An Ode to the Celebration of Life
By Justin Butts
By: Justin and Kayla Butts Photos by: Rachel Benavides
We first tasted sugar skulls last year at the Dia de los Muertos Festival in Downtown Corpus Christi. The lady selling them told us that each colorful and delicious skull, called a calavera, represents the soul of a dearly departed loved one. We definitely wanted to know more!
On Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, the souls of the dearly departed are said to return to earth for a brief visit. It is not a spooky visit but a joyful celebration of the loved one’s life, filled with happy memories, good eating (and drinking!), and music.
The ofrenda is an important feature in this celebration. Ofrenda is the Spanish word for offering and also the name of the collection of objects placed on an altar to guide the soul home. Candles light the way, and the loved ones’ favorite foods and beverages are displayed to refresh them after the long journey through the spirit world. Marigolds, photographs, and prized trinkets also decorate the ofrenda.
These Dia de los Muertos traditions originated with the Aztecs. They made cavaleras from amaranth grains. Marigolds represented the fragility of life, and the Aztecs believed the flowers guided spirits to the altars.
When Herman Cortes and the conquistadors invaded the Aztec Empire, they thought the ancient ritual was pagan sacrilege. They attempted to stamp out the tradition forever, but it survived. Eventually it was synchronized with All Soul’s Day and is now celebrated across the Americas.
We couldn’t wait to get home and make our own calaveras. We wanted to honor the Aztec roots of the holiday, so we used amaranth and local honey. This version is surprisingly delicious and is much healthier than sugar skulls.
To pop amaranth, place a very thin layer at the bottom of a hot, deep pan and stir until fragrant. Most kernels will pop within two minutes and turn a snowy white. Decorate the skulls with dried fruit, nuts, royal icing, edible paint, or edible gold leaf. These skulls are beautiful, unique, and actually good for you!
We wanted to use some of our heirloom pumpkins from the garden, so we made these delicious pumpkin empanadas for the Pan del Muerto. Most empanada recipes call for vegetable shortening, but we opted for pastured pork lard. Lard from locally raised pastured porkers has a great flavor, is free of trans-fats, and is rich in heart-healthy fats.
Horchata is a sweet and refreshing chilled beverage made from rice and cinnamon. We experimented to find a version with less sugar that doesn’t sacrifice on taste. Coconut sugar adds a rich caramel flavor with just a hint of coconut that creates a perfect sweetness.
This year, the Dia de los Muertos Street Festival will be held in Downtown Corpus Christi on Saturday, October 31, from 3:00pm to midnight. This festival features arts and crafts, food, live music, folk dancing, and much more, plus many thousands of visitors (not to mention souls).
Decorate your ofrenda with these tasty recipes, and then head downtown to celebrate life at the Dia de Los Muertos!
Pumpkin Empanadas (Empanadas de Calabaza)
Makes 12 hand pies
Prep time: 30 minutes
Inactive prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp sugar, plus 1 tbsp for dusting
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup pastured pork lard
2 eggs, plus 1 egg white
1/2 cup milk
2 cups roasted pumpkin (or one 15-oz can organic pureed pumpkin)
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 tbsp butter
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1/8 tsp cloves
To prepare dough, mix dry ingredients in a large bowl or standing mixer. Add remaining ingredients and mix until just combined. Form dough into a disk, cover in plastic wrap, and cool in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Combine ingredients for the filling in a large bowl. Whisk until well incorporated.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Remove dough from the refrigerator and divide it into 12 pieces. On a floured surface, roll the dough into a ¼” to 1/8” thick circle, depending on preference. Spoon ¼ cup of filling into the center of the dough and fold the dough over, making a half circle. Seal the pie by crimping with your fingers, or pressing the edges with the tines of a fork. Transfer to a baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling. Lightly brush the empanadas with egg white and dust with sugar. Bake the pies for 20 minutes or until golden brown.
Amaranth Skulls (Calavera de Amaranto)
Makes 4 large skulls
Cook time: 10 minutes
Inactive prep time: 30 minutes to 3 hours
Non-stick cooking spray
¼ cup local raw honey
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp water
4 cups popped amaranth
Spray skull molds with non-stick cooking spray.
In a medium saucepan, combine honey, sugar, and water. Cook over high heat until mixture reaches 255°F. Pour amaranth into honey mixture and stir to evenly coat grains. Pour mixture into molds and refrigerate for 30 minutes, or until completely set.
Remove calaveras from molds and decorate with adornments of your choosing. Calaveras will keep in a cool, dry place for up to 2 days.
Makes about 48 ounces
Prep time: 15 minutes
Inactive prep time: 4-12 hours
1 cup uncooked, long-grain rice, rinsed
½ cup raw, unsalted almonds
1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
3 cups filtered water
½ cup coconut sugar
1 cup whole milk (preferably from grass-fed cows)
Combine rice, almonds, cinnamon, and water in a large bowl. Cover and store mixture in the refrigerator for 4-12 hours.
Remove rice mixture from refrigerator and blend until smooth (about 4 minutes on high speed). Strain rice mixture using a cheesecloth-lined colander. Add coconut sugar and milk to the remaining liquid and stir well. Serve over ice.