Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is celebrated in Mexico on November 2nd each year.
People gather to honor their deceased family and friends, and it's tradition to handcraft brightly colored sugar skulls to place on altars and graves during the festive celebrations. Each skull is made using a mixture of sugar, meringue powder, and water, which is pressed into a skull mold. Then each skull is decorated using colored royal icing, although they can be decorated with beads, feathers, foils, and gems as well (that kind is just for decoration).
This year we’re hosting a Day of the Dead party, so I wanted to make some traditional sugar skulls!
It's best to make sugar skulls on a nice sunny day or in a temperature and humidity controlled kitchen. If it's raining or humid outside and you can feel the dampness inside, then your skulls won't dry out well or hold together. If you do find yourself making them on such a day, you can use your oven to dry the skulls.
Bring it to 150 degrees F then turn it off and wait five minutes. The temperature will begin to fall; you can then put the skulls into the oven with the door cracked open. After 15 minutes, shut the door and allow the skulls to dry completely in the oven.
The basic ratio of ingredients is 1 cup of sugar to 1 teaspoon meringue powder to 1 teaspoon of water. The Mexican Sugar Skull website claims that meringue powder you buy in craft stores doesn't work as well as professional grade meringue powder because it's not as potent. I only had the store-bought kind so I just bumped up the amount a bit and hoped for the best.
I'm happy to report that my skulls dried and hardened perfectly! The amount of ingredients you will need will depend on the size of your skull molds. I used a Wilton 3-D skeleton mold and mixed up 6 cups of sugar with 7 1/2 teaspoons meringue powder and 6 teaspoons of water.
Start by mixing the sugar, meringue powder and water together until all the granules of sugar are wet and feel like wet sand. I found it easiest to mix my ingredients in a food processor. That way the sugar crystals became super fine and will pack into the molds really well.
I poured the sugar and meringue powder in and pulsed it for about 30 seconds before adding the water. I stopped pulsing the mixture when it started looking like wet sand, then scraped the bottom of the bowl then pulsed it again a few seconds. If you don't have a food processor, you can just mix everything together. Be sure to mix it really well though, so you don't end up with sugar crystals that aren't saturated with water.
To check if your mixture has enough water, grab a handful and squeeze it. If it stays together, you are good. If it falls apart, you need to add more water (a drop at a time) to the sugar, mixing it well.
Begin to fill your skull mold with the wet sugar, pressing down and compacting it as you go.
Fill both the front and back skull cavities with the sugar. Scrape off the excess.
Cut a piece of parchment paper and a piece of cardboard just a bit bigger than your mold. Set the parchment paper down on top of the mold. Set the cardboard on top of the paper. Grab onto the mold and cardboard and carefully flip the whole thing upside down. Set it on the counter, and then carefully lift the mold up off the sugar skulls. The mold should pop right off. It the sugar sticks, it's too wet. Scrape it out of the mold, clean the mold, and add some more dry sugar to the mixture and try molding it again. If your sugar skulls don't hold together, the mixture needs more water.
Your sugar skulls now need to dry. Midway through the drying cycle you need to carefully flip them over so the backsides can dry out at well. Small skulls should be dried for about 8-12 hours. Medium skulls will take 12-24 hours. Really large skulls require some of the sugar be scooped out, leaving an inch wall around the outside. To do this, allow the tops of the skulls to dry for 24 hours.
Then turn them upside down and use a spoon to scoop out some of the soft sugar. You can reuse this sugar to make more skulls if you want.
Once your skulls are dried, spread a thin layer of royal icing on the flat part of the backside of each skull.
Press the front and back sides together. Use your finger to wipe off the icing that oozes out from in between the two pieces.
Allow the skulls to dry for at least an hour.
Your skulls are now ready to decorate! To make the royal icing, start by beating together powdered sugar, meringue powder, and water until it's shiny and will hold stiff peaks. Color small bowls full of royal icing using Betty Crocker gel colors. If you wont be using the icing right away, be sure to cover each bowl with plastic wrap.
You'll need to pipe the royal icing onto your skulls. You can use pastry bags fitted with a coupler and pastry tip, or just fitted with a tip. You can also just fill a pastry bag or zip top bag with icing and then snip off the tip of the bag. Pro tip: I had more control over my piping when I added pastry tips to my bags.
Pipe royal icing onto the skulls. Any simple or elaborate designs can be added, including a spider web.
Get as creative as you'd like and use lots of bright colors on each skull for a dramatic appearance.
Allow your sugar skulls to dry for several hours before using them.
You'll love having these beautiful, colorful sugar skulls as decorations for any Day of the Dead event!