Día de los Muertos – How to make sugar skulls

Video by Olivia Santini & Alessandra Hickson

In the first of our video series celebrating Día de Muertos, we’re sharing a tutorial on how to make sugar skulls. Why sugar skulls? Well, not only are these treats sweet – made from white sugar bound with water and meringue powder – but the skull represents the deceased; an integral part of the annual holiday.

El Día de los Muertos – or Day of the Dead, as it’s known in English – is celebrated throughout Mexico and parts of Latin America. It’s a holiday that focuses on preserving the memory of deceased friends and family; by creating an altar decorated with favorite foods, bottles of tequila (to whet the appetite of the deceased!), marigolds and calaveras (skulls) made of sugar, the dead are honored with gifts.

RELATED: Click here for traditional Día de los Muertos recipes & craft ideas 

“I started making sugar skulls in the bakery three years ago, but it’s a tradition that goes back to when Mexico was colonialized by conquistadores,” shares third generation baker Laura Jasmin Martinez Castillo, who whips traditional sweets and desserts at East Los Sweets, a venture run out of her father’s bakery in Los Angeles.  “It has roots in Europe.”

As Martinez Castillo explains it, conquistadores brought with them the traditions of the Spanish Catholic church; and with it, their tradition of using skulls as religious decoration. While porcelain was traditionally used to make the skulls both in Spain and in the Catholic Church’s base in Italy, porcelain was far too costly for purchase by working class Mexicans. But sugar cane was plentiful, says the 23-year-old, and the tradition of making decorative skulls from white sugar became a New World tradition associated with Día de los Muertos.

RELATED: 5 children’s activity books for Día de los Muertos

Martinez Castillo now prepares all manner of Día de Muertos sweets at LA Central Bakery in East Los Angeles  – including pan de muerto and cake pops decorated like skulls – but among the most popular offerings are her intricately painted candy sugar skulls. Martinez Castillo makes them in a variety of sizes and while the process seems intimidating, “it’s not,” assures Castillo, making this a Día de Muertos tradition worth beginning in your home today.

Sugar Skulls

credit Mexicansugarskull.com/East Los Sweets

Note: Do not make sugar skulls on a rainy or high humidity day. They will not turn out.

For the sugar skull mixture:

Granulated sugar

Meringue powder

Water

For the royal jelly icing: (plain icing to seal the skull but add coloring for decorating) Powdered sugar Meringue powder Water Concentrated paste food coloring for decorative icing on skulls

Other:

Sugar skull molds (note: they are available for purchase on Mexicansugarskulls.com)

Decorations, if you like – i.e: colored tin foils, paper flowers, sequins

Large cookie sheet or corrugated cardboard for putting skulls on while drying and decorating

Large metal bowl, measuring spoons, liquid measuring cup, dry measuring cups, Electric / stand mixer

16 oz. red Solo plastic cups

Butter knives or tongue depressors for mixing color into icing

Pastry bags

Paper towels

Royal Icing Recipe

Mix 2/3 cup water, 1/2 cup meringue powder and 2 pounds powdered sugar with an electric/stand mixer until icing peaks (about 9 minutes!) Don’t mix up more than 2 pounds at a time. Keep in a tightly covered container. DO NOT REFRIGERATE.

Note: Royal icing is a cement type icing.  Use ONLY concentrated paste food colorings (NOT liquid food coloring from the grocery store!)

Mix icing & paste colors in disposable cups or use pastry bags and metal decorating tips if you like.

Add 2-3 ounces of Royal Icing (no more than 1/4 full) into the pastry bag. Squeeze to decorate.

Note: 5 pounds of sugar skulls will need 2 pounds of powdered sugar

How to make skulls

Mix together in large bowl

1 teaspoon Meringue powder for every cup of granulated sugar used.

Step 1 – Mix dry ingredients

Step 2 – Sprinkle sugar mixture with 1 teaspoon water per cup of sugar used.

Yield 5 large skulls or 20 medium skulls or 100 mini skulls…

5 pounds of sugar = approx.10 cups

10 pounds of sugar = 21 cups

3 teaspoons = 1 Tablespoon”

Meringue Powder cannot be omitted. Meringue powder is what makes the sugar and the icing hard.

Mixing sugar for sugar skulls:

Mix well with hands until every bit of sugar is moistened. If your fingerprints remain when you squeeze the sugar in your hand, it is ready to mold. If it doesn’t hold together, mixture is too dry. (Laura shows us on cam)

Continue to mix the sugar mixture frequently as you make your sugar skulls.

Molding sugar skulls

Pack sugar mixture FIRMLY into mold with special attention to chins & edges. Use a straight edge to scrape the back of the mold flat. Pack down some more until perfectly tight. (Laura shows)

Place a stiff cardboard square (approx. 5″ x 6″) over mold and invert immediately. Lift mold off carefully. Throw any “mistakes” back into your bowl, stir up and try again. If mix is too dry, add a little more water. (Laura skips this because she does so many- she just flips them onto the cookie sheet or large baking pan… ) first timers should use the cardboard method…

Drying sugar skulls

Any size skull needs to air dry at least 6-8 hours to overnight before starting decorations. One dry the small and medium skulls can be decorated.

Large skulls need to be attached with royal jelly icing before those can be decorated.  They are a 2-piece mold, and must be “scooped out” after they are partially dry; start checking them in 5-6 hours. Once the skulls are dry enough to handle, hold skulls carefully and hollow both the back and the front out with a spoon, leaving the skull wall 1/2″ thick. Do not scoop out the neck area. It’s very important to scoop out the larger skulls as they are so thick, they trap moisture – AND they are so heavy that they slide apart if not scooped.

Set the hollowed skulls upside down to continue drying until totally dry (approx. 12 hours). When completely dry, dust off and assemble the front and back of the skull with a 1/4″ bead of thick royal icing, either applied with a knife or squeezed from an icing bag (one side only). Align points on the back of the skull with the sides of the neck, and press the two sides together until they are firmly connected. Remove extra icing around seam with your finger. Try to do this with just one pass – touching the skull too much will make the icing look. Lay skull aside to dry for another 2 hours minimum, and then you can decorate. Sugar skull blanks may be made up to a year ahead of time for decorating.

Decorating Sugar Skulls

Have fun decorating your skulls with colored Royal Icing, sequins, feathers, beads, even earrings made from soda pop tops. Colored foil and icing are how Mexican sugar skulls are decorated. Foil is pasted down with icing, and is great for making crowns, crosses, hearts, shiny eyes or even pipes. Labels, wrappers, trinkets and shells can personalize a skull in memory of your dear, departed loved one. Note that sugar skulls are edible, but due to the large amount of handling, take care if consuming.

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