Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Getting ready...

Preparations for Día de los Muertos are in full force. Stores, banks, restaurants, even bars are decked out with seasonal decorations. In most cases, Halloween staples such as jack-o-lanterns, spooky ghosts, witches, grotesque masks and slutty costumes take their place side by side with the more traditional Día de los Muertos images: colorful sugar skulls, la Catrina (the female representation of death normally appearing in festive pre-turn-of-the-century attire, including a fabulously huge and colorful sombrero) and skeletons of all sizes performing every thinkable human action—playing backup guitar for the rock band at the local Irish pub, riding bicycles, eating the typical Pueblan cemita, dancing in fancy party attire.

I have been really interested (and more than a little amused) by the ways in which both of these holidays are embraced by Cholulans, albeit to a different extent depending on generation, education and income level and general worldview.

One sign that the spooky season blurring the line between death and life is upon us: starting Monday, young children have been scouring restaurants and stores for generous adults, toting their little pumpkin pale or shoebox cut out with a jack-o-lantern face in hopes of receiving dulces or a moneda. A second, more sure sign: a college Halloween costume party Saturday. YES!!! Got to see some of those slutty costumes in action, plus a few creative ones. Namely, wolverine in a full-faux-leather suit and metal claws, Marie Antoinette and even Uncle Sam, courtesy of a Notre Dame study abroad student. I, on the other hand, was “bad” Sandy from Grease for the—count it— THIRD time in my life. Although I did sport some killer and perfectly in character red heels to offset my dire lack of originality. In the end, a great night with some new friends that brought back great memories with old friends (dance parties and copious picture-taking prompted by drinking college-level amounts of, ahem, refrescos? Somehow rang a bell.)

And in the panadería, we (ok—they) have been working overtime night and day to produce enough hojaldras to satisfy the demand.

La Blanca makes several varieties. The typical golden brown pan de muerte topped with sesame seeds ranges from small to very large, the larger varieties filled with raisins, nuts and cream. The large, filled ones run around 200 pesos or more!

The other variety is baked without the egg wash and sesame seed topping and is brushed with melted butter and covered with sugar after baking.

After a taste-test today, I have to say I’m a huge fan of the sugar variety for dessert. You can’t complain when you cover a butter-and-lard-heavy dough that somehow becomes deliciously light and fluffy with butter and sugar. (Who else mixed butter and sugar as a topping for plain white bread as a kid for dessert? Come on, fess up, you know it was delicious….this is better).  The sesame-topped variety is also delicious with a subtle buttery and floral flavor (we throw in esencia de azahar, orange blossom essence, that gives the hojaldras this smell and flavor).

 I have now observed every step of the process, from making the starter, the dough itself, the multi-step assembly of the shaped dough, the egg wash and sesame-seed sprinkling, the baking, the butter and sugar application. My shoulders ache from rolling hundreds of balls of dough (compared to the thousands my co-workers pound out).

But with extra workers in each shift to handle the load, every table covered with hojaldras in various stages of preparation and each of the four ancient ovens working, the bakery is buzzing, full of life and camaraderie. (For example, today I toasted with Netito, trying mezcal for the first time, sipping in between applying bone-shapes to the baking sheet after sheet of dough. Good stuff, but now I know where it gets its reputation.) When we finish preparing the mid-afternoon batch, we all sit together and eat la comida, continuing the jokes and teasing that are always sprinkled in the daily chitchat and resting our feet. Soon enough, it’s back to work. Most of the guys are working eleven-hour days, but all are happy to do so, making good money and doing something they know is worthwhile.

Other exciting, research-related developments. My neighbor Nico’s family friend is an anthropology professor at UDLA. We all met for pizza (Argentinian, mmmm), including her student who just wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on Mexican children’s perceptions of death. Five straight hours, at the pizza place and later over espresso at Nico’s and even later at my place, talking about death with this newly-minted postdoc. Nerd as I am, I relished this mini re-entry into the world of academia, which I swore I would never miss after turning in my thesis. Got a great new resource, as well as her bibliography and a PDF of a more-relevant dissertation chapter. She was really jealous as well as impressed that I had already attended novenarios, as she was never able to experience any similar service in a Mexican home during her research months here in Cholula and Puebla. HaHA! Talking with Isabel put into perspective just how cool my experiences thus far have been, and how this fellowship really does open up opportunities by being so flexible.

I said preparations were in full force these past few days, but they really were today as today, the 28th, is el Día de los Accidentados, the day of those who died accidental deaths. Tonight these spirits are supposed to come visit their homes to enjoy the ofrendas set by their relatives.

This afternoon, Sra. Zanella and I, along with about a thousand of our closest Cholulan friends, went to the market in search of bright orange cempasuchil and velvety purple terciopelo flowers, candles, incense, fresh fruit, candy figurines, traditional Pueblan candied fruit, papel picado and other goodies to make up our ofrendas. 

Stall upon colorful stall of ofrenda makings supplant the market’s normal vegetable and fruit stands.

We bought our traditional Pueblan dulces, the sugary or honeyed figs, calabaza en tacha, and dulce de chamote, de calabaza, de tecocotes from a woman who makes all these recipes at home every year just for this season.

 Sra. Zanella made up my mind for me about putting up my first ofrenda; I have almost all of my supplies to set up an ofrenda to my dad and my brother Tony tomorrow (I’m missing a nip of J&B scotch for dad and a Toblerone candy bar for Tony). I’m not expecting a visit, but I do think it’s a nice way to honor both of their memories, as well as to actually participate in the holiday that has intrigued me for so long and is largely responsible for me ending up in Mexico in the first place. 

I do have a couple of recipes to share in the midst of all the pre-Día de los Muertos excitement: huevos con epazote y chile and chayotes rellenos. Both involving ingredients I’ve written about before, but with a little more elaboration with each.  First, I continue my love affair with Mexican breakfast egg dishes with huevos con epazote y chile. 

Most people would not find scrambled eggs topped with a blended salsa made of “Mexican tea,” otherwise known as the pungent herb epazote, and charred and broiled chiles serranos a dish meant to ease their way into their day. And they would be right. If you are looking for a slightly sweet, mild, soothing breakfast dish, this is not the recipe. Go and fix some walnut and raisin oatmeal and come back to this post another time. This is a wake-you-up-with-some-zing kind of breakfast. You will be fully aware of your taste buds when you are through. That said, it is fully worth trying for the adventurous, those willing to bring out a blender before having their morning coffee. I used an immersion blender, but I would recommend following the recipe and pulling out your blender to protect you from the chile serranos. As soon as I turned on the blender, my eyes began watering and I started sneezing, a result of the air-born chile particles. Needless to say, I was a little nervous about the recommended chile-to-egg ratio, at three chile serranos asados to two eggs. But after being charred and softened on the comal, blended with the fresh epazote and paired with cool, creamy avocado slices, the spice level was just right. In the end, the flavor was distinct but strangely addicting. Not sure if it will make it into my regular rotation, but huevos con epazote y chile did not disappoint.

 I rewarded my adventurous spirit with a big steaming glass of café de olla. I finally have a picture of the piloncillo, the cones of dark brown sugar, and the canela.

One day I made chayotes rellenos for a late lunch, using more dairy products than should be allowed in one recipe (I had all said dairy products on hand; I am my mother’s child). Remember how I said the scarily spiny yet surprisingly subtle chayote takes on the flavor of the other ingredients? Obviously it was delicious. Look below for the recipe. It speaks for itself.

Huevos con epazote y chile
Taken from Diana Kennedy’s The Essential Cuisines of Mexico
Serves 2

2/3 cup water
6 serrano chiles, broiled until soft and roughly shopped (alternatively, broiled and charred on a comal)
1/3 cup firmly packed, roughly chopped epazote
salt to taste
3 tbs vegetable oil
4 large eggs

Put the water into the blender jar, add the chiles, epazote, and salt. Blend to a rough-textured consistency (This is when you will be happy that you lugged out the blender instead of your handy immersion blender.)

Heat the oil in a large skillet, break the eggs into it, add a little salt, and stir just to mix. Cook the eggs over medium heat, folding them over so that they cook evenly until well set. Pour the sauce over the eggs and continue cooking, without stirring, still over medium heat, until the sauce has reduced and seasoned a little—about two minutes.

Chayotes rellenos
Taken from Diana Kennedy’s The Essential Cuisines of Mexico
Serves 6

3 chayotes, about 1 pound each
2 tsp. salt
2 heaped tbs. unsalted butter
2/3 cup finely chopped white onion
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 large eggs, well beaten with salt and pepper
6 ounces queso fresco, crumbled
12 small strips of chihuaha cheese (you can substitute a mild cheddar, gouda or queso fresco)
2/3 cup thick sour cream or crème fraiche

If your chayotes do not happen to be precooked like mine I buy in the market, cover the whole, fresh chayotes with boiling salted water. Bring them to a boil and then let them cook covered over medium heat until they are just tender, about half an hour.

Drain and let them cool. When cool enough to handle, cut into halves (hold the chayotes with a rag or some other aid to protect you from the sharp spines) and scoop out the flesh carefully, removing the pithy core and seeds, leaving the skin intact. Mash the flesh well and leave it to drain in a colander.

Preheat the oven to 400° F. Melt the butter in a skillet and cook the onion and garlic over medium heat until translucent. Add the eggs and sir them until just set.

Add the mashed chayote flesh and let the mixture for a minute or so over low heat. Stir the crumbled queso fresco into the mixture until melty and well distributed. Stuff the reserved shells. Top with strips of cheese and sour cream and heat them through in the oven before serving.


  1. Went to the farmer's market today and picked up some fresh poblanos. I am going to attempt the Canal family's chile en nogales recipe. You make it look and sound so delicious.

    I miss you. Happy Halloween.

    Tio P

  2. Tell me how it goes!! Buy some yeasty white rolls to sop up all the extra nogada. Delicious.

    I miss you too. I can't wait to come visit you in Portland. Next trip on my agenda!

    I love you,


  3. I made them today and they were delicious! The nogada was an incredible addition. Thank you so much for the inspiration. I couldn't find peaches so I used dried apricots. Sliced my finger pretty well cleaning up the processor after making the nogada, but it was worth it. Can't wait to see you.

  4. Youch! Our family can be dangerous in the kitchen haha. Dried apricots--sounds great! It's such a rich dish, great for early fall. I couldn't find a translation for perones, the smaller slightly bitter apple. I wonder what would be a good replacement for that in the states.

    Also, you would be very jealous of the orange and lime trees we have in our garden. I spent the afternoon on a ladder whacking the dozens of ripe oranges off the tree. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

    Miss you!