My earliest and fondest memories of food are from my childhood, when my grandmother would prepare treats for us on special occasions. One of those occasions was Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead. Celebrated today, on 1 November, the holiday is about remembering and honouring the dead. It's a celebration that dates back to Aztec times and one that was enthusiastically taken up by the Spanish when they arrived in the early 1500s. By replacing the old Aztec deities with Christian saints and fusing festive food and rituals, the Spanish made it their own.
To this day, altars for the deceased are still the main focus of the Day of the Dead festivities. Small tables are covered with tablecloths and families decorate them with flowers, photos, candles and of course, food. Traditional dishes of the season like pan de muerto, a bread decorated with coloured sugar bones; as well as candied pumpkin and champurrado, a thick, warm chocolate drink, find their way on to altars. So too does the deceased's favourite dishes. Part of what's wonderful about this celebration of the dead is that it allows us to celebrate the living too. Friends and neighbours drop by to share a cup of champurrado and admire the family's altar.
It is things like this, the family tradition, Mexico and ancestral culture all rolled together, that created my love for the food. This Day of the Dead, I'm happy to share my recipes for new and familiar Mexican dishes. Tortillas and tacos are just some of Mexico's renowned culinary exports, yet they don't begin to represent the infinite possibilities of Mexican cooking. May your eyes be opened and your dead be remembered. Buen provecho!
Mexico: The Cookbook by Margarita Carrillo (Phaidon, £29.95)
Cheese in Green Salsa
Preparation Time: 25 minutes
Cooking Time: 7 minutes
600g queso fresco, cut into 2.5 cm slices
16 tomatillos (or small tomatoes), dry-roasted
1 large clove garlic, dry-roasted
1 white onion, dry-roasted
1–2 dried chipotles chillies, dry-roasted
Chives, cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) lengths
Fried tomato skin
Put the tomatillos, garlic, onion, and chillies into a food processor or blender and process until smooth. Pour the sauce into a saucepan and simmer for 7 minutes.
Heat a grill, griddle or frying pan over high heat. Using a heart-shaped cookie cutter, cut the slices of cheese. Add the cheese and fry for 3 minutes on each side, or until brown. Ladle the sauce onto a plate, position the cheese, and garnish with tortilla strips, chives and fried tomato skins. Serve immediately.
Preparation time: 50 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
½ tsp anise seeds
½ small tequesquite stone (you can order these online)
500g all-purpose (plain) flour
½ tsp salt
1½ tbsps vegetable shortening or lard
3 eggs, lightly beaten
120 ml tepid milk
vegetable oil, for deep-frying
50g grated Chihuahua or mild cheddar cheese, if using
Put the anise seeds, tequesquite, and 1 cup water into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil until the tequesquite dissolves, then remove the pan from the heat, and let stand for 15 minutes.
Sift together the flour and salt into a mound on a clean work surface, and make a well in the center. Add the sugar and lard and mix it all together well, then add the vegetable shortening, eggs and flavored water, being careful not to add any sediment. Mix thoroughly, adding enough milk to make a soft but not sticky dough. Knead well.
Sit down, cross your legs, and cover your knee with a kitchen cloth. Carefully stretch a dough over your knees to make a thin disk. Put the fritters on a clean towel on a work surface as you finish stretching them. Then cut into small pieces
Heat around 7cm of oil in a deep pan to around 180°C or until a cube of day-old bread browns in 30 seconds. Add the fritters to the hot oil in batches, and cook until they become golden brown. Remove from the pan and drain on paper towels.
Put the fritters into a dish, drizzle with molasses, and sprinkle with cheese. Serve immediately.
Dried Arbol Chilli Salsa
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
3–5 dry arbol chillies, dry roasted
½ small onion, dry-roasted
1 clove garlic, dry-roasted
7 tomatillos ( or small tomatoes), dry-roasted sea salt
Put the chillis, onion, garlic, and tomatillos into a food processor or blender and process until smooth. If necessary, add a little water. Season to taste with salt.
Serve with meat, fish, or poultry or use with tacos.
'Day of the Dead' Bread
Makes 2 loaves
Pan de muerto is the bread that is prepared and eaten during the Day of the Dead season. It is an essential element of the altar, and perhaps the food most closely associated with the holiday.
500g plain (all-purpose) flour, plus extra for dusting
100g sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
1½ tsps active dry (fast-action) yeast
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp grated orange zest
1–2 tsps orange blossom water, to taste
200 g cold butter
1 egg, beaten
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of sugar
Bring the milk to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, then remove from heat and let cool. Set aside for the moment.
Put the flour into a large bowl and make a well. Sprinkle in the sugar and yeast and pour in the milk. Close the well by flicking flour over the milk and let it sit for 1 hour. Add the remaining ingredients, except the melted butter, and shape into a ball. Transfer to a clean lightly floured work surface and knead for 10 minutes. Add the butter and knead again for 10 minutes. Return to the bowl and cover. Let rise for 2 hours, until doubled in size.
Grease 2 baking sheets with butter. Divide the dough into 3 pieces. Take two of those pieces and roll them into tight balls and then press them gently to flatten a bit. Cover and let rise for 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6.
After 1 hour, take the remaining piece of dough and divide it into 10 little pieces. Roll 2 of these pieces into small balls and 8 of these pieces into long, thin logs. To make the glaze, combine all the ingredients and 1 tbsp water in a small bowl and mix well. Brush the loaves gently with the glaze. Take four of the logs and drape them in an X shape over one of the balls. Repeat for the other disk of dough. Brush these with egg. Take a little ball of dough and place it on the top of one disk of dough, where the X meets.
Press down gently so it sticks. Repeat for the other little ball of dough. Glaze the dough balls and bake in the oven for 30–35 minutes or until golden. Remove from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool. While they are still warm, brush with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar.
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Chocolate is native to Mesoamerica. The beans were ground and consumed in prehispanic times as a hot drink, but unlike today the ancients drank their chocolate spicy, not sweet. In the past the cacao was ground on a metate (grinding stone), but nowadays it is ground in a special mill. The Day of the Dead season is when the weather starts to get colder, and hot drinks are favored at this time of year.
100 g dark Mexican chocolate, chopped
1.5 litres milk
1 cinnamon stick (optional)
Put the chocolate into a saucepan, add the milk and cinnamon, and heat gently, stirring until the chocolate melts.
As the mixture begins to bubble in the pan, reduce the heat and simmer for a few minutes.
Transfer 250 ml of the chocolate to a bowl and whisk until it is foamy, then pour into a mug. Whisk and pour the remaining chocolate milk in in the same way. Serve immediately.
Preparation time: 1 hour, plus 15 minutes soaking
Cooking time: 1 hour
The word tamal comes from the Aztec word tamalli which means "wrapped." This food consists of a corn-meal dough and a filling that is wrapped in either corn husk or banana leaf, and steamed.
8 fresh corn on the cobs
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp anise seeds
100 g butter
200 g grated raw sugar (piloncillo) or packed brown sugar
½ tsp sea salt
Sour cream, to serve
Sliced lime, to serve
Mild red chillies, sliced, to serve
Remove the husks from the corn without damaging them, and separate the leaves. Put them into a heatproof bowl, pour enough hot water to cover, and let soak for 15 minutes. Cut the kernels from the cob, reserving the milky liquid that is sometimes exuded).
Put half of the kernels and any reserved liquid into a food processor or blender and process. Transfer to a bowl. Put the remaining kernels into the food processor or blender and process, then add the cinnamon, anise seeds, butter, sugar, and salt and process briefly again. Transfer the mixture to the bowl and beat to a smooth dough.
Rinse the husks well. Fill each leaf with a generous tablespoon of the dough, down the center of the leaves, then close and roll it gently to secure it. You have to do this immediately, because the mixture tends to separate as it stands.
Place the tamales vertically in a steamer and cook over high heat, topping up with boiling water as necessary, for 1 hour or until firm to the touch. Remove the tamales from the heat and let stand 1–2 hours, until set. Serve with sour cream, lime, and chillies.
All images by Fiamma Piacentini
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