Nov. 1 (All Saints Day) and Nov. 2 (All Souls Day), known as Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, are times for traditional Mexican family observances honoring dearly departed ancestors and friends.
Celebrations in cemeteries feature elaborately decorated altars erected on gravesites with pictures of loved ones and tastes of their favorite food and drink.
Recently in the United States, Day of the Dead has been translated into a cross-cultural phenomenon, as symbols such as sugar skulls and skeleton art lend themselves to a lively party atmosphere for the living as well as the dead.
Nidia Zuart, who works in the kitchen at Muss & Turner's in Smyrna, Ga., and has become known for her Sunday evening dinners at the restaurant, has fond memories of Dia de los Muertos with her family in Mexico made even more special because she was born on Nov. 1.
"We were a very traditional family, and every time, it was like a party in my grandather's house," Zuart said. "Everybody was cooking, and everybody would stop by." Zuart has continued those traditions with her children, including creating a family altar, and making special foods, like pan de muerto, a Day of the Dead bread baked to honor ancestors that's often eaten graveside.
"My daughter and son love Dia de los Muertos and all the traditions," Zuart said. "And they know it's not just a party. It's a sacred time."
As she's done every year, Kristen Benoit, owner of Atlanta's Bone Garden Cantina, has been molding and decorating dozens of sugar skulls for the occasion. And new chef Mark Nanna has been getting up to speed for this year's event by researching Day of the Dead recipes.
"I love it," Nanna said. "My wife and I actually got married in Cabo San Lucas on the Day of the Dead, so that's our anniversary, and we each have a skull tattoo to mark the occasion."
One of the recipes Nanna has been working on is calabaza en tacha, a slow-simmered, candied pumpkin dish.
"It's traditionally more like a dessert," Nanna said. "It's seasonal because that's what's happening at farms this time of year, and it's a neat way to do pumpkin, with long, slow cooking and sugar and spices."
He also cooks up a Mexican rice pudding that's often eaten for breakfast on Dia de los Muertos.
"In addition to being a dish for the holiday, it's a traditional breakfast food and morning snack," Nanna said.
Mexican rice pudding (arroz con leche)
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
This pudding made with short-grain rice and golden raisins is usually served at breakfast on the Day of the Dead. Adapted from a recipe provided by Mark Nanna.
3 cups whole milk
1 1/4 cups water
1 cup short grain rice
1 cinnamon stick
One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup golden raisins, softened in a cup of warm water, and drained
In a large pot over medium heat, combine whole milk and water and bring to a slow simmer. Stir in rice, add cinnamon stick and continue to simmer, uncovered, until rice is soft, approximately 20 minutes.
When rice is soft, remove cinnamon, stir in sweetened condensed milk, vanilla, salt, and raisins. Return to simmer for about 10 or 15 more minutes or until most of the liquid is absorbed. The rice should have a pudding consistency.
Serve with a sprinkle of cinnamon, and a pat of butter on top, if desired.
Per serving based on 4: 678 calories ( 20 percent from fat), 18 grams protein, 119 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 15 grams fat (9 grams saturated), 59 milligrams cholesterol, 336 milligrams sodium.
Mexican bread of the dead
Prep time: 1 hour, including rise time
Cook time: 54 minutes
Makes 1 large loaf
A special round loaf baked for Dia de los Muertos is traditionally decorated with dough skulls, bones and tears. Adapted from a recipe provided by Nidia Zuart.
3 star anise pods
6 tablespoons cold water
6 cups unbleached white bread flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 ounce yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
4 tablespoons orange zest
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
2 tablespoons orange juice
Grease a 10-inch round cake pan.
In a small pan, combine the star anise and cold water. Bring to a boil and cook for 3-4 minutes or until the liquid has reduced to 3 tablespoons. Discard the star anise and allow the liquid to cool.
In a large bowl, sift the flour, sugar and salt together. Make a well in the center of flour mixture.
In a pitcher, dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Pour into the center of the flour and mix until a smooth, thick batter forms. Cover with plastic wrap, and leave the batter in a warm place for 30 minutes, or until the mixture starts to bubble.
In a medium bowl, beat the eggs, the reserved liquid flavored with star anise, orange zest and melted butter. Gradually incorporate into the flour mixture to form a smooth dough. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 5-6 minutes until smooth and elastic. Shape the dough into a 10-inch round and place in the pan.
Cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap and leave to rise in a warm place for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 375. Bake the loaf for 45-50 minutes until golden. Turn out onto a wire rack to cool.
In a small bowl, whisk together the confectioner's sugar and orange juice. Pour the sugar mixture evenly over the top of the cake to make a sweet glaze.
Per serving: 251 calories (26 percent from fat), 7 grams protein, 39 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 7 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 55 milligrams cholesterol, 207 milligrams sodium.