El Dia de los Muertos (by Nancy Lopez-McHugh)

El Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a Mexican holiday that is meant to honor and remember loved ones no longer on this earth. This important Mexican holiday has its roots in Aztec culture and is celebrated every 1st and 2nd of November.

The rituals and celebrations can differ from one place to another, and may also be known by a different name. Regardless of the differences, the holiday is celebrated in many places around the world including North and Latin America, and even some European countries. While some may find that a day of celebrating death may not only sound strange but also macabre, that is not the meaning of this holiday. This is a time for celebrating the life of those loved ones we have lost. It is meant for remembering and sharing the good those people brought to our world. It is a celebration of life.

Mexican tradition calls for visiting the graves in order to be with the dead. Tombstones are decorated with orange marigold flowers, special family mementos, and maybe a little tequila too. Families will also build altars to the deceased in their homes or gravesite. The altars will have the deceased’s favorite foods, music, photographs, toys, drinks, breads, sweets, sugar candy sculls or anything else that the person loved when they inhabited the earth.These are called ofrendas or literally offerings. All of this is done as a way of luring the spirits home for a visit. It is believed that the souls return every year to make sure they have not been forgotten. They also come back to check make sure their living family members are well.

In Mexico no holiday or gathering is complete without food. One of the foods enjoyed or served in Mexico during this time of year is candied pumpkin or calabaza en tacha. This is the first time I have ever made the sweet treat. Unfortunately I have no memory of my mother making it for us – though I could be wrong. Regardless, it was an experience I truly enjoyed as it made me feel connected to both my living and dead family members.

Me being me, I simple couldn’t stick to any of the traditional recipes I came across. As is typical for me, I experimented with the spices and ingredients. The main difference in my recipe is the amount of sugar, I do not like things to be overly sweet, but feel free to adjust to your taste. As a big (huge) fan of pumpkin I thought this was a fantastic treat. I loved the way the spices permeated the pumpkin slices. The spice combination is definitely a winner. The creaminess added by the evaporated milk was the perfect compliment to the spices and tender pumpkin. I also loved having the extra syrup to drizzle as I pleased.

Even if you are not celebrating Dia de Los Muertos, this candied pumpkin is a delicious sweet that you must try. Have it for breakfast, lunch, snack or even dessert. (I have eaten it for all these options.) Hmm… I could even see it on the Thanksgiving or Christmas table. Even better is that this recipe is perfect for vegetarians and vegans as the evaporated milk can be replaced with a non-dairy option. Buen provecho!

Calabaza en Tacha (Mexican Candied Pumpkin)
  • 1 kilo / 2.2 lb. raw pumpkin slices, seeded only *
  • 2 whole cinnamon sticks
  • 3 cardamom pods, bruised
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 3 whole allspice
  • pinch of homemade citrus zest or orange zest
  • pinch of salt
  • ⅔ cup / 120 gm cinnamon sugar or brown sugar +
  • 3 tbsp. granulated sugar
  • 1 heaping tablespoon molasses
  • 2 cups / 500 ml water
  • evaporated milk , Vegans omit or replace with dairy free cream
  • * Some recipes tell you to cut the pumpkin into squares/chunks. I have chosen to leave it in even sized small wedges.
  1. Pour the water into a large pot, then add all the spices, sugar and molasses. Bring to a soft boil. Gently place the pumpkin slices in the pot, the first layer flesh face down and top layer flesh up.
  2. Turn heat to medium low and allow to simmer for about 1 hour, or until half the liquid is absorbed and the pumpkin is fork tender. Gently remove the pumpkin from the pan and allow to cool on a large plate. Alternatively it can be placed in the refrigerator to eat the following day. The remaining liquid from the pot will be reduced down even more.
  3. Strain the liquid to remove all of the spices from the pot and discard them. Over medium heat, stirring often reduce the liquid to half or until it reaches a thick consistency like syrup. Turn heat off, allow to cool and if not using right away store in the refrigerator.
  4. Once ready to eat, the pumpkin you can served cool or slightly warm. Pour some evaporated milk and syrup over the pumpkin slices. Alternatively this would also taste great served with vanilla ice cream.

Nancy Lopez-McHugh was born in Mexico and currently resides in the Czech Republic. She is the talent behind Spicie Foodie, a blog that showcases the culinary and artistic exploits of a Mexican in Prague, and the column Mexico On My Plate at Honest Cooking. She is also the author of two books: An Epiphany of the Senses, a cookbook, and the newly-released Yummy Pics: A Food-Blogger’s Guide to Better Photos, in which she shares her photographic experience and insights.