The Day of the Dead is a holiday observed in Mexico and other Latin American countries that celebrates and honours 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 favourite foods, Dia de los Muertos is a true celebration, shared between the living and the dead.
And while there are many ways to celebrate, here at The Culinary Institute of America we have a habit of 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 flavourful and traditional moles, as in CIA 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 flavours of the mole.
You may not use dried chilies every day, but they offer a more intense flavour 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 chilies 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 labour of love that you can share with your beloved family, whether they are at your table or in your heart.
Start to finish: 2 hours, 45 minutes (Active time: 2 hours)
1/4 cup lard or unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
4 mulato chiles, wiped clean, seeds and veins removed, seeds reserved
2 ancho chiles, wiped clean, seeds and veins removed, seeds reserved
3 pasilla chiles, wiped clean, seeds and veins removed, seeds reserved
2 chipotle chiles, wiped clean, seeds and veins removed, seeds reserved
2 Roma tomatoes, quartered
3 tomatillos, quartered
1/4 cup raisins
10 whole almonds
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup sesame seeds
2 tablespoons peanuts
2 tablespoons pecans
1 stale corn tortilla
1/2 white onion, halved
2 garlic cloves, unpeeled
5 black peppercorns
1 whole clove
1 Mexican canela stick or cinnamon stick (about 1 inch)
1/4 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon anise seeds
3 tablespoon canola oil
2 cups chicken broth
2 ounces Mexican chocolate, roughly chopped
1/4 cup sugar
Salt, to taste
Heat the lard in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the mulato chilies and fry until the chilies begin to blister and change colour, about 2 minutes on each side. Use tongs to transfer to a large heat-safe bowl. Repeat the process with the ancho, pasilla, and chipotle chilies. Fill the bowl with enough hot water to cover the chilies and set aside to soak for 15 minutes.
Drain the chilies and transfer to a blender. Blend, adding water as needed, until a smooth puree forms. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve and set aside.
In the same pot, add the tomatoes and tomatillos and fry until soft, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside. Add the raisins and fry until plump, about 1 minute. Transfer to the bowl with the tomatoes. Repeat the process with the almonds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts, pecans, tortilla, and reserved chili seeds. Set aside 1 tablespoon of the lard.
Meanwhile, in a dry skillet over medium-high heat, cook the onion and garlic until the papery skin of the garlic turns brown, about 3 minutes. Carefully remove the skin, then return to the skillet and cook until the vegetables are soft and blackened all over, about 4 minutes.
Add the reserved lard to a small skillet over low heat. Add the black pepper, cloves, canela, coriander, and anise seeds and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Transfer the reserved vegetables, seeds, tortilla, and spices to a blender and pur√©e, adding water as needed, until smooth. Strain through a sieve and set aside.
Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the reserved chili puree and cook until it deepens in colour and you can see the bottom of the pan when scraped with a wooden spoon, about 15 minutes. Add the strained vegetable and spice mixture. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mole thickens, about 45 minutes.
Add chicken broth and continue cooking until the mole coats the back of a spoon, about 30 minutes. Add the chocolate and continue cooking, about 30 minutes. Add 1/2 of the sugar, the remaining to your taste.
Season with salt, to taste.
Serve the mole over poached chicken or turkey, with warmed corn tortillas and toasted sesame seeds for garnish.