We are three sisters united in our search for the divine - in food, libation, literature, art, and nature. This blog will capture the true, sometimes decadent, at times humorous, and every so often transcendent adventures of the Salvation Sisters.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

El Dia De Los Muertos: Making Sugar Skulls

by Michelle

   I cannot count the number of times I have intended to throw a sugar skull decorating party to celebrate El Dia De Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), only to find that once school is back in full swing, I have a million other things to do, and time seems to slip right by, sliding past Halloween, and then "oops there it is" November has arrived, not late, but right on time, ringing the doorbell to my consciousness, jolting me back to reality. I wake up on All Souls Day thinking, "Darn, I didn't do the Day of the Dead party. Oh well, maybe next year."
   Times, they are a-changin' at my house because I discovered that sugar skull "blanks" can be made way ahead of time. In fact, Juliette has blanks that are a year old that are waiting patiently for a full beauty treatment. There is one caveat. Sugar skulls cannot be made on a humid or rainy day. No two ways about it. This is a project for when the forecast calls for hot, dry weather, which isn't such bad news... stay inside in the cool air conditioning and participate in an activity that is fun to do with friends and children of all ages.

   My daughter Maddie studied Latin American culture last spring in art class. For a school project, she decided to document the sugar skull making and decorating process. It's not easy just to make one sugar skull. If you are molding one, you might as well spend a little more time and make a dozen or two or three or four. That's what Maddie and I did. The skulls are waiting patiently to be vividly brought to life at the end of September by our friends and family. We'll top off our decorating day with a casual Mexican buffet.
   For more information on the holiday, check-out Juliette's post from last year: El Dia De Los Muertos and Pumpkin Soup.

Sugar Skulls

  Reign Trading Company is a sensational on-line one-stop shopping source for all things celebrating Mexican culture and folk art. For my decorating party, I purchased colorful oil cloth to protect my table, papel picado to add a festive flair to the room, along with concentrated meringue powder and sugar skull molds in different sizes and shapes. You will also find skull molds for making candy should you want to take your celebration one step further with edible goodies. We followed the recipe on the Reign Trading website with great success. You can also find a yield table to estimate the number of sugar skulls that can be produced with each mold.
   Maddie and I also stopped by arts and crafts store, Michael's to buy additional items to decorate the skulls beyond colored icings. We purchased glitter, glass jewels, sequins, and brightly colored confetti. At a local Mexican import store, Borderlands we found decorative foil and dainty paper flowers. I also found beautiful sparkly sanding sugar in a variety of colors, including black and orange, at Williams-Sonoma. Last but not least, recycled items such as beads and bottle caps can be repurposed as decorations. Your imagination will take you where you want to go.

   As an alternative to making your own hues of royal icing, you can purchase readily available Wilton Icings at retail outlets. A limited selection of colors are available at grocery stores, and Michael's stores carry a wide array of the the icing colors on the cake accessory isle. Happily, the tubes accept all standard decorating tips. If friends ask what they can bring, you may want to suggest Wilton Icings. Winding up with two or three tubes of the same color works well because you can place different tips on each. Primary colors are a must, and pastels are a bonus, but don't forget black as it is a necessary addition to the mix.
   If you are making quite a few skulls, allot some time over 2 to 3 days to mold and dry, scoop and dry, and then paste and dry the skulls. The unadorned skull "blanks" can be stored long term in covered cardboard boxes. Placing the skulls on a bed of rice in the boxes will help reduce moisture and keep the "blanks" fresh until ready to decorate.

Unmold sugar skulls on to cardboard pieces cut to fit the "blanks".
Making the Sugar Mix for the Molds:
5 pound bag granulated sugar (a little less than 12 cups)
1/4 cup meringue powder
4 to 5 Tbsps water
various sugar skull molds
pieces of card board cut to size for various molds
pastry scraper
spray bottle

1. The ingredients can be mixed together by hand, but I prefer using my KitchenAid stand mixer. Put the sugar, concentrated meringue powder and water in a large mixer and with the paddle attachment, mix on low speed until blended, about 5 minutes. I draped a large, damp dish towel over the mixer to trap sugar dust. 

The sugar mix will be crumbly, but will hold its shape when squeezed.
2. Press the ingredients together with your hand. The mix should feel like wet beach sand and your finger prints should leave an imprint. If the mix is too granular, add a little more water and mix well. Once the mixture is the right consistency, transfer to a tightly covered container. Protected from the elements, the sugar will keep well for a couple of days. Stir every so often.

3. Press the sugar into the molds firmly. With a pastry scraper, or the edge of a cardboard piece, scrape the excess sugar back into the bowl. Place a piece of card board on the back of the mold; invert. Gently lift the mold straight up. If you are happy with how the skull looks, place it carefully in a safe place to dry. If the sugar doesn't mold perfectly, simply return the sugar to the bowl, remix, and try again.

It's okay to mess up! Just put the mixture back into the bowl, stir, and try again.
4. I found that we needed to wash the molds pretty regularly after forming somewhere between three to five sugar skulls, depending upon the mold. The Guadalupe mold was a little tricky to work with, but worth the trouble! When you are washing and drying the molds, you'll want to keep the sugar covered. If the sugar dries too much, simply spray lightly with water and thoroughly mix again.

Once the skull is dry enough to handle, use a spoon to hallow the inside.
5. Except for small molds, sugar skulls benefit from removing excess sugar to speed the drying time. The skulls need to dry anywhere from 2 to 6 hours depending upon the size of the skulls, and your environment. When the skulls are dry enough to handle, use a spoon to hollow the inside of the skulls to within 1/4 to 1/2-inch of the perimeter. Do not scoop out the neck area. All the scooped sugar can be added back to the bowl. The sugar can be remoistened and used again to form more skulls.

After the pieces are completely dry, connect the head with royal icing.
6. Set the hollowed skulls face down on individual pieces of cardboard. Dry thoroughly; about 12 hours. The two-piece molds will need to be fastened together with royal icing (recipe below). Pipe or spread the icing along the border and affix the pieces together. Carefully wipe the excess frosting in one swipe, if you can, to keep a clean appearance. Let the skull rest again until dry, at least 2 hours. Then proceed with decorating.

Royal icing is in the blue container with coloring pastes standing on the lid.
Royal Icing Ingredients:
2/3 cup water
1/2 cup concentrated meringue powder
2 pounds confectioners powdered sugar
a variety of concentrated food coloring pastes (no liquid colorings)
pastry bags and decorating tips, optional

1. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the water, meringue powder and powdered sugar for about 9 minutes, until the icing peaks. Store in a tightly sealed container. Do not refrigerate. Yield: 7 cups
2. Use the uncolored, white icing to "glue" the two halves of the larger skulls together.
3. To decorate the skulls: In small cups, mix a portion of royal icing with the concentrated food coloring paste(s) to create desired hues. Transfer to small pastry bags fitted with decorating tips.

Lazy susan type cake turntable, or cardboard cake wheels, to rotate the skull without having to touch it.

Final Presentation:
felt, in a variety of colors, cut with sawtooth pinking shears to make a colorful outline of the skull
hot glue gun to adhere the felt to the back of a single sided skull
shredded paper - I recycle the output from my home shredder
plastic containers - corsage and boutonnier boxes, or clear wire handle Chinese takeout containers - for transporting or gift giving
cigar boxes found at flea markets and antiqiues fairs are the foundation for festive mini altars

For More Inspiration and Decorating Details:
Sugar Skull Decorating Party


  1. I would like to be involved in such a wonderful creation. Thanks a lot for this tutorial, I'm about to try this out! Keep it up and looking froward to hearing from you:) Best regards, paper writing services


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