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, blogger Nancy Lopez-McHugh shares with us the importance of calabaza en tacha – candied pumpkin – to this treasured holiday.
El Dia de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead, is an important Mexican holiday that is celebrated every 1st and 2nd day of November. This holiday dates back to pre-Hispanic times with roots in Aztec culture, and it is celebrated across Mexico, by many people throughout the Americas and even a few European countries. Though the rituals and celebrations can differ from one place to another, sometimes known by different names, the meaning remains the same — it is a day meant to honor and remember loved ones no longer with us on this Earth.
My family is typical, and like other Mexican families part of our celebration included visiting the graves of our deceased loved ones. I remember joining the many other families making their pilgrimage to the cemetery. The walk among the tombstones revealing colorful decorations of marigold flowers, family mementos, candles, and one might also find an occasional bottle of tequila! Many families also build altars to the dead in their homes, decorated with photographs of the deceased, candies such as traditional sugar skulls, flowers, toys, drinks, breads, and many foods including calabaza. These are called ofrendas, literally, offerings. All of this is done as a way of luring the spirits home for a visit. It is believed that the souls return every year to make sure they haven’t been forgotten.
The Aztecs, like many indigenous people across the world, honored their dead with such food offerings and rituals. Since pre-Hispanic times, these ofrendas have been an indispensable part of the Day of the Dead rituals. One of the foods commonly served is calabaza en tacha or candied pumpkin. Calabaza, along with maíz (corn), frijoles (beans) and chiles, made up the staple diet of the Aztecs, so it really is no wonder that a pumpkin dish is included in the celebrations. The Aztecs used every bit of the calabaza and many dishes known in modern-day Mexican cuisine evolved from these Aztec favorites, with influence from Spanish immigrants. Pumpkins were thus a highly prized Aztec staple, and such prized possessions were always included in ceremonies and festivities. It is one of the nine essential elements that must always be present on a modern-day Dia de los Muertos altar, just as it was for the Aztecs centuries ago. Some would go as far as saying that a Day of the Dead celebration could not be one without calabaza en tacha.
During the Aztec era, the calabaza was sweetened with maguey sap before being placed on the altar alongside other ofrendas. With the arrival of the Spanish, this sweetened pumpkin dish evolved to the calabaza en tacha we know today, and the traditional method used to candy the pumpkin was placing it into caldrons, called tachas, that were used for making sugar. The pumpkin was placed inside the tachas and simmered along with other spices and fruits to become calabaza en tacha. Nowadays we don’t need a special caldron to make candied pumpkin, it can be made right on our stovetops. Modern day recipes vary from family to family and across the many regions of Mexico. We could say that each family adapts the recipe to their liking. That is exactly what I have done, adapted it to my liking.
My recipe is unconventional due to the addition of non-traditional Mexican spices, elimination of some ingredients, and the substitution of a sugar-molasses mix for the piloncillo. We live in a modern age where international flavors and ingredients influence the different cuisines of the world. My recipe is Mexican at it’s roots and, much like the traditional Aztec recipe evolved to incorporate foreign flavors, so too has my own. You will find that the spices permeate the calabaza slices perfectly to create an aromatic and soothing touch to your senses, while the silky creaminess added by the evaporated milk is the perfect compliment to the sweet and tender calabaza. Then, to finish it off with an extra pop of sweet aromatic flavors, comes the drizzling of the syrup over the slices – truly a wonderful treat to not only honor the spirits of our loved ones, but to also enjoy the best of this quintessential fruit of autumn.
Un-Traditional Calabaza En Tacha (Mexican Candied Pumpkin)
1 kilo / 2.2 lb. raw pumpkin slices, seeded only *
2 whole cinnamon sticks
3 cardamom pods, bruised
3 whole cloves
3 whole allspice
pinch of dried citrus zest or zest from a small orange
pinch of salt
2/3 cup / 120 gm brown sugar + 3 tbsp. granulated sugar
1 heaping tablespoon molasses
2 cups / 500 ml water
evaporated milk (Vegans can replace with dairy-free cream)
Notes on sugar and molasses: One piloncillo cone may be used in place of sugar and molasses. This recipe is not overly sweet and so if you have a sweet tooth feel free to add more sugar or piloncillo to the mix.
* Some recipes tell you to cut the pumpkin into squares or chunks. I have chosen to leave it in small even sized wedges.
1. Pour the water into a large pot, then add all the spices, sugar and molasses. Bring to a soft boil. Gently place the pumpkin slices in the pot, the first layer flesh face down and top layer flesh up. Turn heat to medium low and allow to simmer for about 1 hour, or until half the liquid is absorbed and the pumpkin is fork tender. Gently remove the pumpkin from the pan and allow to cool on a large plate. Alternatively it can be placed in the refrigerator to eat the following day. The remaining liquid from the pot will be reduced down even more.
2. Strain the liquid to remove all of the spices from the pot and discard them. Over medium heat, stirring often reduce the liquid to half or until it reaches a thick syrup like consistency. Turn heat off, allow to cool and if not using right away store in the refrigerator.
Once ready to eat, the pumpkin you can served cool or slightly warm. Pour some evaporated milk and syrup over the pumpkin slices. Alternatively this would also taste great served with vanilla ice cream. Enjoy it for breakfast, lunch, snack or dessert. This recipe is also perfect for vegetarians and vegans as the evaporated milk can be replaced with a non-dairy option. ¡Buen provecho!
Nancy Lopez-McHugh blogs about Mexican food at Spicie Foodie, a website devoted to all things delicious and south-of-the-border.