As it gets closer to Día de los Muertos, we start to see sugar skulls and artistic skeletons in the stores. In recent years, this Mexican holiday has become more mainstream, and while people can buy mass produced Día de los Muertos decorations in big box stores, foods related to the holiday help us remember the past and help us create new memories. This holiday that honors the dead unofficially marks the beginning of the ‘eating season’ in the Mexican-American community leading up to Christmas and the New Year.
One of the most common foods associated with Día de los Muertos is pan de muerto. Pan de
muerto is traditional Mexican sweet bread. It’s a round yeast loaf with strips of dough in the shape of bones. This bread is covered in a sugar glaze and can be decorated with colored icing. It’s flavored with orange zest and anise seeds. Pan de muerto pairs well with coffee or champurrado (a warm corn based chocolate drink). By mid-October, Mexican bakeries across the southwest will have pan de muerto for sale. This treat is quite typical and inexpensive.
It isn’t all about the pan de muerto. These two independent Mexican food vendors in the Los Angeles region are putting their own twist on Día de los Muertos.
Crafted by Moonlight offers uniquely flavored fruit tamales. Photo courtesy of Crafted by Moonlight
Desiree Gutierrez of Crafted by Moonlight, a cottage food business based in Long Beach, California, creates uniquely flavored tamales that combine fruits with different flavors. Gutierrez grew up learning how to make traditional tamales from her grandmother, who she says perfected the traditional pork and red chile tamal. Some of the fall themed flavors that she’s excited to share during the Día de los Muertos festivities include an apple curry tamal with raisins and spices such as ginger, cloves and cardamom and a red wine and fruit tamal with apricots, cherries, raisins and walnuts simmered in a red wine reduction.
“This is my first year in business, so I don’t know what to expect from Día de los Muertos from a business perspective, but the apple curry tamal has a warm feeling to it with spices that we typically associate with fall and the red wine and fruit delight tamal reminds me of Christmas. For Día de los Muertos, I will be selling at a fall festival in Long Beach, and I will be selling tamales and doing demonstrations at Alta Baja Market Santa Ana. I plan to decorate my demonstration table with Día de los Muertos decorations,” Gutierrez said. “When I think about this holiday, I think of not only the vibrant colors and the loved ones who have passed, I also think about foods and how we celebrate our traditions with those foods. I’m offering a twist on a food that is very traditional for us and exposing people to different flavor combinations.”
Crafted by Moonlight represents a combination of how Gutierrez views herself – being rooted
in her culture and yet having been exposed to travel and different foods from other cultures
that inspire her. She is reinterpreting what people think a tamal is and finds the corn masa
based staple to be a good vessel for showcasing different ingredients.
Karina Jimenez owns Viva Los Cupcakes, a specialty cupcake company based in Los Angeles. Viva Los Cupcakes makes artisanal cupcakes inspired by Mexican foods.
“We’re a Mexican twist on the typical American cupcake. I grew up in Mexico and am familiar with the different flavors and desserts. We bring something unique to food festivals and events. Our busy season runs from now until Christmas and the New Year, so Día de los Muertos is important for us because it’s widely celebrated, involves food, and kicks off this festive time,” Jimenez said. “This time of the year is about gathering and celebrating. We have a flavor of the month. It tends to be a bit seasonal, so for October, I’m featuring a puerquito (piggy) cupcake based on the traditional puerquito cookie that is sold in Mexican bakeries.”
Viva Los Cupcakes brings Mexican food flavors to an American dessert staple. The tamal con mole flavored cupcake combines two popular Mexican food staples in a corn cake with mole frosting. Photo courtesy of Viva Los Cupcakes
The puerquito cupcake is a piloncillo (raw cane sugar) and spice cake topped with piloncillo
buttercream that has a small amount of dark cocoa edged with toffee pieces and topped with a mini puerquito cookie. Puerquitos are often confused for gingerbread because they are brown, but there is no ginger in this traditional pig cookie. The piloncillo colors the cookie brown.
As people start to think about Día de los Muertos and food traditions this year, many who
celebrate will combine traditional flavors with new ones, and Mexican-American food vendors
are paving the way with gourmet treats.