In The Kitchen Columns

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From October 31, 2014: Day of the Dead

You can have your Halloween; I’ll take Mexico’s Day of the Dead, celebrated on November 1 and 2.

Day of the Dead Dioramas

Day of the Dead Dioramas

My family has a dancing-on-the-grave approach to death, anyway, so what could be more natural than a holiday where everyone goes to the cemetery to picnic on the deceased favorite foods? The celebrants (the living ones, that is) also create elaborate altars at home with models of the deceased favorite possessions – cars, pets, sports equipment, you name it.

And, tradition holds that all of life’s daily activities are carried on by skeletons dressed in appropriate garb. Mariachis perform, couples marry, children play, and dogs act as guides to the afterlife. Since food plays an important role, the activities include cooking and dining, with many depictions of the skeletal figures going about that business in their ghostly kitchens. Day of the Dead crafts, including elaborate dioramas, are very popular; I own several myself, and treasure them.

Some of the special foods for this holiday are Pan de Muerto, (Bread of the Dead) and Calabaza en Tacha (Candied pumpkin), which I’ve written about before. The recipes here start with champurrado, a variation on atole (corn masa and milk), a comforting drink for kids and grownups alike.

Tamales and mole are also popular, but can take a couple days to make. There are shorter recipes for mole, and one is below, but you could also use a commercially prepared product from the Hispanic aisle of your market. Some are concentrated and meant to be thinned with broth; others are ready-to-use simmer sauces. The recipe below (straight from Paris, of all places, thanks to expat David Lebovitz), is somewhere in the middle of traditional and “quik.” My favorite mole is served with poached turkey pieces, then I used the broth to make the mole sauce.

The tamale pie gives you something quick and easy for rushed weeknight meals. After dinner, leftovers can sit on the back of stove waiting for late comers or even the dearly departed. Just like here, a woman’s work in the afterlife is never done. I just hope I have a better kitchen.


Adapted from

Serves 4-6

Find masa harina (corn flour) and Mexican chocolate in the supermarket ethnic aisle, where you might also find cone-shaped piloncillo sugar, to grate as needed. (If the piece weighs 3 ounces, you can just drop it in the hot milk, where it’ll melt.) F.B.

3 cups water

2 cinnamon sticks

1 anise star

1/4 cup masa harina

2 cups milk

1/2 disk Mexican chocolate, chopped

3 ounces piloncillo, chopped or 1/2 cup packed brown sugar

In a large saucepan, bring water, cinnamon sticks, and anise to a boil. Remove from heat, cover and steep about 1 hour. Remove spices, return to low heat and slowly add masa to water, whisking until combined. Add milk, chocolate, and piloncillo. Simmer, uncovered, about 10 minutes, whisking occasionally, until sugar is dissolved.

Chocolate Mole

Liberally adapted from The Sweet Life in Paris, David Lebovitz, Broadway Books (2011)

Note: Makes 1 quart, more than enough for one cooked chicken, pork shoulder, or 3-4 pounds turkey legs/thighs. If you braise the poultry or meat, you can use that broth in place of the water. This sauce freezes well. F.B.

10 dried chiles (all ancho or mix with guajillo or pasilla)

3/4 cup raisins or diced prunes

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped

1 1/4 cups water or broth, heated

1 tablespoon neutral oil

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

3 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped

3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds, plus a few for garnish

3/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted

3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped or 1 1/2 cups canned with juice

1/4 teaspoon each: cinnamon, ground cloves, dried oregano, powdered cumin, ground coriander, ground anise seeds

3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Freshly ground pepper

Remove seeds and stems from chiles and soak chilies, submerged, in very hot water until soft, about 30 minutes. Put raisins and chocolate in blender with heated water/broth and let stand a few minutes to soften chocolate.

In a skillet, heat oil, then gently sauté onion and garlic until onion is limp. Drain chilies, discarding the bitter liquid, and add chilies to blender along with onion/garlic, sesame seeds, almonds, tomatoes, all the spices, salt and pepper. Purée until smooth. Taste and add more salt, it needed. At serving, garnish with sesame seeds.

Add additional water or broth, if necessary, until the consistency is smooth and slightly pourable.

To use, heat sauce in deep lidded skillet on stove, and add cooked meat to the sauce. Simmer about 30 minutes to meld flavors. Remove lid near end if sauce is too thin, otherwise cover or add more liquid if needed.

Chicken Tamale Casserole

8 servings

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, divided

1/3 cup milk

2 eggs

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon ground chili powder

1 (14 3/4 ounce) can cream style corn

1 (8.5 ounce) box corn muffin mix

1 (4 ounce) can chopped green chilies

1 (10 ounce) can red enchilada sauce

2 cups shredded cooked chicken

1/2 cup sour cream (optional)

Chopped cilantro (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Oil a 13×9-inch baking dish. Combine 1/4 cup cheese and milk, eggs, cumin, chili powder, corn, corn muffin mix and green chiles in a large bowl, stirring just until moist. Pour mixture into dish; bake at 400° for 20 minutes or until set.

Pierce entire surface with a fork; pour enchilada sauce over top. Top with chicken; sprinkle with remaining 3/4 cup cheese. Continue to bake at 400° for 15 minutes or until cheese melts. Remove from oven; let stand 5 minutes. Cut into 8 pieces; top each serving with 1 tablespoon sour cream and cilantro, if desired.

One thought on “In The Kitchen Columns

  1. Halvah – I vividly remember Halvah candies from childhood. It was a favorite of my mom too. You could usually find them at the local “candy stores”.
    Joan Goldstein

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