We’re in the middle of one of the spookiest weeks of the year. And no, it has nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic (although many will argue otherwise.)
We’re talking goblins and ghosts and things that go bump in the night starting this weekend when both Halloween and the Day of the Dead celebrations take place – and both occasions are marked with haunting events surrounding the dearly departed.
Halloween is all about costumes and pumpkins and candy, while the Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – (long celebrated by Mexicans and most Latin American countries) is famous for its hauntingly beautiful rituals of gathering friends and families in cemeteries to pay homage to those who have died. Steeped in tradition, it’s a festival that is fast becoming part of popular culture.
Research shows the celebration coincides with the Catholic holy days of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, (Nov. 1-2), which traditionally take place right after Oct. 31 – Halloween. Celebrants believe the souls of the dead return to a special welcome on this revered day, which is marked with sombre, beautiful and finely-detailed customs that include dining at local cemeteries and indulging in delicious foods that include skull-shaped candies, and a wonderfully aromatic, sweet “pan de muerto” bread.
As for Halloween, the holiday is entrenched in Druid customs, the Druids being a Celtic religious order in ancient Britain, Ireland and France – but we really do have the Irish to thank for all the unearthly, mystical traditions that take place this time of year.
The origins of Halloween proper date back some 2,000 years ago to the old Celtic festival of Samhain – “Samhain” derived from Old Irish meaning the “end of summer.” It was a period entrenched in Pagan worship for the changing seasons, when many Irish believed that on this day, the veil between the living and the dead worlds was at its most vulnerable – thus allowing the spirits to cross into the world of the living.
People disguised themselves with rough costumes (most likely made with animal skins and heads) to avoid being snatched by any errant evil spirit, and huge bonfires were lit. Later on, during the rise of Christianity, Samhain morphed into Halloween, when Christians named the night as All-Hallows Eve, or Halloween proper as we know it today.
So don your spookiest costume, and pull out your scariest book or movie, and enjoy the following sweetbreads – one representing each occasion – for a devilishly delicious celebration.
Barmbrack – A Gorgeous Halloween Tea Loaf
The delightful Bronagh Duffin of The Bakehouse in Northern Ireland is famous for her array of heart-warming baked goods. This special recipe is a traditional Irish Halloween bread/cake where trinkets are baked right into the cake to predict future events – e.g., a ring signifies getting married in a year, a coin symbolizes great wealth, a walking stick indicating future travels and so forth. bakehouseni.com duffin_bronagh . @GoToIrelandCA, #LoveIrelandFood
1 cup (250 mL) freshly brewed tea, allowed to cool
1/4 cup (60 mL) whiskey, (Irish, of course!)
2 1/2 cups (625 mL) dried mix fruit
1 1/2 cups (220g) all-purpose flour
2 tsp. (10 mL) baking powder
3/4 cup (175 mL) packed light brown sugar
1/2 tsp. mixed spice blend (apple pie spice blend works well)
Blend cold tea with whiskey and pour over dried mixed fruit. Allowed to soak overnight.
In a large bowl add dry ingredients and mix well. Make a well in the centre and break the egg into it. Mix egg thoroughly into dry ingredients. Add mixed fruit, along with any liquid, and blend thoroughly. Add a few trinkets to the dough at this point. Line a loaf pan with parchment paper; pour mixture into pan and place in preheated 350°F (175°C) oven; bake for 45-50 minutes, or until toothpick in centre comes out dry.
Remove from oven, cool, and plastic wrap for two days before serving. Serve with fresh butter and tea.
Makes one loaf.
Pan de Muerto Bread
Also known as the Day of the Dead Bread, this traditional delicious loaf represents an offering made to the dearly departed on this special day. This recipe was made exclusively to be carried to cemeteries in and around Mexico. This recipe was created by Toronto’s famed Pancho’s Bakery to include the additional ingredient of Tecate famous beer of Mexico. #TecateDOTD , www.panchosbakery.com ; @panchosbakery .
Starter (Must be prepared 24 hours ahead of time)
210 mL (125g) all-purpose flour
1 tsp. (5 mL) fresh yeast
1/3 cup (75mL) Tecate beer (or other strong-bodied beer)
Zest of one orange
Mix all of the ingredients together. Knead by hand or with your mixer’s hook attachment. Let starter rest in a covered bowl at room temperature for 24 hours.
4 cups (500g) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. (7.5 mL) fresh yeast
6 large eggs
2 tsp. (10 mL) salt
1-1/3 cups (150g) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (125 mL) lukewarm milk
3/4 cup (175 mL) softened butter
Zest of one orange
1/4 cup (60 mL) melted butter
1/4 cup (60 mL) powdered sugar
In a large bowl or in mixer, pour and mix starter along with flour, yeast, eggs, salt, sugar. Add warm milk slowly and then add softened butter. Once ingredients are mixed, start kneading until you get a smooth dough, then add orange zest. Let dough rest in a covered bowl for one hour or until it doubles its size. When dough is double its original size, knead it to remove air bubbles.
Divide dough into five equal portions. Shape four portions into large balls, (these will be your loaves). Last portion will be used for decorations traditionally crossbones and skull shapes.
Place loaves onto baking sheets and decorate with bones shape shaped from fifth loaf. Place two curvy strips of dough on loaf to make an ‘X’ and then add a small ball on top of “X”. Let loaves rest for one hour then bake in 350°F (180°C) oven for 30-40 minutes depending on oven. Let loaves cool for 20 minutes then brush with melted butter before dusting with powdered sugar.
Makes 4 loaves
1-1/2 cups (375 mL) butter, softened
2 cups (500 mL) granulated sugar
1 tsp. (5 mL) vanilla extract
5 cups (1.25 L) all-purpose flour
2 tsp. (10 mL) baking powder
1 tsp. (5 mL) salt
1 batch of Royal Icing *(recipe to follow)
In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in eggs and vanilla. In a separate bowl combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Add dry ingredients to butter mixture and mix until combined. Divide dough into quarters, form each quarter into a disk, wrap in plastic, and chill dough for at least one hour (or overnight).
Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Roll out dough on floured surface 1/4 to 1/2 inch (6-8 mm) thick. Cut into skull shapes with either a cookie cutter or gently shape with hands. Place cookies on parchment-lined cookie sheets. Bake 10 – 12 minutes in a preheated oven. Cool completely.
Make up a batch of royal icing, pick your icing colours, and divide icing into as many bowls as colours. Stir in colouring to each bowl until you’ve achieved your desired colour. “Flood” cookies with basic colour and allow to dry. Add additional decorations (for yes, nose, etc.) in different colours.
Makes 24 cookies.
8 cups (1 kg) icing sugar
1/4 cup (45g) meringue powder
Pinch of salt
3/4 cup (175 mL) water
1 Tbsp. (15 mL) vanilla extract
In a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, mix together icing sugar, meringue powder and salt. Add water and vanilla extract and mix on medium-low speed until royal icing is fluffy and stiff peaks form. To reach a flooding consistency, add water 1 tablespoon at a time. If icing is too thick add water; if it’s too runny add more icing sugar. Keep royal icing in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
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