DIY Sugar Skulls To Celebrate The Day Of The Dead

The Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is a Mexican holiday that takes place every year from October 31st to November 2nd.

Day of the Dead
UNSPLASH Salvador Altamirano

Traditionally celebrated throughout Mexico (though more commonly celebrated in the central and southern regions of Mexico), the Day of the Dead serves to honor the memory of loved ones passed away, by building ofrendas (altars) adorned with calaveras (sugar skulls) and other ornaments. Observers believe that at midnight on October 31st the gates of heaven open, allowing the spirits of deceased children (angelitos) to reunite with their families for 24 hours. The spirits of adults are said to reunite with the living on November 2nd.

The roots of the festival can be traced back to Aztec culture, where an entire month was originally given to celebrate the memory of the dead. Today, as a unique confluence of local indigenous customs and Catholic tradition, the Day of the Dead is for many Mexicans the most important holiday of the year. One of the many ways to honor the dead consists of the production of sugar skulls, a tradition first introduced by 17th century Italian missionaries to the New World. Sugar-molded figurines of angels, sheep, and skulls were used to represent the spirit of a departed soul, whose name was written on the figurine and typically decorated with bright colors, sugar icing, and glittery ornaments.

Today, the Day of the Dead is seen more as a cultural holiday than a religious one, which explains why the production of sugar skulls continues to thrive. Angela Villalba, owner of Reign Trading Co., has been involved with Mexican folk art since 1979. Angela produces her own sugar skull mold to help artists, community members, and teachers create authentic, easy to make sugar skulls at home. Angela’s easy to follow recipe makes it easy for anyone to incorporate the holiday into their own tradition, while at the same time serving as a great educational initiative for teachers to implement in the classroom.

In honor of Dia de los Muertos, below is Angela’s recipe and step-by-step instructions on how to make your own sugar skull.

To make a sugar skull you’ll need:

  • Sugar Skull molds
  • Granulated sugar
  • Powdered sugar
  • Meringue powder
  • Decorations, colored tin foils, paper flowers, sequins, etc.
  • Corrugated cardboard squares (6” x 6” for large skulls and 3” x 4” for medium/mini skulls)
  • Large metal bowl
  • Measuring spoons
  • 1 cup liquid measuring cup
  • ¼ cup dry measuring cup
  • Plastic spray bottle for water
  • Electric/stand mixer
  • 16 oz. red Solo plastic cups
  • Butter knives or tongue depressors for mixing color into icing
  • Pastry bags
  • Paper towels

Sugar skull:

Step 1:

Mix 1 teaspoon of meringue powder for every cup of granulated sugar in a large bowl. Note: merengue powder is vital in order to harden the sugar and icing quicker and without it the skull will not hold together properly.

Step 2:

Sprinkle sugar mixture with 1 teaspoon of water per cup of sugar used in recipe. Remember, this recipe is for white sugar skulls, but if you wish to create colorful skulls add paste food coloring to the water. Click here to find the proper sugar yield for the number of skulls you wish to make.

Step 3:

Mix everything together until all sugar is moistened. You’ll know it’s ready when you can see your fingerprints in the sugar mix after you squeeze it in your hand. If the mix does not hold together then it needs more water (see photo).

Step 4:

With the mix ready, pack as much of the mixture into the mold as FIRMLY as possible. Scrape the back of the mold using a straight edged object (the back of a knife, a piece of cardboard, etc.). Grab a cardboard square (about 5” x 6”) to cover the back of the mold and then flip it over immediately. Carefully lift mold and inspect the skull for any imperfections. If necessary, repack the mold (more firmly this time) and try again.

Step 5:

All skulls need to air-dry, which can range from 8 hours to overnight depending on the size of the skull. Medium and mini skulls can be decorated after they dry but large skulls require some extra steps.

Royal Icing:

Step 1:

Mix 2/3 cup water, ½ cup merengue powder and 2 pounds of powdered sugar in an electric/stand mixer until icing forms (takes about 9 minutes). Note: keep the icing in a tightly covered container and do not refrigerate.

Step 2:

Mix paste colors into icing and pour in disposable cups.

Step 3:

Add 2-3 ounces of Royal Icing into the pastry bag (allow no more than a ¼ of the bag to be filled). Squeeze bag when ready to use.

Decoration:

Have fun decorating your skull! You can use royal icing, sequins, feathers, beads, earrings, colored foil, and earrings even. This is where you can write the name of a loved one on the skull and personalize the skull with various adornments.

Sugar Skull Tradition:

The sugar skull is traditionally placed on the home altar (ofrenda) to honor the memory of the dead. The colorful markings and pigment of the skull, along with the colorful display of the ofrenda, makes it a happy place for the spirit of the deceased to visit the living. The skulls are also fondly caricatured with the fond characteristics of the deceased love ones, such as placing a foil pipe in its mouth in memory of said person.

Note: It is possible to eat the sugar skull but given the handling of the materials and the preparation of the skull, it’s probably best not to do so. They’re mostly for decorative purposes only, such as for ofrendas or cemeteries. For a more appetizing option, the chocolate skull molds are the way to go.

Tips:

  • Do not make sugar skulls on a humid or rainy day, as the moisture in the air will affect the quality of the mold.
  • If the two pieces of the large sugar skull slide around, the royal icing is too moist. Add a tablespoon of powdered sugar to harden the mix and fortify the bond.

Jerry Alonzo Leon

Contributor

Jerry's favorite country to travel to is Spain. When he's on the road, he keeps it real simple with a pen and a pad. His travel style is spontaneous, easygoing, and always in search of a great adventure.

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