Happy Halloween! While today is all about ghosts and goblins and trick-or-treating, I am more excited about this weekend, when San Francisco’s Mission District will be alive (if you will) celebrating Mexico’s Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos. This celebration, which is held on November 1st and 2nd, honors the spirits of loved ones who have passed away. Day of the Dead dates back thousands of years to the Aztecs, who honored a goddess named Mictecacihuatl. It is believed that during this festival, spirits are able to intermingle with and visit the living. A symbol of the holiday is the calavera or skull, which celebrants wear in the form of skull-shaped masks, called calacas. Calaveras are also represented in the form of sugar skulls, which are inscribed on the forehead with the name of the recipient, who can be living or dead.
Traditionally during the celebration period, families clean and maintain the gravesites of loved ones. To honor and hopefully attract missed loved ones, families erect altars on top of graves and also in family homes. The altars are decorated with offerings (ofrendas), which traditionally include marigolds, sugar skulls, photos and memorabilia of the departed, as well as favorite foods and beverages. Beverage offerings include bottles of tequila,mezcal or pulque or jars of atole. Common food offerings including candied pumpkin and pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”), a sweet egg bread made in various shapes including skulls and rabbits, often decorated with white frosting to look like twisted bones.
Celebrations take place at these gravesites, with the intent to encourage the souls to visit. These celebrations can take on a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny anecdotes about the departed. There is a traditional form of short poetry written for this occasion known as calaveras. These are mocking but affectionate epitaphs about the departed.
The Mission has a vibrant arts scene, and is home to one of the best collections of murals I’ve seen anywhere. These murals are centered in the aptly named Balmy Alley, and in the tradition of Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera, depict themes ranging from age-old folklore to modern politics. And on Day of the Dead, the Mission hosts an annual nighttime procession, an event that typically draws 30,000 revelers. Many of these celebrants will be dressed as skeletons, so don’t be confused (or scared) if you happen to be passing by.
My food offering for this year’s Day of the Dead will feature pumpkin, or calabaza, which is used widely in Mexican cooking. Most often Mexicans prepare pumpkin in savory dishes, such as soup, or use pumpkin or squash blossoms to make quesadillas seasoned with epazote, a specialty in Oaxaca. In a nod to the candied pumpkin that is offered to the departed on Day of the Dead, my offering is a pumpkin flan. I have flavored this variation on the classic Mexican-by-way-of-Spain custard with the Mexican spices of vanilla, cinnamon, and orange. To add both contrasting texture and flavor, I have topped it with a spicy sweet topping of crunchy pepitas, or pumpkin seeds. Enjoy it with cafe de olla, a traditional Mexican coffee beverage brewed with orange peel and cinnamon.
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Pumpkin-Orange Spice Flan with Spiced Pumpkin Seeds
yield: Makes 8 servings
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
5 whole large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
1 (15-ounce) can solid-pack pumpkin (1 3/4 cups; not pie filling)
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 teaspoons orange liqueur (Cointreau)
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup green (hulled) pumpkin seeds (not toasted), aka pepitas
grated zest of one orange
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 to1/4 teaspoon cayenne, to taste
1/4 tsp sugar
dash of ground cinnamon
1. Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Heat a 2 qt soufflé or round ceramic casserole dish in oven while making caramel.
2. Cook 1 cup sugar in a dry 2-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, undisturbed, until it begins to melt. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally with a fork, until sugar melts into a smooth, deep golden caramel.
3. Remove the preheated dish from the oven and immediately pour the caramel into the dish, tilting it to cover bottom and sides. Keep tilting as caramel cools and thickens enough to coat, then let harden. Leave the oven on as you continue the next steps.
1. Bring cream and milk to a bare simmer in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, then remove from heat.
2. Whisk together whole eggs, yolk, and remaining cup sugar in a large bowl until combined well, then whisk in pumpkin, vanilla, spices, and salt until combined well.
3. Add hot cream mixture to the pumpkin mixture in a slow stream, a little bit at a time, whisking continuously.
4. Pour the combined custard mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, scraping with a rubber spatula to force through, and stir to combine well. (This step seems fussy but is essential to get a silken flan.)
5. Pour strained custard over the caramel in the soufflé dish, then bake in a water bath until flan is golden brown on top and a knife inserted in center comes out clean, about 1 1/4 hours.
6. Remove the dish from the water bath and transfer to a rack to cool to room temperature.
7. Chill flan, covered loosely with plastic wrap, until cold. This will take at least 6 hours, or overnight.
Make spiced pumpkin seeds:
1. Toast pumpkin seeds in oil in a 10- to 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately low heat, stirring constantly, until puffed and golden, 8 to 10 minutes.
2. Combine orange zest, sugar, salt and cayenne .
3. Toss toasted seeds with the spice mixture until evenly coated.
1. Run a thin knife between flan and side of dish to loosen. Shake dish gently from side to side and, when flan moves freely in dish, invert a large platter with a lip over dish. Holding dish and platter securely together, quickly invert and turn out flan onto platter. (Caramel will pour out over and around flan. This is the most delicious mess you’ll ever make.)
2. Sprinkle flan with a few handfuls of spiced pumpkin seeds just before serving. (You’ll have a lot of pumpkin seeds leftover. They make a fantastic snack on their own, or as an addition to trail mix.)
Recipes adapted from Gourmet, November 2005.
For a slideshow of more of the wonderful murals in The Mission, see the end of my original post.