The cemeteries are glowing with the rich orange of the “cempasúchil” or Aztec marigold and Mexican families are preparing to honour their deceased relatives. 1st and 2nd November are known as “Los Días de los Muertos” or the Days of the Dead which are an important pre-Conquest celebration in Mexico, and surprisingly enough, cheerful and festive occasions. Shops and market stalls are decked with colourful tissue paper cut-outs of skeletons and ghoulish skeleton dolls; the bakers’ windows display the traditional Pán de Muerto or Dead Man’s Bread; and from every street corner large and small sugar or chocolate skulls grin toothily at passers-by.
Come sun-down, everybody proceeds to the tombs of their loved ones, laden with food and drink with which to welcome their souls home. Candles are lit, guitars are strummed, songs are sung and the night is alive with laughter and “alegría”, joy. Among the treats prepared by the women of the house and consumed at the grave-side are the dishes which the departed enjoyed most in life – but there will also be many traditional “platillos” such as mole, tacos and baked enchiladas, sauces and salsas, hot chocolate, tequila, pulque and beer; and a great favourite and Day of the Dead specialty is candied pumpkin or “calabaza en tacha”.
Pumpkins and squashes are native to the Americas, and in Mexico, they are particularly valued for their seeds or “pepitas” and rich, khaki-green oil; the flowers are the star of the culinary stage in late summer and early autumn and the bright orange flesh finds its way into countless “guisos” or stews. For the Día de los Muertos, the pumpkin goes into the “tacha”, a large pot. It is habitually cooked whole in a thick, dark syrup flavoured with “piloncillo”, Mexico’s very distinctive unrefined sugar, and spices. In order for the syrup to penetrate right to the heart of the pumpkin, the outer, extremely hard, carapace needs to be pierced – not an easy job unless you have an electric drill or are handy with a hammer and nails! The saucepan is then set over medium heat and after an hour or two, depending on the size of the pumpkin, the flesh has soaked in the aromatic syrup and turned a rich brown. It is now ready to be placed on the altar which has been set up in the home to celebrate the dead, and when the Día de los Muertos comes along, the pumpkin will be carried with the other offerings to the cemetery, for the delectation of the living and the dead.
While candying the pumpkin in the traditional way, ie cooking it whole, is doubtless great fun, it is also quite an endeavour. I personally prefer to cut the pumpkin up into wedges which fit comfortably into my largest saucepan – the final presentation may not be quite as dramatic, but it certainly makes life easier and thereby encourages me to actually cook Calabaza en Tacha every year!
There are many different ways of making the syrup and cooking the pumpkin in it, and after trying many of them out, I now opt for the method below. First I make the syrup and reduce it slightly to thicken it. Then I add the pumpkin and cook it until tender. The next step is to remove it and boil the syrup down until it is really thick, at which stage I spoon it generously over the pumpkin and let it all cool together. This method does take time but requires little effort (other than cutting up the pumpkin) and attention.
Piloncillo is not essential to this dish but it does add a very specific and authentic flavour. However, if piloncillo is not available, molasses sugar is the best alternative.
Mexican Candied Pumpkin – Calabaza en Tacha
Serves 8 to 10
1 pumpkin, weighing 1 kg/2 1/4 lb to 1.250 kg/2 1/2 lb
2 cinnamon sticks, about 5 cm/2 in long
5 whole cloves
300 g/11 oz Mexican piloncillo or molasses sugar
Double/thick cream, to serve
Cut the pumpkin into wedges about 10 cm/4 in long and 5 cm/2 in wide at the fat end. Scrape away the seeds and fibres but do not remove the skin as it will help the pumpkin to keep its shape while it cooks.
Place the cinnamon and cloves in a large saucepan and add about 750 ml/1 1/4 pints/3 cups of cold water. Bring to the boil and stir in the piloncillo or sugar. Cook at a gentle boil for 30 minutes.
Carefully lower the pumpkin into the hot syrup. If it is not totally submerged, add enough hot water to cover it. Turn the heat right down, cover the saucepan and simmer for one hour.
Remove a piece of pumpkin from the syrup with a slotted spoon and test it with the tip of a knife. It should be just tender. If there is any resistance, it needs longer cooking. Return the pumpkin piece to the syrup and simmer for a further half hour then test again. It is important not to overcook the pumpkin as it will acquire an unpleasantly mushy texture, but if it is undercooked, it will not have absorbed the wonderful syrupy flavour.
When the pumpkin is tender, remove it with the slotted spoon to a deep dish which will hold the wedges in one layer. Return the pot to the heat and simmer the syrup until it is thick and glossy. Spoon the syrup over the pumpkin wedges and leave to cool.
Cover the dish with cling film/plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold. The Calabaza en Tacha can be kept for up to four days.
Place a wedge of candied pumpkin on each plate, spoon over some syrup and serve with plenty of cream. The pumpkin skin is edible but if you prefer, you can just scrape off the flesh.
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