By The Culinary Institute of America
The Day of the Dead is a holiday observed in Mexico and other Latin American countries that celebrates and honors the memory of deceased loved ones. Falling on Nov. 1, just a day after Halloween celebrations, the holiday shares some of the sentiment of Halloween, but it is a very different occasion.
Where Halloween views the dead as spooky haunts, the day known locally as Dia de los Muertos remembers them as beloved citizens of the afterlife. Through the building of altars, lively fiestas and offerings of the departed’s favorite foods, Dia de los Muertos is a true celebration, shared between the living and the dead.
And while there are many ways to celebrate, we are focusing on the dinner table. Luckily, the rich cultures surrounding the day are a wealth of traditional recipes and ingredients. Day of the Dead bread and tamales are a good place to start, but we especially love the ritual involved in creating flavorful and traditional moles, as in Culinary Institute of America chef Sofia Sada’s recipe for Mole Poblano.
Today, Mexico has identified more than 50 different moles, but a mole is really whatever you want your sauce to be. Of course, this traditional Mole Poblano is the most well-known variety, and so it’s a perfect representation of Mexico’s culinary tradition.
If you’re looking at the ingredient list and thinking, "Wow, that’s a lot of ingredients," you’re right. This complex sauce is not something you can throw together quickly on a Wednesday night, but for a special occasion, it is well worth the effort. Luckily, the sauce can be made well ahead of time and frozen, which means any weeknight can be that special occasion.
Not all moles contain chocolate, but this recipe calls for Mexican chocolate, which is a unique ingredient that you can easily find at Latin American markets or from online retailers. Cacao, the large bean from which chocolate is produced, is native to Mexico, and chocolate has a long history in the many ancient cultures of the region. Today, Mexican chocolate is unique in that it contains cinnamon and other spices and helps bring out the flavors of the mole.
You may not use dried chiles every day, but they offer a more intense flavor than their fresh counterparts. Just like the chocolate, they are abundant at markets if you know where to look, and they store well, so keep some on hand for experimenting. Dried chiles should be toasted and then soaked, to help break down the tough skin before cooking.
We could write a book (or 100) on the recipes and ingredients of Mexican cuisine, but in the interest of time, this recipe will have to suffice. And even if you don’t celebrate Dia de los Muertos in the traditional way, this recipe is a labor of love that you can share with your beloved family, whether they are at your table or in your heart.