acclaimed Mexican eateries in New York City, Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s in Houston, Texas and Richard Sandoval of Tamayoin Denver, Colorado – are all planning to put authentic Día de los Muertos dishes on their restaurant menus to celebrate the holiday, each using their celebrity and culinary skills to showcase their heritage to diners in a mouth-watering way.
Chef Gilberto Cetina, owner of Chichen Itza Restaurant in South Los Angeles, commemorates the holiday with a very special series of cooking classes devoted to Día de los Muertos dishes special to the Yucatan region. In the Yucatán, families celebrate Day of the Dead in an eight day-long period, after which a family-style tamal called mucbi pollo is presented as the centerpiece of the meal. Made with masa de maiz – corn that sustained the earliest Mayans who lived in the region – the mucbi pollo is a time-honored dish “that takes us back to the ancient traditions of the Maya,” says Chef Cetina.
Straight from chefs Julian Medina and Gilberto Cetina are their special recipes for you to enjoy with family in celebration of Día de los Muertos.
Day of the Dead Bread Pudding
Bread pudding with pumpkin custard and cajeta sauce
For the Pumpkin:
4 mini pumpkins
2 tablespoons butter
Kosher salt to taste
For the Bread Pudding:
8 cups brioche bread (approx. ½ loaf), cut into 1-inch cubes
4 cups milk
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 stick unsalted butter
8 eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups pumpkin pulp
For the Cajeta Sauce:
2 cups milk
3 cups heavy cream
2 cups cajeta
6 egg yolks, lightly beaten
½ cup sugar
For the Pumpkin:
1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
2. For each pumpkin cut a 1-inch hole around the stem and remove the piece, then scoop out the seeds, place a small piece of butter in the pumpkin’s center and season well with salt. Place the pumpkins upright on a sheet pan and roast for 25 minutes, or until the flesh is tender. Let cool completely and then carefully scrape out the flesh as the flesh will be added to the bread pudding mixture.
For the bread pudding:
1. Pre-heat the oven to 325°F degrees.
2. In a large sauce pan, bring the milk, heavy cream, sugar, ground cinnamon, ginger, pumpkin pulp and butter to a boil, then set aside to cool. Once the mixture has returned to room temperature, mix in the eggs and fold in the bread cubes, then divide the mixture evenly among four buttered six-ounce ramekins* and bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Check on the pudding periodically during the bake time and when the top is golden brown the pudding is ready to be removed.
For the sauce:
1. Then place the milk, heavy cream, and cajeta in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Combine the egg yolks and sugar in a separate bowl and whisk together, then add the hot cream mixture while continuing to whisk rapidly. Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over a low flame, stirring the sauce constantly with a wooden spoon until it reaches a medium-thick consistency, it should coat the back of the spoon.
2. Pour the mixture into a small bowl. Fill a larger bowl with ice water and bathed the small bowl in the water to cool the sauce. Strain the sauce into a smaller bowl using a fine colander, and then set aside.
3. To serve, place ramekins on a plate and drizzle with the cinnamon sauce.
* Please note: If you don’t have ramekins, you may substitute a medium-size casserole dish.
Mucbi pollo (Chicken Tamal Pie)
Serves about 6–8
The Filling and Masa (make ahead if possible):
1 recipe caldo de pollo (see recipe below)
1 recipe salsa de achiote para tamales (using reserved broth from pollo asado) (see recipe below)
1 recipe masa para vaporcito (divided) (see recipe below)
Caldo de pollo (Chicken Stock)
Makes about 1 gallon stock
1 1/2 gallon water
6 chicken legs and 6 chicken thighs (with skin and bones) (about 4–6 pounds)
1 head garlic, roasted
1/2 onion, roasted
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns (or 1/3 teaspoon ground black pepper)
1 pinch dried oregano
1 sprig fresh cilantro
1 sprig fresh mint
1–2 tablespoons salt
1. Bring the water to a boil and add the chicken. As it returns to a boil, skim the foam that rises to the top with a slotted spoon and discard.
2. Add the garlic, onion, peppercorns, oregano, cilantro, mint and salt and lower heat to medium and simmer for 30–45 minutes or until the chicken is tender. Remove the chicken and cool.
3. Strain the stock, and reserve to make the salsa de achiote para tamales.
4. When cool enough to handle, shred the chicken by hand—not with a knife. The meat should not be too finely shredded.
5. Make the salsa de achiote para tamales as instructed below using the reserved stock.
Salsa de achiote para tamales (Achiote Sauce for Tamales)
Makes about 1 gallon
4 quarts caldo de pollo (chicken stock, see recipe above) (divided)
1 ounce (1 1/2 tablespoons) recado rojo (see recipe)
6 plum tomatoes, quartered (about 1 1/2–2 cups)
4 sprigs epazote
8 ounces masa de maíz para tortillas (see Glossary)
Salt, to taste
1. Pour 3 quarts the caldo de pollo into a large stockpot. Take 1 cup of that stock and liquefy it with the recado rojo. Bring stock to a boil and strain the liquefied recado rojo into the pot.
2. Add the tomatoes and epazote to the boiling stock. Reduce heat and let simmer uncovered until the tomatoes easily break apart.
3. In the remaining 1 quart stock, liquefy the masa de maíz para tortillas.
4. Stirring constantly, slowly pour the liquefied masa into the stockpot. Simmer and stir the sauce until it is thicker than gravy. You may not have to use all of the liquefied masa. Adjust salt.
5. Mix the shredded chicken with the salsa de achiote para tamales. This is the filling for the mucbi pollo.
Masa para vaporcito (corn dough for vaporcito tamales and other tamales)
For about 15 tamales
2 pounds masa de maíz para tortillas (corn dough for tortillas)
10 ounces lard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Mix the corn dough, lard, salt and enough water to make a dough that is smooth, soft and pliable. You do not want a masa that is watery. Cover with plastic wrap or moist cloth so it does not get dry, and set aside.
To Assemble the Mucbi Pollo:
Banana leaves, thawed if frozen or prepared if fresh
Masa para vaporcito, as instructed above (divided)
Filling, as instructed above
1–2 plum tomatoes, sliced
2–3 hard-cooked eggs, sliced
10–15 fresh epazote leaves
1 chile habanero, sliced (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 500°F.
2. Line a 12” x 10” baking dish with banana leaves with enough extra to fold over and cover the mucbi pollo once the dish is filled.
3. Take 1 1/2 pounds of the masa and press onto the bottom and up the sides of the banana-leaf-lined baking dish.
4. Spread the filling (shredded chicken mixed with the salsa) on top of the masa in the baking dish.
5. Follow with a layer of the sliced tomatoes, a layer of sliced hard-cooked eggs, and a layer of the epazote leaves. Add the chile habanero, if desired.
6. Take the remaining 1/2 pound of masa, place between 2 pieces of plastic wrap, and spread or roll out the masa to a 12” x 10” rectangle. Peel off the top piece of plastic wrap and flip the masa carefully on top of the “casserole.” Remove the remaining plastic wrap, and seal the edges of the masa completely.
7. Top with a large piece of banana leaf and fold over the ends of the leaves that you had left hanging over when you originally lined the baking dish. The leaves should cover the “tamal” completely.
8. Bake the mucbi pollo at 500°F for 2 hours, or until it comes out crispy and toasty on top and along the edges.