Although celebrated in many countries around the world, here in New Mexico, and especially in Taos, Day of the Dead is special.
For some private, and for others public, Día de los Muertos is welcomed with festivities all around town. Ofrendas (altars) spring up, decorated with flowers, sugar skulls, photographs, candles, tissue paper flags and the favorite foods of the departed. Each family observes the holiday in ways especially meaningful to them. And public altars are often community based and quite inclusive, inviting all to contribute a photograph or object of their own.
I am quite taken with Day of the Dead. For me, it is an opportunity to remember with love and an open heart those who have died. And as a cook, I can't resist creating an intimate feast for the living.
In the fall, we look forward to the change of the seasons, when leaves turn and the whisper of winter lies ahead. What more perfect time to celebrate our departed loved ones with memories and food.
Día de los Muertos originated in pre-Columbian Mexico, and today is still one of Mexico's most vivid and mystical holidays. And in all of Mexico, festivities in Oaxaca are among the largest and most jubilant. Oaxaca, which is prized for its authenticity, has also emerged as a culinary capital. And no wonder -- mole sauces may have been invented there. The so-called Seven Moles of Oaxaca deserve their fame.
While in the Yucatan, I had a chance to try delicious pavo en relleno negro, turkey with a deep black sauce -- mole negro. Although at the time I did not realize this mole originated in Oaxaca, I discovered the fact when I looked for the condiment back home.
Mole negro is a thick black paste made of several types of chiles and a dozen spices. The good news is that you don't have to grind the many ingredients yourself. All you have to do is simmer some of the premade paste with broth or even water for a sauce you won't forget. (Note: While you may be able to find it in specialty or ethnic grocery stores, I bought it online.)
The original Yucatecan recipe is complex and involves stewing chunks of turkey for many hours in the sauce. But mole negro is so good, I wanted to showcase its aromatic essence. So in my simplified take on a traditional recipe, I bake the chicken in the oven and then serve it in an exquisite pool of mole. Cilantro rice, sautéed roasted corn and my favorite cooked beans accent the dish. Based on the compliments at the table, I think the ancestors would approve.
For dessert, I decided on a Mexican chocolate flourless cake. Made with just a few ingredients, flourless chocolate cake is more of a custard than a cake. By adding cinnamon and clove, you can capture the distinctive flavor of Mexican chocolate. The good news for some people in Taos is that it is also gluten-free and nut-free. For many others, of course, it's just a delectable and elegant indulgence.
Día de los Muertos customarily means baking a batch of biscochitos -- traditional anise sugar cookies decorated with white icing and candies to resemble skulls. Although I don't include a recipe here, there are many available. If you'd like to explore the fun of customizing your own, use your favorite recipe or buy cookies at the store, and go from there.
Whether celebrating around town in full-on costumes and makeup, or reflecting on your history and welcoming back your ancestors in the quiet of your own home, Day of the Dead offers a chance to honor and commune with your beloved forebears and experience a joyful reconnection. A magical holiday for all!
Check out more recipes and cooking hints at Lucy's Kitchen on YouTube.
OVEN-BAKED CHICKEN WITH MOLE NEGRO
1 cup mole negro de Oaxaca paste (available at ethnic markets or online)
3 cups chicken broth
1 whole chicken, cut into 10 pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Heat the oven to 400 F.
Combine the mole negro paste with the chicken broth. Cook over high heat, whisking occasionally, until the mixture is reduced to 2 cups. Season as needed with salt and pepper.
Salt and pepper the chicken pieces and place in a baking pan. Bake for 30 minutes. Using a spatula and tongs, carefully turn the pieces over. Return to oven for 20 minutes.
Turn the pieces again to the first side. Bake for 10-20 minutes more. The pieces should be well browned and crispy, and when pierced, the juices should run clear.
Drizzle about 1/3 cup of mole negro on each dinner plate. Arrange chicken on the mole. Pass additional mole at the table.
Serve with Cilantro Rice.
4 cups cooked white rice
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup chopped green onion
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 cup chicken broth, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Additional cilantro for garnish
Melt the butter over medium heat in a large saucepan. Add the green onion and cilantro, and cook until glistening, about 3 minutes.
Add 4 cups of the cooked rice and toss to coat with the onions and cilantro. May be made up to an hour ahead at this point. Allow to cool before covering.
Just before serving, sprinkle half the chicken broth on the rice and allow to heat, stirring and adding more broth as needed until rice is heated through. Garnish with additional cilantro.
FLOURLESS MEXICAN CHOCOLATE CAKE
4 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
4 ounces (one stick) unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
Berries for garnish
Heat the oven to 375 F.
Butter a 9-inch springform pan. Place a parchment circle on the bottom of the pan and butter it as well.
Place the chocolate chips and butter into a microwave safe bowl. Cover with wax paper and microwave on high for 30 seconds. Whisk and repeat until the chocolate and butter are melted. Whisk well to combine and set aside to cool slightly.
Add the sugar to the chocolate mixture and whisk to break up some of the grainy texture. Add the eggs one at a time and whisk until well incorporated. Sprinkle the cinnamon, clove and cocoa powder over the mixture and whisk again until smooth.
Pour mixture into the pan and bake for about 25 minutes. The top should have a slight crust. Remove pan from oven and cool on a rack for at least 15 minutes.
Pop the sides of the springform pan and carefully remove from cake. Slide the cake onto a serving dish. Place a doily on top of the cake and sift powdered sugar over the doily. Carefully remove the doily without spilling any more of the sugar onto the cake.
Allow to cool and serve with whipped cream. Garnish with berries, if desired.