This fall, we found ourselves inspired by the sentiment and iconography of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). A two-day holiday, it begins November 1st with All Saints Day, when the spirits of infants and children are honored, and is followed by All Souls Day, honoring adults. Both holidays are a way of commemorating the lives of deceased loved ones, but the festivities are far from morose, and the mood is far from somber.
Head chef Francisco Migoya grew up in Mexico City, where he celebrated Día de los Muertos each year, often going to the village of Mixquic, which is famous for its celebrations. Sometimes referred to as “City of the Dead,” the village is home to the church of San Andrés Apóstol and its surrounding cemetery, which became the epicenter of commemorations. “It’s where most of these traditions are kept alive,” said Migoya. In Mixquic, the festival spans three days and is attended by thousands. It concludes with La Alumbrada on November 2nd, when the cemetery is awash with the glow of candles and people hold all-night vigils at gravesites.
“A celebration centered on death might sound somewhat morbid to other cultures where it’s more taboo. [Día de los Muertos] is really a huge celebration that, in some ways, makes light of death…” said Migoya. For two days, vibrant processions snake through towns, and families build colorful altars called ofrendas at gravesites or in their homes to encourage spirits to visit, celebrate, and once again enjoy the luxuries of corporeal life.
The holiday is a feast for the senses. “There are specific flowers that are tied to the holiday. Marigolds and cockscomb flowers… You can smell the burning candles, incense, and Frankincense from the altars all day. Those smells are a big association with Día de los Muertos,” Migoya added.
Flowers, stories, possessions, toys, and, of course, foods and libations, are offered to welcome home the spirits for the holiday’s duration. Traditional holiday staples, including sugar skulls and Pan de Muerto, are prepared, as well as the spirits’ favorite dishes.
Intricately decorated sugar skulls, or calaveras, with names of the deceased written across the foreheads, represent departed spirits. They are typically covered in labyrinthine patterns of vibrantly colored icing that seemingly breathe life back into the spirits. Throughout the holiday, the skulls serve as gifts between friends and family.
Chef Migoya based our sugar skulls on traditional recipes. First, he mixed sugar, water, and egg white powder until the mixture produced a texture similar to wet sand. Next, the mixture was pressed as tightly as possible into molds. “The process is similar to building sandcastles. Filling the molds is like filling buckets with sand. You want to pack them as tightly as possible so that the sugar skull pops out intact…” The skulls were dried on cardboard (permeable surfaces are preferable) and, after five hours, were hollowed out to reduce the weight of the skulls and make them easier to work with. After drying them for an additional 24 hours, they were decorated with a simple icing made of water, powdered sugar, and a little bit of citric acid; the skulls were then placed under a fan to keep the icing shiny. “The citric acid prevents the sugar from crystallizing. And the faster the icing dries, the shinier it will be.”
Pan de Muerto
Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead) also adorns ofrendas and is eaten during the holiday. This soft, yeasty bread is lightly sweetened and typically flavored with anise- and orange-blossom water, giving the bread a delicate taste and enticing aroma. The bread maintains the iconography of Día de los Muertos—before baking in the oven, the dough is rounded, topped with pieces shaped like long bones (representing the deceased), and dusted with sugar.
We just happened to have a gorgeous skull stencil at The Cooking Lab, so we decided to put it to good use for our Pan de Muerto. We shaped our dough into a large boule (round) and dusted sugar over the stencil. The small notches around the bread’s edges represent traditional bone decorations. We then augmented the supernatural quality of our Pan de Muerto by adding clouds of liquid nitrogen.
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