Treat yourself and the dearly departed for Dìa de los Muertos
By Amy Dalness
“Stick a fork in me! I’m full.”
Oct. 31 is a night of youthful celebration. In the United States, children scour their neighborhoods for mini-candy bars and bubble gum in silly costumes, and adults take a nostalgic journey into the world of make believe. In Mexico, the country celebrates the life of youth already departed during Young Souls Day—day one of Dìa de los Muertos, held the first week in November each year.
Here in New Mexico, we’re blessed with diverse cultures that allow us to celebrate both holidays. Once the witch costumes and cobwebs have been packed away, areas of Albuquerque are adorned with traditional decorations in celebration of the dead. Altars, parades, markets and performances--all to honor those gone but not forgotten.
As with all great fiestas, food plays a major role during this holiday. In remembrance of deceased loved ones, family members might place their uncle’s favorite horchata drink or their grandmother’s famous chicken with mole sauce--made from her own recipe of chiles, garlic, chocolate and seeds--on altars for their souls to enjoy while visiting on All Souls Day (which always falls on Nov. 2). Traditional Dìa de los Muertos bread, pan de muerto, is baked with a topping of dough made to look like bones. Then it's broken between family members as they remember the departed. Sweet treats such as sugar skulls, flan and calabaza en tacha are traditional desserts served during Dìa de los Muertos for both the living and the dead. These wonderful treats are easy to make and add a special flare to the festivities—as do the colorful decorations shown here courtesy of ¡Que Chula! Salsa Style for Your Home (1427 Carlisle NE, 255-0515).
Remember your tio with his favorite flan.
Flan is one of the most well-known and loved traditional Mexican desserts. This surprisingly simple recipe makes a sweet, eggy custard topped with caramel sauce. While making the caramel, be sure to cook it long enough to get a thick, amber-colored sauce—it takes a little time and patience, but it’s worth it. Also, if you don’t have an egg yolk separator, an easy trick is to crack the egg over a small bowl, keeping the yolk in one half and then pass the yolk between shell halves until the whites all fall away into the bowl.
Makes 4 8-ounce servings
3/4 cups sugar
1/3 cup water
3 large eggs
5 large egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
2 2/3 cups milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Water to fill baking dish
For the Caramel Topping1) Place 4 8-ounce ramekins in a 2-inch-deep baking pan, spacing them at least a half-inch away from each other. 2) Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan. Place pan over a medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and stir until it becomes a thick, amber-colored syrup.4) Quickly pour enough syrup into each of the ramekins to cover the bottom. Discard any excess.For the Flan1) Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees, with the rack placed in the middle position.2) In a large bowl, whisk eggs and egg yolks together.3) In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar and milk over a medium heat and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat. Slowly whisk into the eggs.4) Stir in the vanilla and strain through a fine-mesh sieve into another large bowl. Divide mixture evenly among the 4 caramel-coated ramekins.5) Pour water into the baking pan until it comes 2/3 up the sides of the ramekins. Carefully slide the baking dish onto the center rack of the oven. Bake for 60 to 70 minutes.6) Remove flan from the oven and let sit in the water bath for about 1 hour, or until completely set. Remove flan from the baking pan and chill in the refrigerator for 2 hours.7) When ready to serve, run a small knife around the inside edge of the ramekins to release the flan. Turn the ramekins over onto a serving dish and enjoy.
Calaveras de azucar are perhaps the most recognizable food item from Dìa de los Muertos. These fun confections are placed on altars as "food," exchanged as gifts or just used for general decoration. Molds are available in small, medium or large sizes at various Mexican and food supply stores, such as the Specialty Shop (5823 Lomas NE, 266-1212). This recipe is adapted from www.mexicansugarskull.com.
Makes 5 to 100 skulls, depending on mold size
10 cups sugar
1/4 cup meringue powder
3 tablespoons water
2/3 cup water
1/2 cup meringue powder
2 pounds powdered sugar
Concentrated food coloring pastes in a variety of colors
For the Sugar Skulls1) Using your hands, combine the sugar, meringue powder and water in a large bowl until moistened. Squeeze the mixture in your hand: If your fingerprints leave an impression, it's ready. If the mixture does not hold together, add a small amount of water (start with 1 teaspoon), mix together with your hands and repeat the squeeze test until desired consistency is reached.2) Firmly pack sugar mixture into the skull mold. (Large molds often have 2 halves, small and medium molds usually only require 1.) Once the mold is filled, use a straight edge (such as a knife or cardboard square) to flatten and scrape off any excess sugar. Pack down some more sugar until the mold is as tightly packed as possible.3) Place a stiff cardboard square (approximately 5-by-5 inches) over the mold and invert to release the sugar skull.4) Repeat steps 3 and 4 for desired number of sugar skulls. If the sugar mixture becomes too dry as you work with the molds, use a water bottle with a spray nozzle to lightly mist it until it reaches the desired texture again. If the mixture is too wet and the sugar skulls don’t come out of the mold easily, add more sugar until it reaches the desired consistency. Hand wash and dry the mold after every 5 skulls to avoid sticking.5) When finished molding, allow the sugar skulls to dry for at least 8 hours, or overnight. Medium and mini skulls may be decorated after they are completely dry, but the front and back halves of large skulls must be hollowed out and “glued” together with royal icing before decorating. To do this, hold one large skull half in your hand with the flat side facing up. With a tablespoon, carefully hollow out the center of the skull. Leave the skull wall at least a half-inch thick and do not hollow out the neck. Repeat until all large skull halves have been hollowed. You can rehydrate the leftover scooped-out sugar to make more mini or medium skulls.7) Take a front half and a back half of a large sugar skull. Using a spoon, apply a 1/4-inch ring of royal icing along the edges of the flat side of one half. Carefully align the half with icing to the half without and press together firmly. Drag your finger along the seam of the skull to remove the icing which will ooze out of the skull. Place the skull aside to dry for at least 2 hours.For the Royal Icing1) To make uncolored royal icing "glue," mix the water, meringue powder and powdered sugar in a large bowl and keep tightly covered, but do not refrigerate.4) When ready to decorate, first decide how many colors of royal icing you would like to use. Spoon 1/4 to 1/2 cups of royal icing into separate plastic cups, with one container set aside for each desired color. Stir in concentrated-paste food coloring until desired color is reached.5) Spoon each colored icing into a separate pastry bag (or a plastic zipper bag with a bottom corner cut off), and tie off the top opening.6) Decorate the sugar skulls and allow icing to dry. Traditionally, the sugar skulls are given foil eyes and hair, and often named after departed loved ones.
Candied pumpkin is soft, smooth and sweet. Just like you.
Calabaza en Tacha (Candied Pumpkin)
Calabaza en tacha is fun to make and a great way to use up leftover Halloween pumpkins. This simple recipe also makes a delicate, less traditional dessert when topped with vanilla ice cream or chilled, condensed milk.
4 cups water
Juice of one orange
8 cinnamon sticks
2 pounds piloncillo (or 1 3/4 cup brown and 1/4 cup molasses)
1 4- to 5-pound pumpkin, scrubbed clean of any dirt
1) Put the water, orange juice, cinnamon and piloncillo into a large pot with a lid. Bring to a boil, uncovered. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until the piloncillo dissolves, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.2) Prepare the pumpkin. Using a large, serrated knife, cut out the stem segment. Cut the pumpkin into quarters. Scoop out and discard any seeds and string. Working with the serrated knife, divide the pumpkin into 2- to 3-inch pieces (squares or triangles work nicely). Slash small diamond incisions into the cleaned pumpkin meat to help it absorb the sugar solution. Be careful not to pierce through the rind.3) Layer the pumpkin pieces, meat side down, onto the finished sugar syrup. Place a second layer, meat side up this time, over the first layer. Cover and bring to a simmer. Cook until the top layer of pumpkin appears glazed and is soft and golden brown.4) Remove the pumpkin with tongs and place in a ceramic bowl. Allow to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature, drizzled with the remaining piloncillo syrup.
Food fact: Piloncillo
Piloncillo is an unrefined brown sugar from Mexico also known as panela and panocha. The name piloncillo literally means "little pylon," which refers to its traditional cone shape. Piloncillo can be used as a substitute for brown sugar in any recipe, as it has a similar, but stronger, flavor. Since piloncillo is unrefined, it contains more minerals than brown sugar (which is typically made by adding molasses to refined white sugar). Piloncillo is also thought to help treat the common cold due to its high levels of vitamin C. Many New Mexico supermarkets carry it in their international or Mexican foods isle.