Sunday, October 30, 2011

Feliz Dia de los Muertos! Is your altar up yet?....

As many of you know, if you're "into" traditions and especially Mexican Traditions, holiday time is upon us. I should explain that we have holidays for each and every day of the year, season, saint, whatever.... as far as we're concerned: any day is a good day to celebrate... AJUA! If you consider that most of the country's citizens are far below the poverty line, this makes perfect socioeconomic sense (and we saw this very well applied with our neighbors in Merida in our Santiago neighborhood), since it gives people something to look forward to instead of focusing on what's missing. Just hold on until the weekend and "the compadres" will come over and bring a bottle (or 2 or 3), we'll make a "carne asada", the kids will play, the music will sound (to the detriment of non-present neighbors who have to put up with the noise, fights and laughter until the very wee hours of the next day or two...) and you've made it through another week.

Mexican traditions are many yet among them death plays an important part in our culture by making fun of "la calaca" (another word for a skeletal representation of death) and turning it into a living being. We're all headed there and we might as well be friends, right? The Day of the Dead celebrations have been around for about 3,000 years at least and skulls were often kept as symbols of rebirth. It used to be held on the 9th month of the Aztec calendar and took the entire month. Everything was dedicated to the god of the dead which in modern times became "La Catrina" (a dressed up female skeleton).

The celebrations have been pared down some, although the preparation still take weeks to get just right and they are left in place for the whole month. November 1st  is the "Day of the Innocents" and remembers children and infants who have died, while November 2nd is the actual Day of the Dead. People make their dead their favorite dishes, take them to the cemetery and spend the day and whole night "spending time with their dead". They'll bring cigarettes, Tequila, bring photos and catch them up on all the gossip and family happenings, trying to encourage the spirits to visit often and so be able to listen to prayers made to them. Kind of "keeping them in the loop"..... but this serves a practical reason too.

Families get together around graves and take the time to clean them, plant new flowers, decorate and give them the maintenance they require. Most public cemeteries don't come with this service so each family must see to their own upkeep. If your family has a family plot in a private cemetery or has their own cemetery (like we do), you hire someone to do this or if you live in the area, like when we spent time in Zacatecas, we'd walk down by the river, every day, and stop by, do a little cleaning and chat and then move on, kind of like dropping in on a neighbor..... nice, really.

Marigolds are an important part of death celebrations, don't know why since they have no aroma and there are much nicer flowers but this is what's done, we call them "Flores de Cempasuchitl" which is Nahuatl for "twenty flowers" or "Flor de Muerto" (flower of the dead) and are thought to attract the dead. Toys are brought for the children, appropriate offerings for the adults, candies and altars are erected at home, along with traditional foods of the season like candied pumpkin, Pan de Muerto, atole and the ever popular "calaberitas", the sugar skulls with your name on them which we always loved to get at the local bakery. These offering as welcoming gifts to the dead, hoping they come and stay with us and so maintain the link  between the dead and living which we treasure.

There are some places in Mexico that make this celebration into something spectacular, like in Michoacan and especially in their towns of Patzcuaro and Janitzio. If you ever have the chance to go during this time, be sure and experience a truly once in a lifetime event. It's amazing! An entire community dedicated to celebrating their dead in a wonderful way.... picnics, whole families spend the night, chatting and sharing with others, chanting, praying and music all by candlelight on the water..... Incredibly beautiful!

If you happen to be lucky enough and be in Merida, Yucatan today, walk down to the Zocalo so you can see the altars erected there and take part in the celebrations. Stop by the bakery on the corner and buy yourself a "calaberita" and order up some "Pan de Muerto" but better be quick since orders for the bread begin at least two weeks before and bakeries run out even after baking non-stop to keep up with the demand. Join the celebrations and learn a little about our wonderful customs.... but most of all, have fun.

Want to make your own "Pan de Muerto"? Here's how, I'm getting organized to make some, why don't you join in?

PAN DE MUERTO:  Lovely sugar dusted egg bread makes this a great addition to a holiday table!

1/2 cup warm water
3/4 to 1 ounce dry yeast
2 1/4 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 eggs
8 egg yolks
1 cup butter
1/2 cup lard
1 tablespoon orange peel, grated
2 tablespoons orange-blossom extract
3 tablespoons anise extract
7 1/2 tablespoons milk

For the Glaze:
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup water
2 egg yolks
1 egg

Sugar to taste

Prepare the dough: Put warm water in a glass bowl. Add yeast, stirring to dissolve. Set aside in a warm spot near the stove. Add 6 to 8 tablespoons flour to yeast and water to form a stiff dough. Set aside again in a warm spot until doubled in volume.

In a separate bowl, sift remaining flour and sugar. Add salt, 3 eggs, 7 egg yolks, butter, lard, orange peel, orange-blossom and anise extracts, and 6 1/2 tablespoons milk. Mix well, and knead briefly. Add yeast mixture, and knead until dough is smooth and elastic. Place in a greased glass bowl, and spread a little butter on the surface. Cover dough with a dish towel, and set aside in a warm spot for 12 hours or until doubled in volume.

Knead briefly again. From the dough, pinch two 2-inch balls, 8 2-inch strips, and eight 1-inch balls. Divide remaining dough in half. Roll into 2 circles 6 inches in diameter. Place circles on a greased baking sheet. Beat together 1 egg, 1 egg yolk, and 1 tablespoon milk. Brush circles with mixture. Place 2-inch ball in center of each circle, and decorate the circumference with 1-inch balls and strips. Allow bread to rise for 1 hour in a warm place. Preheat oven to 375°F. Bake bread for 30 to 40 minutes.

Prepare the glaze: Put flour, water, egg yolks, and egg in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes or until mixture thickens to consistency of heavy cream. Bake for five minutes. Remove from oven, and sprinkle with more sugar.

Allow to cool. Serve with hot chocolate.

Just started our preparations so it will be a while before this is done, but anticipation is amazing in so many things, isn't it? If you live in an area with a Mexican community, then search out a Mexican bakery and partake of this excellent bread.

We'll be sure to put the cross-bones on the top as tradition dictates and sprinkle the sugar on too. The aroma of orange blossom scented bread is unique and begins celebratory meals together as food, candies and bread lend their perfumes to elevate the holiday. Hope you give this a try, you'll love it!

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