From sugar skulls to cactus tamales, delicious recipes to celebrate Día de Muertos

Steven Bonifazi
Decorative skulls (calaveras) are one of the main symbols of Day of the Dead.(Nick Fewings/Unsplash)

By Steven Bonifazi

Also known as Día de Muertos, Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday that takes place every year on Nov. 1 and 2 and is a way of remembering and celebrating the life of the departed.

The celebration of the two-day holiday is seen as the passageway connecting the real world and the spirit world, allowing deceased loved ones to come back and visit their friends and families. Day of the Dead was initially celebrated in the rural and indigenous areas of Mexico and started spreading to the cities in the 1980s, later being added to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008, according to

Those who celebrate Day of the Dead and their loved ones who have died do so by placing colorful Calaveras (skulls) with smiles on home altars in addition to sugar candies, clay decorations and face paintings. Additionally, Flor de Muerto (Mexican Marigolds) are flowers that are utilized as they are thought to be the direct pathways that work to guide spirits to their home altars.

Starting at midnight on Nov. 1 with Día de los Angelitos (spirits of the children), families construct and decorate an ofrenda (altar) with their departed child's favorite toys, foods, and photographs to be reunited with their dead children. On the following day at midnight, the celebrations move to honor the lives of the deceased adults, known as Día de los Difuntos (spirits of the adults), where the ofrendas are decorated with liquors such as tequila and plants like mezcal. At noon on Nov. 2, the grand finale, known as "Día de los Muertos" (spirits of all the dead) takes place, consists of parades such as that in Mexico City, which is the largest.
(Filiberto Santillán/Unsplash)

In addition to Mexico, Día de Muertos is celebrated across Latin America with similar celebrations but slightly different names in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela. Celebrators also partake in drinks, entertaining parties and activities, colorful clothing, and delectable dishes that dead relatives or friends enjoyed while alive. 

The following are just a few Day of the Dead recipes you can make at home:

Jalapeño and Cactus Tamales

Tamales are one of the oldest traditional dishes dating back to when the Aztec civilization flourished in central Mexico. 

The dish consists of steamed masa or dough inside corn husks and can also be placed as offerings on alters. This popularized dish is a great and tasty way to celebrate the holiday.

The ingredients for this jalapeño and cactus tamales recipe makes 24 tamales and requires 40 corn husks soaked in water for at least an hour, two cups of hot water, two cups of finely diced pickled cactus, one teaspoon of baking powder and a few more items.

Start with combining masa harina flour, water, shortening, bouillon and baking powder in a large mixing bowl. Knead the mixture and add cactus, jalapeños and carrots once it is thoroughly mixed. Stir until the masa is smooth and not sticky.

Drain the corn husks and scoop 1/4 of the masa mixture onto the husk, spreading with a spoon and leaving a one-inch border on each side. Fold one side of the corn husk over and fold the other side to overlap. Fold the pointed side up and turn over.

Place the tamales standing up in a steamer and fill it with hot water to be heated over medium-high heat. Cover tamales with remaining husks and a damp paper towel and bring to a boil. Steam for one hour and enjoy.

Sugar Skulls

One of the more popular and important components of Day of the Dead celebrations, Calaveras (Sugar Skulls) represents the soul of departed loved ones and are often given as gifts and set on altars during the holiday.

This simple recipe calls for six cups of granulated sugar, six teaspoons of water and six teaspoons of meringue powder for the skulls. The ingredients for the royal icing include four cups of powdered sugar, three tablespoons of meringue powder and six tablespoons of warm water.

Mix the granulated sugar and meringue powder and slowly add water, packing the sugar into a mold with no bubbles. Utilizing a knife, scrape the back of the mold into an even surface and invert the sugar mold onto a hard surface.

Once the skull has dried for eight hours and hardens, use a spoon to scoop out the middle, leaving a 1/2 inch thick wall around the outside. The hollowed skulls will need to dry for another 15 hours or can be dried overnight. The icing can be made by mixing powdered sugar, meringue powder and warm water to form a paste.

For multiple colors, divide the icing up into piping bags with decorative tips and use trace lines with the icing on the two pieces of the skull that come together. Let this dry before decorating the face.


An extremely popular drink, Horchata is a creamy beverage made that is rich in fiber and made with rice, nuts and cinnamon.

Although very simple to make, this recipe requires a total of three hours and ten minutes to complete. It calls for one cup of uncooked white long-grain rice, 1/2 cup of milk, five cups of water, 1/2 tablespoon of vanilla extract, 2/3 cups of white sugar and 1/2 tablespoon of ground cinnamon.

Place the rice and water in a blender and blend for one minute or until the rice breaks up. Let that mixture stand at room temperature for no less than three hours. Strain the water from the mixture and set the rice aside. Stir the milk, vanilla, cinnamon and sugar into the rice water. 

Chill and stir and serve over ice to enjoy.

Quick and Easy Mole Negro

A rich and dark sauce infused with chili peppers and chocolate, Mole is specific to Day of the Dead celebrations and is symbolically prepared during Day of the Dead as it is often passed down through generations of families.

Typically taking days to make, with a lot of ingredients and being freshly ground on a metate, this simplified recipe can be made any day and does not lack in flavor. It can be served over several types of chicken including poached, shredded or baked.

It calls for two tablespoons of oil, three steamed, seeded and dried guajillo chiles, one 3.1 ounce disk of Mexican chocolate and many more intricate items. It says to begin by heating two tablespoons of oil in a heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat and sauté sliced onions for nearly 18 minutes or until lightly browned.

Reduce the heat to medium and add almonds, garlic, cumin and coriander to sauté for about two minutes, adding the chilies and stirring for an additional two minutes. Add chicken broth, orange juice, raisins and oregano. Bring to a simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove from heat and add the chocolate to mix in for about fifteen minutes. Next, transfer the sauce mixture to a blender and puree until it is smooth, returning it to a pot. Season with salt and pepper and serve over chicken, garnishing with sesame seeds, fresh cilantro and warm tortillas.

Pan de Muertos

A core Day of the Dead item, Pan de Muertos is a type of pan dulce that is sprinkled and topped off with sugar and bone-shaped decorations.

This soft sweet bread roll is typically baked in Mexico a few weeks before Day of the Dead and is eaten at either the gravesite or ofrenda. The bone decorations represent the deceased loved ones and are decorated in a circle to represent the circle of life. It can be found in many Mexican grocery stores throughout the U.S.

Ingredients for this Pan de Muertos recipe call for one quart cup of margarine, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 cup of white sugar and a list of other ingredients.

Taking only an hour to make, this buttery pastry is simple and sweet. Prep time is 20 minutes with a total time of 65 minutes.

Begin by melting the butter and milk in a saucepan over medium heat. Once done, remove from the heat and add warm water. Next, add flour, yeast, anise, salt and sugar in a bowl and beat in the warm butter-milk mixture with eggs and orange zest until combined.

After letting the dough rise for two hours, bake for 45 minutes at 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat one quart of sugar, orange zest and orange juice until it thickens to serve as the glaze. Brush over the warm bread and enjoy!

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