Wednesday, October 13, 2010

sugar skulls for dia de los muertos (day of the dead)

A few years ago we were lucky enough to have a native Spanish-speaking university student come to the house to teach the kids language and culture. That year we made sugar skulls for the first time under Lizette's helpful tutoring.

We repeated the project last year with S and some of his friends. Although I took photos, I had no blog at the time so am posting them now in time for Dia de los Muertos, which is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd.

We live in Central California, and our local food co-op sells sugar skull molds every year. They come in a variety of sizes and styles, but it seemed to me that it would be easiest for kids to decorate the larger skulls so that is what we have used.

You can also purchase molds online here. This site is an incredible resource, and most of what I will be posting was learned as a result of their own clear instructions.

Ten lbs of sugar will make 10 large skulls. Plan on a couple of extras, because the skulls can crack and break. Trust me: you'll want to be able to pull out a spare immediately if this should occur!

To the sugar, add 1/2 cup meringue powder (available in the baking section of your grocery or hobby store) and mix thoroughly. Sprinkle 7 tablespoons of water over this, and blend until it has the texture of soft beach sand.
Fill the molds firmly, so there are no air pockets which could cause the skull to collapse later. Tamp it down a little at a time with a butter knife or something similar.
Unmold onto a piece of cardboard. This is where you can first get some problems such as...cracking.
This will have to be put back into the bowl and packed all over again. But better now than later, when it is already too hard to remold.

This large skull mold had two parts: a face and an occiput. Both sides need to dry overnight so they are hard enough to hold in your hands and scoop out the centers. Then you'll turn them over and dry overnight once more.
The two halves are glued together with royal icing: combine 2/3 cup water, 1/2 cup meringue powder and a 2-lb box of powdered (confectioners) sugar in a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until icing becomes glossy and holds a stiff peak when the beaters are raised.

Using an icing bag and tip or a baggie with one corner snipped off, glue the two halves of the skull together. Now your skull looks something like this:
More royal icing, tinted with icing gel, is used to decorate the skulls. The name of the deceased loved one you are commemorating is written across the forehead or on a small piece of colored foil and pasted to the forehead with icing. Although we provided the kids with foil last year, they seemed to prefer the icing (!).
Dia de los Muertos reminds me a lot of Obon, a festival celebrated both in Japan, where my husband and I lived for several years, and in Hawaii, where my mom grew up. It also reminds me of the Hungry Ghost Festival, which we loved seeing in Singapore, birthplace of my father and another place we lived before children.

There is something especially rich about festivals which place us squarely in the continuum of life, reminding us of those who lived and died before and played a part in who we are; and which acknowledge the existence of our dead among us even after their corporeal selves have passed.

That said, it struck me that most of the children last year, even if they had lost a relative in their lifetime, chose to make their skulls tributes to pets. They all turned out beautifully.


  1. Oh, very interesting about the kids and their pets. And as always, beautiful post, especially relating world practices and life/death. You always make me think.

  2. I have since been told that in Mexico, the holiday is known as Dia de Muertos (no 'los'), and that the sugar skulls are much thinner and are edible. I sure wouldn't want to eat these bricks!


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