Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead ) is a holiday celebrating loved ones who have passed away, and is a colorful tribute to indigenous Latin American and Hispanic heritage. It takes place annually on November 1st and 2nd. November 1st honors infants and children, and November 2nd honors adults.
Traditions include building altars to loved ones decorated with bread in the shape of skulls and bones, sugar skulls, candles, marigolds, and preparing their favorite foods, often visiting their graves with these gifts. After the holiday ends, the food is eaten. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny anecdotes about the departed. 1
Here, in San Diego, California, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated city-wide with a tour of over 30 public altars, candlelight procession, and after parties. Many altars honor local historical figures. 2
Throughout my life, my grandmother, Omi, has been my hero. She lived her life with unshakable optimism, passion, and humility. After fleeing Nazi Germany with her family, her father died soon after arriving in America. She helped support her mother and four younger siblings as an English tutor, translator for the German Olympic team, and nanny for Marlene Dietrich’s children. She was later a teacher in a rural one room school house, and on especially nice days would teach her students science outside in the surrounding meadows.
When I visited her in Eagle Rock, California, Omi would take me on adventures to local museums, leather factories, stables, Chinatown, eccentric neighbors houses, and let me run wild through her garden. As a young child, she trusted me to cut her hair, and asked me to teach her how to whistle. She fostered my meager artistic talent, and gave me my first camera, an old manual Nikon. We developed photographs together in the darkroom she built in her basement. Each night Omi would read me stories from Grimms’ fairy tales, and play the piano until I fell asleep. She was an amazing cook, and would often bake apple crumbles. She died of bone cancer at 65 years young, when I was 12.
In honor of my grandmother, this week’s Dia de los Muertos dish is baked Cinnamon Apple Skulls.
In ancient Greece, to throw an apple, sacred to Aphrodite, at someone was to symbolically declare one’s love, and to catch it showed one’s acceptance of that love.
In Norse mythology, the goddess Iðunn has been portrayed as the keeper of eternal youth-giving apples. Apples have commonly been found at grave sites of Germanic pagan peoples, from which Norse paganism developed. 3
Apples are rich in antioxidant phytochemicals called flavonols, which research suggests have cardio-protective, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory effects. Apples are also high in the soluble fiber pectin, which can bind and lower cholesterol. 4
Cinnamon Apple Skulls
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Baking Time: 1 hour
Yield: 6 – 8 apples
6 – 8 apples
Juice of 1 lemon
1 batch cinnamon crumble filling:
3 Tablespoons butter, softened
3 Tablespoons almond butter
6 Tablespoons brown sugar
7 Tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon vanilla
salt to taste (1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon)
Optional: additional fillings, such as nuts and raisins.
Optional: food coloring, edible flowers, and/or orange slices to decorate skulls.
small paring knife, exacto knife, apple corer, and/or tiny spoon for carving and coring apple
1. Squeeze lemon juice into small bowl.
2. Mash together Cinnamon Crumble Filling ingredients in medium bowl.
3. Carve face in apple.
4. Apply lemon juice to exposed apple flesh, to prevent it from turning brown.
5. Core apple, removing seeds while being careful to leave bottom intact, so fillings don’t leak out.
6. Stuff apple, layering fillings, until flush with top of apple.
7. Optional: Paint apple face with food coloring.
8. Bake at 350F for 1 hour or until filling browned and apple soft. Filling may bubble over to create “hair.” Let cool.
9. Optional: Poke flowers into skull eye sockets. Crown skulls with orange half-slices.
3. Ellis Davidson, H.R. (1965) Gods And Myths Of Northern Europe, page 165 to 166.