Celebrate Dia de Los Muertos, even if you’re not from Mexico. It’s healthy to have a day to remember and celebrate the departed — our current celebration of Halloween is an offshoot of older traditions that honored the dead at this time of year.
Note: this post appeared previously on my other site. I’ve chosen not to focus on recipes, so I’ve removed recipe formatting on this blog. The instructions are still here, but the formatting may be a bit off until I get the chance to reconfigure this post.
An aspect that seems to have captured the public imagination outside of Mexico is the colorful sugar skulls that are often part of the festivities. So much so that the Nutcase “Spirit in the Sky” bicycle helmet features sugar skulls — I almost bought it!
Mexican sugar skulls are not too difficult to make. It took some experimentation and initial failure for me to discover what worked and what didn’t. However, it does take some time as you need to let the skulls rest and then rest some more before you can decorate; it’s more of a two-day than a one-day project.
If you want to get traditional, you can set your completed sugar skulls upon an altar with photos of your departed loved ones, marigolds, and calaveras (skeletons).
Mexican Sugar Skull Molds
While you might be able to find the molds if you have a specialty shop near you, the molds you find on Amazon.com are perfect for the task. But be sure that you’re getting ones that have both front and back if you want a nice 3-D skull — some of them have just the front and lay flat.
See the end of the recipe for some recommendations for sugar skull molds.
Do I Need Meringue Powder?
My answer to this question is, “yes, you do.” I tried recipes that used eggs instead of meringue powder, but I ended up with skulls that fell apart more easily. Meringue powder is not hard to find. You can order it on Amazon, or you can find it in the baking section with the cake decorating supplies at stores like Walmart or in craft stores that have Wilton products.
So let’s get on with how to make sugar skulls, including a Mexican sugar skull recipe video (for those of you who are video-centric).
Mexican Sugar Skulls
In Mexico Dia de Los Muertos is a day to honor the ancestors; colorful sugar skulls are a common part of the festivities. Here’s how to make them!
Note: While these are made of edible materials, they are not really a food item. They’re for looking at, not eating!
- Mexican Sugar Skull Molds
- Large bowl
- Rubber Spatula
- Decorating Bags (Disposable Recommended)
- Decorating Tips
- 5 lbs sugar (white granulated)
- 3/4 cup meringue powder (separated into 1/4 and 1/2 cup)
- 2/3 cup water (plus about 10 tsp)
- 2 lbs powdered sugar
- food colors (solid or gel cake decorating colors work best)
Making the Skulls
Place skull ingredients into a large bowl: 1/4 cup of the meringue powder, and 10 tsp of water.
Mix the ingredients together with your hands until the mix feels like wet sand and holds together when you squeeze it. If it’s too dry and not holding together yet, you can add more water a very small amount at a time until it holds together (but note, it will still be crumbly).
Pack the sugar mixture firmly into the front of the skull mold. Use something with a flat edge to scrape off excess. Then turn the skull carefully onto a piece of cardboard. Repeat for the back. If you make a mistake you can throw it back in the bowl.
Let the skulls dry for six hours. I put mine in a warm room with the heater on as I made them on a rainy day.
When the outsides of the skulls are firm, after approximately six hours, scoop out the insides. I left about 1/2 – 3/4″ around the skull edges (i.e. scoop out more than is shown in the photo). This isn’t necessary with the small skull molds.
After scooping out the large skull halves, put them back on their cardboards and let dry for many more hours (overnight is good) until they are hard.
Preparing the Icing
Place the powdered sugar, 2/3 cup water, and the remaining 1/2 cup of the meringue powder in a mixing bowl together. Mix on slow speed to wet ingredients, and then on high speed for about 9 minutes.
The icing is done when it is stiff and you can make peaks in it. If you want it stiffer, you can add more powdered sugar.
Use the white icing to “glue” the skulls together. Let them sit for a few minutes while you color the icing.
Separate icing into different (either washable or disposable) cups and add food coloring to make desire colors.
Put the colored icing into the decorating tubes with tips inserted and start decorating the skulls to your heart’s content! You might want to try to make them look like deceased relatives to get into the spirit of Dia de Los Muertos. You can use foil, sequins, beads, feathers, or any bling you might have on hand to decorate.
Have fun arranging your Mexican sugar skulls! Marigolds are a traditional accompaniment, but you can use whatever you have on hand to make an arrangement: photos of deceased loved ones, candles. I happened to have some Mexican caliveras (skeleton) figures on hand, so I brought them out of hiding.
Which Molds Should I Use?
- This large mold was excellent; its the one I used in the video.
- This mold is virtually identical, it just comes with cuter packaging so it’s more expensive. The recipe that comes with that one is without the meringue powder. I tried it and it did not hold together as well. The traditional way of making them — with the meringue powder — is recommended.
- The small skulls in the video are the medium altar skulls.
- I also have the medium skull mold — but note that I didn’t use it in this tutorial. This mold is one-sided and makes flat skull faces with no occiput (back of skull)!
- Various types of molds seem to switch out around the year if you watch them on Amazon.com.
I’ve seen (and tried) recipes that substitute eggs for the meringue powder. They did not hold up nearly as well. I’d recommend avoiding those recipes and go right for the meringue powder. You can buy it on Amazon or you can find it in the cake decorating section at Walmart or craft supply stores like Michaels that sell cake decorating supplies.
On Drying the Skulls
The recipe that comes with some of the sugar skull molds suggests that the skulls will not turn out if you make them on a rainy day. Perhaps not an option where I live in the Pacific Northwest! But you might have a problem on a very humid day.
I’ve made these on a rainy October PNW day with good results — I just put them in a warm room with the heater on and the electric fireplace going and had good results.
I’ve seen some recipes that suggest drying them in the oven on 175-200 degree for 30-40 minutes. I’ve tried that — it did not work as well for me as simply letting them sit out. The center of my oven-dried skulls were firmer and harder to scoop out.