Dia de los Muertos and Tortillas

This weekend is Dia de los Muertos! In order to celebrate, I will be writing a three part series about some of the foods associated with this wonderful holiday.

Dia de los Muertos is a holiday which honors the dead with festivals and lively celebrations. While the holiday is celebrated by a variety of Latin American countries, the event is most often associated with Mexico and Mexican American families in the Southern United States. The holiday combines indigenous Aztec rituals with Catholicism.

According to tradition, the gates of heaven open at midnight on October 31, All Hallows Eve, and the spirits of all deceased children (angelitos) are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours, until the close of All Saints Day. On November 2, All Souls Day, the spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities that are prepared for them. Families go to the cemetery to decorate their relatives' graves and tombs. Rather than fill the day with mourning or sadness, Dia de los Muertos celebrates the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties, and activities the dead enjoyed in life. Ofrendas (alters) are also made in each home. They are decorated with candles, buckets of flowers (wild marigolds called cempasuchil & bright red cock's combs), mounds of fruit, peanuts, plates of turkey mole, tamales, stacks of tortillas and big Day-of-the-Dead breads called "pan de muerto." The altars are filled with food, bottles of soda, hot cocoa and water for the weary spirits. Additionally, families leave out toys and candies for the angelitos, and cigarettes and shots of mezcal for the adult spirits.

For Part I of my series on Dia de los Muertos, I have decided to make tortillas de maiz (corn tortillas). Tortillas are not just eaten for Dia de los Muertos, but as a staple in the Mexican diet. Growing up in Southern California, they were a staple of my diet as well. Now living in Canada, I still eat tortillas for at least one meal a day.

When the conquistadors first saw the unflattened bread of the Aztec people in the sixteenth century  they gave it the name “tortillas.” The name comes from the Spanish word “torta” which means round cake (as well as sandwhich and a variety of other culinary products). Tortillas are made with Masa Harina Corn Flour, salt, and water.

You can’t use any type of corn flour to make tortillas. Masa Harina is made with dried kernels that have been cooked and soaked in limewater and then ground into masa. The process changes the chemical properties of the flour.

Author of the highly praised cookbook “Authentic Mexican” (1987), Rick Bayless explains how to make your own masa, by cleaning the corn, preparing the lime mixture, boiling the corn, washing the corn, and finally grinding the corn. However, you can buy preground Masa Harina, if not at your local grocery store, then definitely at the local Mexican market.

Once you have your masa or masa harina, make the tortillas. In order to make 15 tortillas, you will need to mix 1 Pound of Masa or 1 ¾ cups Masa Harina, mixed with 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of hot water (Bayless 74). I tend to add a little bit of sea salt to mine, but this is optional. You want to slowly pour the hot water into the dough to get a springy but not dry or sticky consistency.

Next, you will need to let the dough rest for a minimum of 30 minutes up to an hour. After the waiting period is over, you need to divide the dough into 15 round balls which you will then flatten one at a time in your tortilla press.

If you do not have a tortilla press, place the dough ball between 2 plastic sheets and push a really heavy book on top of it.

Now you need to cook the tortillas. You will place the flattened dough balls on top of a hot griddle for about 1 minute and then flip the tortilla over and cook it on the other side until it looks done. You do not want the tortillas to cook so much that they are blackened.

Now you can use your tortillas to make some tacos or put them on your ofrenda. While the souls that visit their altars do not physically eat or drink the food, as they have no bodies, traditionally they are believed to absorb the aroma and energy of the food. Families will eat the prepared foods after the celebrations but the food is seen as having no nutritional value because their essence is gone, taken by the spirits.

Tune in on Thursday to learn more about some of Dia de los Muertos's sugary treats.

(post by Alex Ketchum)