Monday, November 4, 2013

Day of the dead

 Last Saturday, November 2, Mexico honoured the souls of those who have left us with the Day of the Dead celebrations. It is one of those holidays that perfectly blends Prehispanic traditions with those that were brought from the old continent. Scholars trace back the origins of this tradition to an Aztec festival honoring the goddess Mictecacihuatl, queen of the underworld (Mictlan) who watches over the bones of the dead. The arrival of the monarch butterflies to Mexico, on their migration all the way from Canada, coincides with the celebration and the indigenous believed these orange-and-black insects were the souls of the dead coming back for the festival. People visit cemeteries, light candles and prepare colorful altars (ofrendas) which often include the favorite foods and drinks of those being honoured, as they are believed to come back and enjoy all these treats. Salt, sugar skulls and cempazochitl flowers should not be missing in the offerings, as well as mementos, music, grains and sometimes a cross.

On this day, 'pan de muerto' (bread of the dead?) is enjoyed as well, with a cup of Mexican hot chocolate. The ball on top represents the skull, and the branches by the sides represent bones, as well as the 4 cardinal points so that the death ones do not lose their way on their trip through the underworld.  This year I was really craving it, so I decided to take the plunge and make it at home. I based myself on this recipe, however I modified it lightly by infusing the milk with orange blossom flower (flor de azahar). The gray, rainy weather was perfect for staying at home and waiting for the dough to rise twice. As with everything, I find waiting is the hardest part of the process.

What you'll need 
70 gr. butter
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup lukewarm water
dried orange blossoms (if you manage to find them)
3 cups flour
1 1/4 teaspoon dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs, slighly beaten
the zest of 1 orange 

For the glaze
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup orange juice
2 tsp. sugar
zest of 1 orange
sugar, for sprinkling

What to do
In a small saucepan, put the milk and the butter together with the dried orange blossoms. Let infuse and mix until the butter is fully melted and the aroma of the flowers has been released. Set aside and add the lukewarm water.

In a large bowl, mix 1 cup flour with the salt, yeast and sugar. Add the (strained) milk infusion and mix well (taking care that it is not too hot when you mix it in). Then, add the eggs and orange zest and mix until well incorporated. Continue adding the rest of the flour, in 1/2 cup increments until the dough is soft. It will be sticky at the beginning, but keep going. Knead the dough on a floured surface until it's soft and elastic. You can do this on the stand mixer as well, using the hook attachment. You will know it's ready when the dough does not stick to your hands (or to the bowl of the stand mixer). Play with the dough a bit more, just to be sure. Put the dough in a well-oiled bowl and cover with a damp cloth. Let the dough rise for about an hour, or until it has doubled in size. Our house was too cold yesterday, so I put the oven on at 180ºC only for 3 min. and I let the dough rise in the warm oven.

 Once the dough has properly risen, punch it in the middle and knead it a bit. Then form a ball, divide it in two parts, 3/4 for the main part and 1/4 for the decorations. (Or you can make a bigger bread, and a smaller bread like I did). With the biggest part, form a ball, as smooth and round as you can. Then, make the decorations: long snakes to form bones and a smaller ball for the skull. This post has a lot of photos of the process.  Arrange your bread on a tray, lined with baking paper and let rise for another hour or so.

Preheat your oven to 180ºC. When the bread is ready to go in the oven, very carefully paint it with the beaten egg yolk and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 35 minutes. In the meantime, prepare the glaze by mixing the orange juice, sugar and orange zest and letting it boil for 2-3 minutes.

Take the bread out of the oven, and brush the glaze on top. Let it cool down a bit before enjoying.


If you are in the Netherlands and would like to see an altar, you can visit a traditional ofrenda at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Plantage Muidergracht 14) until December 6. This altar was was raised in honour of all the women that have been victims of feminicide in Mexico in the last years. 


  1. I am totally fascinated by how Mexico celebrates the Day of the Dead, mostly because I think that the vast majority of western cultures are very bad at acknowledging and incorporating death into life, and as the parent of a dead child, I admire those traditions that present opportunities to do so. (I'd be curious to see if this really translates as less cultural awkwardness around death in Mexican society). I especially love what you told us about the monarch butterfly, since coincidentally, butterflies have always been a symbol we associate with S :)

    Thanks also for sharing the recipe! Do you think it would be possible to do with gluten free flour?

    1. I am not sure if there is less awkwardness around death, because it is very respected, but I would say people are very aware of it being part of life, it is part of everyday. There is also a lot of superstitions, and stories, of say, your (dead) grandma visiting over the night, hearing ghosts, are not rare or frowned upon. It is a rather accepted part of life, like a continuum. There are also all kinds of rituals, and even a huge market (mercado de Sonora) in Mexico city dedicated to the paranormal (you can get love potions, herbs, all kinds of things).
      I am not sure it would be possible to make it with gluten free flour, as it really is a yeasted bread, and for the texture to develop it does require the protein in wheat. There are people who have done gluten free bread, I just found this gluten-free brioche recipe, which should be quite similar, just add the orange zest. For something orangey and way simpler, you can try this chocolate-orange-almond cake (I have been intending to make it for months) that requires no flour at all (only almond meal). It has the colors of the butterflies!

  2. Oh wauw that looks really really good. Going to give it a shot soon :)


  3. sooooo I was going to wait to tell you in person, but I can't. I'm pregnant too! I'm about 13 weeks right now, due in mid-May :) BUT I had to say something bc I have been dying for American food (choc covered pretzels, burritos, Amer. Chinese food) lately, and was wondering if other prego expats had the same issues with homeland cravings that are sooo not easy to satisfy. If you've found any decent Mexican restaurants over here, I'd LOVE to go with you. Or if you have a good beans and rice recipe, thatd probably do the trick as well ;)

    1. I am so so happy and excited for you, wow!!! There is an American-British expat grocery in The Hague (called Kelly's) and they sell all kinds of things, I think also online. I could get you some things if you would like. I was so happy when I found corn flour / poblano peppers / green tomato sauce a couple of months ago. There is a good Mexican restaurant in Amsterdam (Los Pilones), though it is not super cheap, and there is another one that recently opened in Leiden (Don Pancho) that is also good. We should definitely go!


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