Monday, November 4, 2013

Josefina's Beef Mole Tamale Pie

Feliz Día de los Muertos! (Two days late.)

November 2nd was the last day of the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. While my family doesn't celebrate it, and this is by no means an attempt at celebrating it, when a family friend mentioned that I was welcome to borrow her daughter's Josefina if I ever wanted to feature her on the blog, I figured this would be a good chance to reference and discuss this important cultural tradition in a way that would hopefully educate people who are just familiar with it because of the iconic art style used in decorations for the event.

Unfortunately, as I was sort of busy and burnt out this weekend from my mind numbingly boring yet oddly stressful new job, the post kind of fell by the wayside, so I'm getting it up a few days late. But better late than never, right?

Something I loved about my elementary school days was - back before it became too controversial to discuss things like different holidays and cultural customs in favor of calling Halloween "Black and Orange Day" and basically forbidding anything that mentioned Christmas or Hanukkah being sung at the Winter Songfest - was the focus on discussing other culture's practices and beliefs, especially around the holiday season. Each year, we'd talk about different winter holidays and traditions people had to celebrate the new year, and in kindergarten, each child would pick a culture to study and represent as part of the Children Around the World pageant. (In what probably won't surprise faithful readers of this blog, I picked Sweden and ran around in my AG St. Lucia dress with a wreath and candles on my head.)

What I appreciated about this was the fact that our teachers were helping open our eyes to the fact that even if we didn't celebrate Christmas, or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, or didn't leave out shoes for Three King's Day, other people did, and that was okay and interesting and something that deserved respect and understanding. It made you realize that not everyone was like you, and that was okay, and I really feel like something has been lost from the public school system for effectively forbidding things like this. It's important to learn that not everyone is like you at an early age, and talking about holidays and traditions is a good way to present it to elementary school aged kids, who are often way too young to understand things like complicated politics, social and economic factors that go into making one country or cultural group different from another.

Now at this point, you're probably wondering what this has to do with the Day of the Dead, and I promise I'm getting there. Basically, this is a holiday that many people misunderstand, misinterpret and misrepresent (sometimes fairly offensively), and I'd like to take this opportunity to share the historical context and societal importance so that hopefully people will come away with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the event.

Josefina is also going to be modeling Saige's sweater outfit, because her original owner misplaced a couple pieces of her meet outfit!

Although the Day of the Dead is a custom now very closely associated with Roman Catholicism, it actually has roots that go back even farther than European colonization of the Americas. There has been a tradition of hosting festivals in honor of the dead going back several thousand years in Central America, and the festival that would eventually become the Day of the Dead evolved from an Aztec custom. The Aztec's festival lasted for an entire month, and was dedicated to "The Lady of the Dead", a goddess of (you guessed it!) death. When the Spanish arrived and witnessed this festival that seemed to poke fun at and mock death, they tried to put a stop to it immediately, as European invaders had a tendency to do with anything that seemed to contradict their own religious and cultural beliefs. Instead of abandoning the custom, it merged with the Christian traditions associated with All Saints' Day (November 1st) and All Souls' Day (November 2nd), and remains a holiday that's celebrated that's celebrated by millions of people. Take that, Spanish conquistadors!

Despite its name and emphasis on skulls and skeletons for decorations, the Day of the Dead isn't a morbid holiday, and unlike Halloween (which it has exceptionally little to do with) it isn't supposed to be scary at all. Families celebrate and remember friends and family members who have passed on by sprucing up their gravesites and creating elaborately decorated altars in their homes in memory of the deceased. The returning spirits are honored with gifts of food, alcohol, flowers and sweets. November 1st is traditionally the day when the spirits of babies and children are honored, while November 2nd is for adults who have passed on.

Like just about every holiday, food plays an important part in celebrations for the living as well as the dead. After visiting the deceased's gravesite, families return home to share music, stories and food, which usually includes dishes the deceased was especially fond of, a mole dish, and Pan de Muerto, a popular bread (usually anise flavored) that is shaped into skulls or round loafs that are then decorated with bones or skulls. Since traditions vary widely from town to town, some people estimate that there are over 200 authentic recipes for Pan de Muerto!

We were not going for a traditional what-Josefina-would-have-eaten-in-1824 meal here versus something that would hopefully be fairly painless to make, and because I've been feeling a little burnt out on cooking lately (I've done a lot of it over the last two months!), I chickened out on making my own Pan de Muerto, even though the recipe booklet I got did include a recipe for it. Maybe next year, I'll give it a shot!

Instead, we decided to make the beef mole tamale pie, which I realized about ten minutes into cooking is basically a play on a shepherd's pie with Mexican flavors. But since moles dishes are a traditional part of festivities and I already know that shepherd's pie isn't too complicated to make, it seemed like a good thing to stick with.

Mole sauces are a pretty diverse, and come in a variety of different flavors. Several different Mexican states claim to be the original home of mole, but the classic mole most people are familiar with comes from Puebla, and is known as mole poblano, which is a combination of cocoa and chiles. While this dish doesn't exactly have a mole sauce per say, as all the flavors are thrown together to flavor the meat and vegetables in the pie, it does definitely have that distinct mole flavor throughout.

First, I chopped up the onions, peppers and garlic, and tossed them in a pan with the beef. While I was cooking this, my mom was brainstorming ways to make this a lower calorie dish, and she seemed to think it might be worth trying with turkey to make it a little healthier.

(Personally, I don't love ground turkey, so I'm not going to be upset with making the beef version again.)

Once the meat is browned, the recipe instructs you to put in the spices - cocoa, cumin, oregano, salt, and cinnamon - as well as frozen corn and medium-hot salsa. You can probably make your own with whatever recipe you'd prefer, or put in a hotter or milder one if that's more your cup of tea, but we just used what we had in the pantry.

(As you might be able to tell, I broke down and bought Saige's sweater for myself too. I don't have a Saige and don't plan on ever adding one to my collection, but for some reason I've been in love with her sweater set since I first saw it and when I found out the people sized sweater might fit me, I decided to give it a shot, and now I wear it everywhere like a huge dork.)

While the meat and vegetables are still warm, you're supposed to mix in the cheese. My mom shredded it for me while I was doing some of the other steps, and I dumped it on top, added the cilantro and mixed it all in. Pretty painless, all together.

Making the corn bread topping wasn't particularly difficult, and it could probably be subbed out for other recipes if you're not fond of the one the book gave you.

That being said, it was a lot more difficult to spread over the filling evenly and neatly than mashed potatoes were. I would definitely be careful with a recipe like this in terms of slapping too much of your batter down too quickly and realizing you can't spread it evenly.

Bake it in the oven, and there you go!

I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but honestly, it was super tasty! The cornbread was pretty sweet, but the filling was savory with that perfect hint of heat and chocolate that comes with a mole. It didn't take too long to make, and can definitely be customized based on your preferences with heat and calorie count!

So next time November 1st and 2nd comes around, remember this is a holiday with a rich cultural history, one that has roots that go back way longer than most other holidays celebrated today. Combine that with the fact that it survived European colonization and adapted to become something that millions of people still celebrate, and you've got a holiday with a really impressive story that honors loved ones and celebrates their memories with stories, music and food!


  1. This is great! I love both the historical/cultural information and the recipe itself. Maybe I'll even try it for a Friday night dinner in the future.

    1. I can hook you up with the recipe if you'd like! It's really not too much of a hassle to make too, if you're looking for something to make quickish.