November 2nd is the Day of the Dead, a remembrance day for deceased ancestors celebrated around the world. In Sicily, the day is called the “Festa Dei Morti,” and is celebrated with a number of unique,seasonaldishes. Far from being morbid or somber, some of the treats forFesta dei Morti are particularly colorful, including the realistic-looking marzipan fruits known as Frutta Martorana and the even more complex Pupi di Zucchero.
Pupi di zucchero means “sugar puppets” in Italian, and these edible, brightly-colored treats are formed in molds in the shapes of Italian folkloric characters, including knights and dancing girls. The tradition of actual pupi marionettes, particularly in Opera dei Pupi performances, is a major Sicilian art form dating from the 13th Century, and is still visible (in diminished form) throughout the island, particularly in Palermo. The origins of the sugar versions of pupi, and how they came to be associated with the Day of the Dead, are relatively obscure, and various historians place them as having French or Arabic origins. I haven’t ever seen these sugar treats outside of Sicily, so those of us outside of the island will just have to enjoy the visuals!
In Italian Cuisine, there are many special treats to commemorate Day of the Dead / All Souls’ Day / Commemorazione dei defunti on November 2nd. However, most of these are sweet – called in Italian “sweets of the dead” or i dolci dei morti – including pan dei morti, torrone dei morti, Frutti di Martorana, and ossi dei morti! Shockingly, from time to time, even the Eaters are in the mood for something a bit more savory. For that craving, we turn to the far northern Italian region of Lombardy, which celebrates Day of the Dead with Minestra dei Morti, or “Soup of the Dead.” This is a humble pork broth soup served with vegetables and chickpeas, typical of cucina povera or “peasant cuisine” meant to make humble ingredients stretch. The legumes, strangely enough also have connecttions with the dead, being linked with funeral rites and offerings for the dead since antiquity. Typically this recipe was made with a whole pigs head, coinciding with the typical season of the hog slaughter, though you can go for a more standard cut of pork nowadays. We plan to make the recipe from Memorie di Angelina this November 2nd.
There is a theme with some Day of the Dead treats to be a bit literal – and usually that involves some form of bones! Pan de muerto is demarcated with a crisscross of bones on the top and ossi dei morti literally look like white, powdery bones! Spanish “saints bones” (huesos de santo) follow this trend, and are a bone-like, tubular marzipan with an egg yolk filling (sometimes squash). Maybe that filling is supposed to resemble bone marrow (cool! gross!)? Spain Recipes, Blue Jellybeans and The Spruce have recipes to DIY your own saints’ bones. These cookies originate from Madrid and have a history that stretches all the way back to the 17th century! Along with panellets and buñuelos, you’ll find these typical treats in many Spanish bakeries.
From Spain Recipes: Some accounts attribute their origin to 17th century Madrid, a theory that’s supported by their mention in Francisco Martínez Montiño’s cookbook, Arte de Cozina, Pastelería, Vizcochería y Conservería (The Art of Cooking, Pastries, Cakes and Preserves). Written in 1611, the book states that these sweets were “made to commemorate all the Saints and all the dead at the beginning of November”.
Our international bakery tour continues today with some special treats for Dia de los Muertos! One of the major things we miss in Chicago is the proliferation of Mexican bakeries. There are at least a few in every neighborhood, but the largest concentration is in Pilsen and Little Village, and we have spent a lot of time exploring the best bakeries. One of the longest-running bakeries in Pilsen – open since 1973 – is Panadaria Nuevo Leon (1634 W 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608), and it is one of our favorites.Nuevo Leon is absolutely full of wooden and glass pastry cases, and you pick up a set of tongs and a metal tray to make your own selections. There are a huge variety of pan dulce: emblematic conchas, cuernos de mantequilla (butter horns), empanadas, guava pastries, puerquitos (seen below), and a huge selection of assorted cookies (our favorites are the smiley faces and the watermelon shapes). The prices are not as cheap as some other Mexican bakeries in the area, but are still really reasonable. One of the other unique features is that there is a wide selection of made-in-house flavored tortillas (mole, chipotle, avocado, etc.). Plus, they mark vegan items (and there are quite a few).We love that Nuevo Leon stocks up on the special holiday treats. For Day of the Dead, Nuevo Leon is our go-to for tasty anise-flavored Pan de Muerto in both small and large sizes, with both the traditional round shape with bones (above) and others shaped like miniature people. You can see below that they also set up an ofrenda above the baking racks for Day of the Dead. However, this is not the only time of year to visit the bakery for something special. Around Christmastime their buñuelos (thin, fried dough with cinnamon and sugar) are a must! We can’t wait to go back for the next round.
Day of the Dead/All Souls’ Day is called Dia de Los Difuntos in Ecuador, and is celebrated with little bread figurines called Guaguas de Pan in Spanish or T’anta Wawas in the Quechua language. Popular throughout the Andean countries of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, these cute little bread figures are given to friends and family on All Souls’ Day, and may also be placed at the grave of loved one. The bread is a sweet yeast bread similar to Mexico’s Pan de Muerto, but what really makes them stand out are their colorful decorations. Que Vida Rica has a recipe for Ecuadorian-style Guaguas. In Bolivia the holiday is locally known as Taque Santun Arupa, and this Bolivian recipe is made with quinoa flour! In Ecuador, the bread is typically served alongside Colada Morada, a drink made with purple corn flour and berries.
When I was researching recipes for Dia de Los Muertos cookies, I came across some perplexing information about a popular holiday cookie – the pabassina. These raisin and almond cookies are originally Sardinian, and are indeed eaten on All Saints’ Day, but somehow have hopped across the Atlantic to become popular in Mexican Dia de Los Muertos celebrations as well. Since they are eaten on the same holiday, and Mexico does indeed have an Italian population, I guess the connection is not so mysterious, but I can’t find anything about their specific history. Apparently, I am not the only one who noticed this odd lack of historical context. Regardless, they seem pretty tasty. Here is a recipe for pabassinas from an Italian website, and another from Saveur. Do you have any ideas about the unexpected migratory path of the Pabassina?
We love making special food for the holidays, and foods for Halloween/ Day of the Dead tend to have a bit of a macabre bent, which is always fun! Many foods for these holidays feature bones, skulls or similar shapes, and we are always interested to see how this is even true across cultures. Pan de Muerto from Mexico is topped with mini dough bones, and we recently discovered an Italian cookie that is all bones – the “ossi dei morti/ossa dei morti” – bones of the dead. The “Ossi” are like biscotti, and are flavored with almond and cinnamon/clove. Though this cookie is from the region of Piedmont north of Italy, it is found throughout the country. Good Food Stories has a good-looking recipe, as does Passion and Cooking which includes hazelnuts and a slightly less macabre shape.
Day of the Dead / Dia de Los Muertos always calls to mind the Mexican State of Oaxaca, where the traditions around the holiday are the strongest and most vibrant. The zocolo, or town square, in Oaxaca City is a festive celebration for weeks in advance, and the city’s main cemetery, Xoxocotlan, overflows with locals and visitors from October 31st to November 2nd. Oaxaca is known particularly for its cuisine, which we got of taste of first hand on our visit this summer. Epicurious has a nice menu of Oaxacan favorites including tamales and preserved pumpkin from Zarela Martínez that are perfect for Dia de Los Muertos. And if you really want to go all out, here is recipe for Mole Rojo made by Josefina Ruiz Vazquez in the Oaxacan town of Teotitlan del Valle. Complicated (and delicious) moles such as this are normally saved for special occasions like Dia de Los Muertos.
Food on a Dia de Los Muertos Altar in Oaxaca by Jen Wilton
Dia De Los Muertos Macaron Display – photos by Ganache Macaron
Dia de Los Muertos/Day of the Dead is becoming more popularly celebrated and recognized around the world, which means that a whole new variety of creative treats based on the day are emerging. One of the more interesting Dia de Los Muertos themed creations we have seen is a macaron-themed Day of the Dead display in London. The display is located in the Covent Garden branch of Wahaca, an upscale Mexican restaurant. The macarons were created by Ganache Macaron and the designer Katherine Burke. We think they did a pretty amazing job, and our favorite has to be the giant sugar skull inspired macaron that is the centerpiece of the display (above). If you happen to be in London the display will be up until November 3rd.
Dia De Los Muertos Macaron Display – photos by Ganache Macaron
Pumpkin spice lattes may get all the press this time of year, but pumpkins are also a major ingredient in Mexican recipes for Dia de Los Muertos / Day of the Dead. These pumpkin dishes may be either savory and sweet, and can be almost any part of the menu. If you are looking for some pumpkin flavor for Dia de Los Muertos (though of course you don’t have to stop at pumpkin), here are some great options:
One of our favorite traditional foods for Dia de los Muertos is the sugar skull, which we have written about previously. We usually buy pre-made sugar skulls – and we even got new ones this year personalized with our names in Pilsen. However, we are stepping up our game this year. We picked up sugar skull molds at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC last week, and are excited to make sugar skulls of our own for the first time. Once you have the skull-shaped molds, the process doesn’t seem too daunting. However, the recipe included with the molds called for something called meringue powder, which you can buy online or pick up in many craft or large grocery stores. Fortunately, making a recipe with egg whites works just as well, as does a traditional recipe with egg white and cornstarch.
Sugar Skull for Dia de Los Muertos at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC
They don’t have trick-or-treating on Halloween in Lisbon, but there is a similar tradition that occurs on All Saints Day, November 1st, called Pão-por-Deus. Instead of asking “Trick or Treat” Portuguese children go door to door asking, “Ó tia dá bolinho!?”(Originally – “Ó tia dá Pão por Deus?”) Literally – does auntie have any cookies? Traditionally the children would get bread from the neighbors and shop owners they visited, though it is now sometimes substituted for cookies, change or candies. This also leads to the other name for the holiday, “Dia de Bolinho.” Kids collect goodies in special drawstring bags, saquinhos, that are often decorated with embroidery or patches. Unlike Halloween, children go asking for Pão por Deus before noon (no costumes are involved, either).
November 1st, in addition to being All Saints Day, is also particularly known in Lisbon as the day of the destructive 1755 earthquake. This particular event is seen as triggering the Pão por Deus tradition, as the city was devastated and people had to go asking for food. The first Pão por Deus was held the following year, and continues today, though there is increasing influence form “Halloween”-type traditions. The holiday is most popular around Lisbon, but has also expanded to Brazil.
While Dia Los Muertos is perhaps best known in the USA through its Mexican-style celebrations, it is a holiday celebrated throughout Latin America. I was doing a little research on other countries’ traditional foods, and came across Fiambre, a veritable Guatemalan smorgasbord served in honor of Dia de los Muertos/Dia de Todos Santos (All Saints Day). Fiambre is a chopped salad akin to a giant antipasti dish, which may include up to 50 ingredients , and weight up to 20 pounds. Of course there are as many variations as families, but a common denominator is a base of sliced meat, cold cuts, cheeses and sausages followed by veggies (carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and more), topped with eggs, grated cheese, radishes and dressing. A signature touch is pacaya palm blossoms, a traditional Guatemalan ingredient.
El Fiambre -by Keneth Cruz
Allegedly, the origins of fiambre are rooted in the tradition of bringing ancestors their favorite foods in honor of Dia de Todos Santos. Gradually, according to legend, all of the dishes of food brought to the the graves of the dead were combined to create one large dish of fiambre. Fiambre, unlike many other celebratory dishes, is truly only served on this day, and requires a lot of preparation. The fiambre components have to be sliced and chopped and the assembled fiambre is marinated over night, and is served chilled. Given the amount of ingredients (see below for a sampling), it looks incredibly time-consuming. These two recipes from Growing Up Bilingual and The Latin Kitchen give you a good idea on the preparation of fiambre.
It seems like the iconic sugar skulls for Día de los Muertos/the Day of the Dead, have become increasingly popular in mainstream US culture – I have even seen recommendations for calavera Halloween costumes! But we cannot forget about the other sweet staple that is a necessity for any ofrenda (an altar set up to commemorate the dead) – Pan de Muerto – literally, “bread of the dead.”
An Altar in Seattle with Pan de Muerto – by jeck_crow
Dia de los Muertos as celebrated today is a combination of Pre-Columbian and Catholic traditions and encompasses All Saints’ Day (Nov 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov 2). The purpose of the holiday is to commemorate and celebrate deceased ancestors and relatives, and the purpose of the pan de muerto on the ofrenda is to provide sustenance for the souls of the returning relatives. For this same reason, other favorite foods and drinks of the deceased are included on the ofrenda. However, not just used as an offering, Pan de muerto is also eaten in the period leading up to Día de los Muertos, and is a mainstay in bakeries and cafes during the season.
Pan de Muerto in the Zocalo, Mexico City – by Ericrkl
Pan de muerto is a simple sweet bread, think brioche, that is flavored with orange blossom water, orange zest or anise (or all of the above). Pan de muerto takes on different shapes, depending on the region, and the iconic Mexico City version of pan de muerto is usually round with strips of dough representing bones crisscrossed on the top. Pan de muerto may be topped with sesame seeds or a generous helping of sugar (as seen below). Though the round versions are the most common in the US, other other versions have the bread made in the form of little people, bones, angels or even for elaborate shapes. Check out this recipe from Cooking in Mexico to make some Pan de Muerto of your own. Kitchen Parade even has a tutorial to show you how to make the distinctive “bones” for your bread.
Dia de los Muertos is less than two weeks away – so it’s time to start gathering some recipes to celebrate. We’ve previously featured sugar skulls, but for those looking for a different sort of treat for the Day of the Dead might want to try these delicious gingerbread pigs called, alternatively, marranitos, cochinitos, or puerquitos (all variations on “little pig”). These little pig cookies are made with a generous helping of molasses and unrefined cane sugar, piloncillo, giving them a rich gingerbread-y flavor. The marranitos above were made by the Muy Bueno cookbook blog, which provides a recipe as well as a lovely photoshoot and accompanying story. Marranitos are cut using a special pig-shaped cookie cutter, and as you might be able to tell, they are quite a bit larger than the typical cookie. Not strictly a “Dia de Los Muertos” food, marranitos are enjoyed year round and are especially good with coffee for a light breakfast. We found a large pig cookie cutter for sale on CopperGifts, and we definitely think we need to add some of these pig cookies to our repertoire.
Happy Halloween & Dia de los muertos! Having a crazy busy weekend M & I did not begin to prepare anything until yesterday afternoon in terms of festive decorations, but within the span of hour we managed to construct an ofrenda, carve a pumpkin and make pepitas – pumpkin seeds! We were pretty proud of our accomplishments, and our pepita recipe turned out pretty well – but word of warning – if you are going to substitute chili powder for anything spicier – these can actually be surprisingly spicy (we used ancho powder). This is probably an obvious point, but our pepitas came out really spicy!
Adapted from A Recipe from Food.com
2 cups pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg white, beaten until frothy
1 tablespoon chili powder (or 1/2 teaspoon ancho chili powder for the spice inclined)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Preheat oven to 350°F and spray baking sheet with nonstick spray.
Mix all ingredients and spread in single layer on baking sheet.
Bake until pepitas are golden and dry, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes.
Remove from oven and separate pepitas with fork while still warm; cool completely.
Today is the 2nd day of the colorful, delicious holiday of Dia De Los Muertos! One of our favorite parts of Dia de los Muertos are the colorful sugar skulls. While in previous years we have bought our pre-made there are also many ways you can make your own – with the help of a special sugar skull mold. If pure sugar’s not your thing, you can go the ultra-edible route with chocolate skulls. Another typical treat made for this holiday is Pan de Muerto an anise-flavored bread traditionally placed on ofrendas.
We’re two Midwestern omnivores, L and M, who are trying to eat food from every country in the world (at restaurants in both the US and abroad). Eating the World is where we update our global restaurant and food adventures. We are based in Cleveland, Chicago and beyond.
To contact us for partnerships or just to say hi, email us at eating the world (at) gmail.com
Eating The World · We're two Midwestern omnivores, L and M, who are trying to eat food from every country in the world (at restaurants in both the US and abroad). Eating the World is where we update our global restaurant and food adventures. We are based in Cleveland, Chicago and beyond.