Celebrate Día de Muertos is a seasonal pumpkin sweet, that is perfect as an altar offering and to enjoy all winter long.
Calabaza en tacha, candied pumpkin, is a seasonal sweet that forms part of the traditional foods of Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November every year this very special holiday is among the most important cultural heritages of Mexico.
*Disclosure: This article has been updated from it’s original November 2011 publication and now also includes a video.
Día de Muertos is a holiday that dates back to pre-Hispanic times and has it’s roots in Aztec culture. Nowadays it’s celebrated across many regions of Mexico as well as throughout the Americas and by the Mexican diaspora around the World. The rituals and celebrations may differ from place to place (The Mayan people call their holiday Hanal Pixan which translates to food for the souls and differs a bit), but the meaning remains the same.
Día De Muertos is a day meant for honoring, celebrating and remembering loved ones no longer on this Earth.
While some may find a day of celebrating death strange and macabre, but please don’t feel that way, instead know that this is a day when the energy of the departed is a little closer to you. It’s a day to remember them just a little bit more, it’s about letting their energy know they haven’t been forgotten.
My family is typical, and like other Mexican families part of our celebration included visiting the graves of our loved ones. As a child I remember joining other families in our town in making the pilgrimage to the cemetery. I remember the walk among the tombstones revealing colorful decorations of marigold flowers, family mementos, candles, and one might also find an occasional bottle of tequila!
In addition to this many families still follow the pre-Hispanic traditions of building altars to their loved ones in their homes. They are decorated with photographs, candies such as sugar skulls, flowers, personal mementos, drinks, breads, sweetened pumpkins, and a special meal cooked just for the departed. These items all have special significance and are called ofrendas, literally, offerings.
The reason for building the altars is to lure the spirits home for a visit. It’s believed that the souls return every year to make sure that they have not been forgotten and to see that their families are well.
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The Aztecs, like many indigenous people across the world, honored their dead with such food offerings and rituals. Since pre-Hispanic times, these ofrendas have been an indispensable part of the Day of the Dead rituals. Pumpkins (along with corn, beans and chilies) were highly prized staples of the indigenous diet and were always included in ceremonies and festivities, so it’s really no wonder that it’s included in the altars even today.
Before the arrival of the Spanish pumpkins were sweetened with maguey sap before being placed on the altar. After the arrival of the Spanish the technique for sweetening the pumpkin changed. The pumpkin was placed in and cooked in the same caldrons, or tachas, that were used for processing the sugar from the harvested sugarcane. The pumpkins were simmered alongside other fruits and spices and would become the calabaza en tacha we still know and love today.
Modern day calabaza en tacha recipes vary from family to family and across the many regions of Mexico. We could say that each family adapts the recipe to their liking, and that is exactly what I have done, adapted it to my liking.
The simpler, more traditional recipes will typically only use pumpkin, water, piloncillo, orange juice or peel, and cinnamon. Some will also add cloves and perhaps some guavas.
My recipe is unconventional due to the addition of some non-traditional Mexican spices. We live in a modern age where international flavors and ingredients influence the different cuisines of the world. My recipe is Mexican at it’s roots and, much like the traditional Aztec recipe evolved to incorporate foreign flavors, so too has my own.
You will find that the spices permeate the calabaza slices perfectly to create an aromatic and soothing touch to your senses, while the silky creaminess added by the evaporated milk is the perfect compliment to the sweet and tender calabaza. Then, to finish it off with an extra pop of sweet aromatic flavors, comes the drizzling of the syrup over the slices – truly a wonderful treat to not only honor the spirits of our loved ones, but to also enjoy the best of this quintessential fruit of autumn.
¡Buen provecho amigos!
- 1 kilo or 2.2 lb. raw pumpkin slices, seeded only *
- 2 whole Mexican cinnamon sticks
- 1 whole star anise
- large pinch ground cardamom or 3 cardamom pods, bruised
- 3 whole cloves
- 3 whole allspice
- orange peel from one small orange
- pinch of salt, optional
- 1 cone of piloncillo** or ⅔ cup /120 gm cinnamon sugar or brown sugar + 1 heaping tablespoon molasses
- 500 ml or 2 cups of water
- unsweetened evaporated milk, Vegans omit or replace with dairy free cream
- Pour the water into to the pot, then add all the spices,piloncillo or sugar and molasses. Bring to a soft boil. Gently place the pumpkin slices in the pot, the first layer flesh face down the top layer flesh up.
- Turn heat to medium low and allow to simmer until the pumpkin is tender, you should carefully flip the pumpkin so that both the top and bottom layers cook and absorb the flavour of the spices and piloncillo. Gently remove the pumpkin from the pan and allow to cool on a separate large plate. Alternatively it can be placed in the refrigerator to eat the following day. The remaining liquid from the pot will be reduced done even more.
- Over medium heat and stirring often reduce the liquid to half of what it was and until it reaches a thicker consistency almost like syrup. Turn heat off, allow to cool and if not using right away store in the refrigerator. Strain the syrup through a fine sieve before using.
- Once ready to eat the pumpkin you can either eat it cool or slightly warm. Pour some evaporated milk and syrup over it or alternatively serve with vanilla ice cream if desired.
Additionally the traditional recipes leave the seeds and stringy bits attached to the pumpkin, but I don't like to.
Please know too that different pumpkin varieties will cook at different rates, so keep checking on the pot as it simmers.
**Piloncillo can be found at Latin food markets either under the piloncillo or panela name, the later being the Central and South American name for it. In a pinch you can buy it on Amazon http://amzn.to/2yJzaD6.