THE NEXT AMERICAN HOLIDAY

Photo: Chad Santos for Instagram

Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos is a traditional celebration in Mexico November 1st and 2nd, in connection to the Catholic All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day, as a time to remember ancestors, friends and family members who have died. 

Though Mexico grabs largely from an Aztec festival hundreds of years ago, in honor of the goddess Mictecacihuatl, with altars and offerings, modern takes are more whimsical with sugar skulls and candied pumpkins, framed photos, bright marigolds and food and drink favorites set out for those who have passed.


It’s Halloween, plus-sized, as an all-out national affair. While both holidays encourage playful dress, the forces behind them couldn’t be more different.

Halloween was invented to protect children from ghostly affairs with costumes and jack-o-lanterns, whereas Día de los Muertos invitesthe afterlife in. Death is viewed as part of a natural cycle and therefore, nothing to be feared. 

The two-day celebration is a happy event, including the sprucing up of gravesites with yellow blooms, which allows families to say hello to people they love and miss without taking things too seriously.
The Pew Research Center notes that as of 2012 more than 65 percent of the 50.7 Hispanics in the U.S. are of Mexican descent, and according to another national study, 28 percent of those celebrate Día de los Muertos. 

Reasons include keeping family traditions alive, the passing of heritage to children, the unique experience of celebrating both Latin and U.S. holidays and of course, the food that goes with it. The most associated is pan de muerto, a slightly sweetened bread with bone-shaped dough flanked over the top. 
Día de los Muertos is relatively unknown in the states, though on the rise, with large-scale parades and festivities, particulary in the western and northeastern regions. Atlanta celebrates, but Savannah has yet to catch on. The only tokens I found here are at World Market.  

Pixar is in the throws of an animated feature film based on Día de los Muertos, set for 2015, and mainstream shows like PBS Kids and Discovery Channel have already infused it into various episodes.  It’s only a matter of time before this is the new American holiday.

I love the idea.

There are many days throughout the year that I would like to remember family members no longer here, but don’t always know how to. So I have decided this is the year I will make Día de los Muertos my own, too. 

Frankly, I don’t have time to give pan de muerto a go, but the kids and I are going to pick out fun cookies in happy colors, probably some other southern sweets thrown in, a little flan for my mom and family pics. What a great way for them to connect to family members they’ll never know.

For me, it’s a way honor people I miss everyday.

My superstar photographer friend, LeeAnn Ritch snapped the festive decor in Sayulita, Mexico:

If you are feeling adventurous, take a shot at pan de muerto with this recipe from well-known Mexican food blogger, Pati Jinich @ patismexicantable.com:
PAN DE MUERTO
INGREDIENTS
½ cup lukewarm whole milk
2 packages active dry yeast (¼ oz each), or about 4 heaped teaspoons
½ cup all purpose flour, plus 3½ cups for later on
¼ cup unsalted butter at room temperature, plus more to grease the bowl, and 2 tablespoons to melt and brush on top
½ cup granulated sugar to make the dough, plus ½ cup for dusting the bread
6 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tablespoons orange blossom water, or plain water
1 teaspoon anise seeds, optional
1 teaspoon orange zest, optional
Pinch kosher or coarse sea salt.
TO PREPARE
In a small bowl, pour the lukewarm milk -making sure that it is not hot nor cold or the yeast will not react- and stir in the dry yeast granules. Give the yeast a couple minutes to sit in the liquid, and stir with a spatula until it is thoroughly and evenly dissolved. Give it time: stir a little, pressing gently on the yeast that has not yet dissolved with the spatula, give it a bit more time to sit in the milk, stirring again, press again. Once it has completely and evenly dissolved, add ½ cup flour. Mix it combining thoroughly, until it has no lumps. It will be gooey, runny and sticky. Leave it in the warmest area of your kitchen, for about 20 to 30 minutes, until it puffs up (to about double or triple its volume) and has bubbled on top. I like to place a sauce pan or cup with boiling hot water right next to it, but its not necessary.
In the bowl of a mixer, over medium low speed, beat the butter until soft. Add the sugar and beat until combined and fluffy. Add one egg at a time. Once eggs are incorporated, add the milk and yeast mixture. Then adding ½ cup at a time, add the rest of the flour (3 ½ cups). Stir in the orange blossom water if using and if not, add plain water. Also add the anise seeds and a pinch of salt. The dough will look wet, runny and sticky, but continue beating anywhere from 7 to 10 minutes, until all the dough comes off the sides of the mixing bowl. It will be elastic and sticky, but it will hold itself together.
Butter a large mixing bowl that can hold the dough, and will be able to hold it as it doubles or triples its volume. Place the dough in the bowl, cover it with a cloth or clean kitchen towel and leave it in the warmest area of your kitchen, that is draft free, making sure that it is not next to a window or door that gets opened. Leave it to rest and puff up anywhere from 2 to 3 hours, until it doubles its volume at least.
Punch the dough with your fist, flip it over, cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator over night. The next day, remove the plastic wrap, place a cloth or kitchen towel on top and let it to come to room temperature.
Take off a third of the dough to make the bread decorations: make a 1 to 2-inch ball and use the rest to make 2 ropes. They need not be smooth nor perfect, as the dough is quite sticky, and no need to worry they will look beautiful once the bread is baked (and covered with sugar).
Butter a baking sheet or a bread or pizza stone, and make a ball with the rest of the dough. Place it in the center of the baking sheet and flatten it a bit on top. Place the dough ropes making a criss-cross -Mexican bakers usually shape the ropes to resemble bones, having thicker and thinner parts- and the ball on the top, right where they cross. Cover the bread with a cloth or kitchen towel, and let it rise and puff up again, for 1 to 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 350. Bake the bread for for about 35 minutes. Halfway through baking, after about 20 minutes, cover the loaf with parchment paper or aluminum foil to prevent it from browning too much.
When they are ready, they sound “huecas”, or hollow, if you hit the bottom of the bread.
Melt the butter and brush all over the bread. Sprinkle sugar all over until completely covered.

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