Savor the sweet side of Day of the Dead

Recipes and events to celebrate Dia de los Muertos in Atlanta

Anyone who has ever seen Disney’s Pixar-animated film “Coco” knows the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, known in English as Day of the Dead, that inspired the film is about far more than sugar skulls and painted faces.

The Academy Award-winning 2017 release did more than just delight audiences. It went a long way to introduce what this holiday means to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

And though the ancient Aztec rituals in the film centered on music, the holiday also celebrates the traditions of the table with sweet breads, cookies, sugar skulls and more.

According to most folklore, the roots of the holiday can be traced to celebrations surrounding the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl. When the Spanish integrated Catholicism into the conquest of what is now Mexico, many of these pagan rituals were adopted into the celebration of All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2, when most Mexicans celebrate this beloved day.

"This 3,000-year-old Aztec ritual fell on the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, which is the beginning of August; it was celebrated for a whole month," explained Yvette Marquez-Sharpnack, author of the award-winning blog,, as well as "Muy Bueno: Three Generations of Authentic Mexican Flavor" (Hippocrene Books, 2012, $22.50). "The 'Lady of the Dead,' or goddess Mictecacihuatl, died at birth, but it is believed to be her spirit who presides over the celebration."

And while the skulls and skeletons that typically surround the holiday may evoke a comparison to the ghosts, witches and goblins of Halloween, Dia de los Muertos is actually a celebration of family.

“As a Mexican-American I am proud to learn about a Mexican tradition and share it with my children,” said Marquez-Sharpnack, who didn’t celebrate the holiday growing up in Texas.

“My grandma, Jesusita, emigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, at a young age,” explained Marquez-Sharpnack. “She tried to assimilate to her new country and did not always celebrate the old customs.”

But just as an ancestor inspires the young protagonist in “Coco,” so did Marquez-Sharpnack’s grandmother inspire her to write her cookbook, and to pass the traditions of Dia de los Muertos on to her children.

The day needn’t be limited to one culture: The tradition of Dia de Los Muertos involves building a small altar, or offering, with photos and favorite dishes and sweets of the departed, to honor them and draw their spirit forward as part of the celebration. The bright color and pungent aroma of marigolds and white chrysanthemums are used to guide the dead as they travel from and back to the Land of the Dead.

Many families bake traditional sweets, paint sugar skulls and make colorful paper flowers, as well as wear traditional Mexican garments to honor the dead. Skull-painted faces are also a common way to celebrate a departed loved one. And as long as these loved ones are honored and remembered, they never die.

Pumpkin Empanadas

These doughy treats filled with spiced pumpkin are a classic family recipe from Yvette Marquez-Sharpnack's "Muy Bueno" (Hippocrene Books, 2012) and her award-winning blog, "We love this dough because it makes just enough to bake two dozen sweet empanadas. These sweet treats are perfect with a cup of Mexican coffee before breakfast or after dinner," she says. For an easier version, substitute the pumpkin filling with a prepared jam or fruit butter.

For the pumpkin filling:

2 tablespoons butter

3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed firmly

1 (15 ounce) can organic pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

For the empanada dough:

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup shortening

2 eggs

½ cup milk

2 tablespoons sugar, plus more for garnish

2 egg whites, beaten

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the brown sugar, stirring until it dissolves. Stir in the pumpkin puree and the spices. Continue to stir over medium heat for about 10 minutes. If the filling is watery, let it cook for a couple minutes longer.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and let cool. After cooled, about 15 minutes, put the filling in the refrigerator for 30 minutes (or overnight) to allow it to set.

While the filling is cooling, make the empanada dough.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Position the baking rack in the middle of the oven.

In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. Using a fork or pastry cutter, cut in the shortening with the dry ingredients.

Add the eggs, milk and sugar. Stir to combine. Then, use your hands to knead the mixture into a soft dough.

Divide the dough in half, wrap each portion in plastic wrap and refrigerate 20-30 minutes.

Take out the dough and split it into 12 balls of dough. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough balls into small, flat discs. Add a small dollop of filling on one half of the rolled-out dough. Repeat with the remaining discs. Wet the bottom edge of the dough with water to help seal the two halves. Fold over the dough to seal. Seal the edges with a fork by pressing down the tines along the two edges, which also makes for a pretty pattern when baked. Repeat with remaining discs.

Brush each empanada with the beaten egg whites, sprinkle with sugar and puncture each empanada with a fork to allow steam to escape while baking. Spray a large cookie sheet with cooking spray; place the empanadas on the cookie sheet and bake 15-20 minutes. If after 15 minutes the bottoms of the empanadas begin to brown, move the cookie sheet to the top rack and continue to bake for the last 5 minutes. Makes: 2 dozen empanadas.

Per empanada: 148 calories (percent of calories from fat, 36), 3 grams protein, 22 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 6 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 21 milligrams cholesterol, 107 milligrams sodium.

Pan de Muerto

This sweet bun, decorated with pieces of dough formed into tears or bones, is a classic treat for Dia de los Muertos, and almost always a part of the ofrendos, or offering for the dead. This recipe is adapted from Yvette Marquez-Sharpnack's award-winning blog,

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

½ cup milk

½ cup water

5 to 5 ½ cups all-purpose flour, divided

2 packages active-dry yeast

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon whole anise seed

½ cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons orange extract

Zest of one orange

4 eggs

Melted butter

Granulated sugar, for sprinkling

In a small saucepan over medium heat, warm the butter, milk and water until the butter has melted. Do not boil.

In a large mixing bowl, combine ½ cup flour, the yeast, salt, anise seed and sugar. Slowly beat in the warm milk mixture, orange extract and orange zest until well mixed. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing thoroughly. Slowly add in another 1 cup of flour. Continue adding flour until the dough is soft but not sticky.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead at least 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. (If the dough is dry add some water; if it’s too wet add some flour.) Form the dough into a large ball and cut into four even pieces. Roll three of the pieces into round loaves and place on a lightly greased cookie sheet.

Use the fourth dough ball to make “bones” that will be placed over the loaves: Shape the dough into a long rope, then cut into 6 portions with knobby ends resembling “bones.” Use 2 “bones” per loaf, and set in a criss-cross pattern on top of each loaf.

Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, approximately 1 to 1 ½ hours.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the plastic wrap from the rolls and bake 25 to 30 minutes. The rolls should sound hollow when thumped.

Immediately brush the tops with the melted butter and sprinkle with sugar. Makes: 3 medium-sized rolls, 8 portions each.

Per serving: 168 calories (percent of calories from fat, 30), 5 grams protein, 24 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 6 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 48 milligrams cholesterol, 110 milligrams sodium.

Champagne Marigold Sparkler

As Dia de los Muertos has modernized, cocktails have become as much a part of the holiday’s festivities as more traditional offerings. This refreshing sparkler can be made with marigolds right out of the garden (or purchased at a local gardening shop), or dried marigold petals can be purchased from online vendors such as Amazon or Etsy. If marigolds are unavailable, substitute with chrysanthemums.

1 ounce marigold simple syrup (see below)

3 ½ ounces Champagne or sparkling wine


Marigold flowers for garnish, optional

Pour the simple syrup into a large wine goblet. Add ice and top with sparkling wine. Stir and garnish with flowers. Makes: 1 cocktail.

Marigold simple syrup: In a small saucepan, boil 1 cup granulated sugar and 1 cup water with 2 ounces marigold petals. Remove from heat and let cool. Let the mixture steep for at least 2 hours, or overnight.

117 calories (percent of calories from fat, 0), no protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, no fiber, no fat, no cholesterol, 1 milligram sodium.

Dia de Los Muertos specials and special events

Here are some happenings and offerings around the city:

Sugar skulls, a Mexican tradition for Day of the Dead. Available now in small ($10), medium ($14) and large ($18). Star Provisions Market & Cafe. 1460 Ellsworth Industrial Boulevard, Atlanta. 404-365-0410, ext. 4,

Special menu for Dia de los Muertos. Includes pan de muertos and skull cookies. Casi Cielo. 6125 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs. 404-549-9411, (

October Chocolate and Mezcal Tour and Tastings. Hourlong, limited-edition tour and tasting, tribute to the influence of Mexico and Mexican culture on chocolate and spirits, to cover the history of craft chocolate, the process of chocolate making from bean to bar and the many flavors inherent in cacao. Guests will end the tour with a guided mezcal-and-chocolate pairing of three mezcals and a selection of Xocolatl's chocolates. Xocolatl Small Batch Chocolate, Krog Street Market, 99 Krog Street, Atlanta. 404-604-9642,

Day of the Dead Festival. Delicious Mexican food is available for purchase as visitors of all ages learn about the holiday. Oct. 28, Atlanta History Center, 130 West Paces Ferry Road NW, Atlanta. 404-814-4000,

Day of the Dead celebration. Live music. 9 p.m. to midnight Nov. 1. Superica Krog Street Market, Krog Street Market, 99 Krog Street, Atlanta. 678 791-1310.

Day of the Dead face painting. During dinner service Nov. 2. Superica Buckhead, 3850 Roswell Road, Atlanta. 678-705-1235.

Tres leches sugar skull doughnuts. Chef-owner Anna Gatti soaks the doughnut in three milks, then tosses in cinnamon sugar and ices the confection with vanilla icing and sugar skull decoration. Oct. 29- Nov. 2. Doughnut Dollies, 724 Cherokee St. NE, Marietta. 404-365-5437.

El Burro Pollo pop-up. El Super Pan chef Hector Santiago and team will be serving dishes such as pozole rojo, Mexican tuna escabeche, barbacoa tacos and more. Mexican Beers and craft cocktails will be poured throughout the night. Beginning at 5 p.m. Nov. 1 at Ponce City Market, 675 Ponce De Leon Ave. NE, Atlanta; 404-600-2465 and 455 Legends Place, Atlanta; 404-521-6500.

Dia de los Muertos celebration. Craft tacos, drinks, live music from Rhythm Earth and plenty of kid-friendly treats and piñatas. Halloween night (Oct. 31) from 5 to 10 p.m. Restaurant Holmes (50 South Main Street, Alpharetta. 678-691-8320,


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