'Special reminders of all of them': On Día de los Muertos, food honors lost loved ones

Maria Clark
Southern Kitchen

Esperanza Aceituno has experimented with her ayote en miel recipe since August to perfect it for the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos). She grew up eating the traditional Guatemalan dessert made of acorn squash soaked in a sweet cane sugar syrup and a myriad of spices. Each version prepared in loving memory of her mother, Delia Carolina, was delicious, but a key ingredient was missing. 

“Ginger,” said Aceituno speaking in Spanish. “It added that light bit of spice that was missing like my mom used to make. The smell makes me think that at any moment she will be here and say how delicious it smells here.”

Aceituno grew up celebrating the Day of the Dead (el Día de los Muertos) with her family in Amatitlán, Guatemala, playing music and preparing the favorite foods of loved ones that had passed. 

The holiday is typically celebrated starting at the end of October and lasting through Nov. 2. Instead of a time of mourning, it’s a chance to welcome the souls of dead loved ones back. Families celebrate with food and music. They also decorate altars in their homes or at the gravesites of loved ones with offerings (ofrendas).

A Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) altar with offerings at Ericka Garduño Velázquez's home.

As a child, Ericka Garduño Velázquez celebrated most holidays with her family in Iguala Guerrero, a historic city about three hours northeast of Acapulco, Mexico. Her family would visit a smaller cemetery and walk through neighborhoods to view the altars.

“The foods prepared are the foods the dead loved the most. The music they loved the most. We would go home to home, listening to traditional music. Some people would hire mariachis,” she said.

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Her family would prepare tamales and sweet bread (pan dulce).

This year she has dedicated her altar to her brother, who passed away last year. 

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“Roberto Ricardo had a sweet tooth,” she said, referring to her brother. “We have his photo and an elephant ear pastry (pan dulce) and little skull candies.”

Celebrating the Day of the Dead after nearly 40 years of living in the U.S. is especially meaningful to her.

“You are physically detached from your country, but these customs and beliefs keep you connected to your roots. I still cry sometimes when I hear mariachi music,” she said. 

Jorge Antonio Aceituno Prado and Delia Carolina Rodriguez de Aceituno

Aceituno has carefully collected all of the items she will use to adorn the altar to celebrate her loved ones. In addition to the ayote en miel, she is also preparing molletes Guatemaltecos. These are sweet bread rolls dipped in syrup and stuffed with plums. She has also collected several photos of her beloved grandmother Juana Albina and her parents. 

When she was little, she always asked her grandmother why she’d set out a glass of water and lights on her altar, along with photographs.

“My grandmother told me the lights will show the spirits the path to their family and the water is to quench their thirst,” Aceituno said. 

She continues her grandmother's tradition, setting out water, lights and photos to welcome her family.

“But for me, my photos are the most valuable item. They are special reminders of all of them. I have everything ready to go. I hope it looks nice for them,” she said.

Ayote en Miel

Esperanza Aceituno's recipe for ayote en miel, a sweet dessert prepared in Guatemala.


1 medium size acorn squash

1/2 lb of panela (cane sugar)

3 cinnamon sticks

12 cloves (clavos de color)

12 large peppercorn

½ oz of ginger


  1. Wash the acorn squash and cut it into pieces. Do not cut too small
  2. You can remove the seeds, but this is optional
  3. In one large pot add 1½ cups of water
  4. Cut the panela into two to three pieces and add to water. Bring to boil
  5. Add acorn squash to water. Add cinnamon sticks, cloves, peppercorn and ginger over the squash
  6. Cover the pot and leave it cooking for about an hour at medium heat
  7. Using a spoon, test a piece of squash to make sure it's soft and has soaked in the syrup
  8. Let it cool before eating

Molletes Guatemaltecos (Stuffed bread rolls dipped in syrup)

Esperanza Aceituno's recipe for Molletes

Ingredients (makes 5 molletes)

5 bread rolls

1 cinnamon stick

6 cloves (clavos de color)

6 peppercorn

½ tsp of ginger

Queso crema

10 plums


3 eggs

1 tbsp sugar

2 cups vegetable oil

Essence or strawberry Kool Aid.


  1. Remove the top of the breads and fill with queso crema and two sliced plums per bread
  2. Whisk three eggs whites until they forms peaks and dip the bread rolls in the egg whites
  3. Heat up oil in a large saucepan
  4. Fry bread until golden on either side
  5. In a separate large pan, melt the panela (cane sugar), and add cinnamon, black peppercorn, cloves and ginger.
  6. Stir in 1½ cups of water.
  7. Add the bread rolls to the syrup and cook for about 5 minutes at medium heat
  8. Remove from heat
  9. Sprinkle sugar mixed with strawberry essence or strawberry Kool Aid on top