HOW TO MAKE MEXICAN SUGAR SKULLS
A Culinary Folk Art for Day of the Dead
By Sienna Wildfield
What better avenue for children to explore and discover different cultures than FOOD?! Right? … We all eat. And whether it’s a yearly birthday cake, fish on Friday, pancakes on Sunday, or a couple of loaves of challah on a Friday night, most of us routinely and joyfully participate in different food traditions. The culinary experience of exploring food customs from around the world can bring families an integrated course of study on cultural traditions and arts.
This time of year in Central and Southern Mexico, in preparation for the Mexican holiday El Diá de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), mounds of Sugar Skulls are sold in open air markets. The Day of the Dead is on November 2nd and we’ve explored this Mexican holiday in a previous post: El Diá de los Muertos (Video & Resources). Making Mexican Sugar Skulls with your kids is a creative hands-on project that can aid in the exploration of this traditional Mexican Folk Art while affording an opportunity to discuss and participate in one of the various customs of this Mexican celebration.
Hilltown Families Guest Artist Marie Westburg of ArtStar, an art enrichment studio in Williamsburg, MA, recently invited us over to make this sweet Mexican culinary folk art. In her cozy studio our girls got together and crafted skulls out of sugar and meringue powder and decorated them with bags of colorful icings, beads and sequins. It’s a fun project to make with a group of friends, but give yourself enough time. The skulls take 12-24 hours to harden before they can be decorated. To follow is a DIY for this fun seasonal activity:
HOW TO MAKE MEXICAN SUGAR SKULLS
Because the skulls need 12-24 hours to dry, making sugar skulls is a two-day process. This is a perfect opportunity to host a Day of the Dead celebration! Invite your gang of friends over to make sugar skulls on a Friday night. Serve up lime margaritas (to the adults), cafe con leches or other traditional Mexican drinks with tamales, corn chips, pico de gallo and guacamole, and let the sugar fly. Then on Sunday, grab a couple of loaves of Pan de Muerto (Day of the Dead Bread) from Bread Euphoria in Haydenville, whip up a batch of Huevos Rancheros, and invite the gang back over for brunch and to decorate their skulls. Guests will have beautiful sugar skulls to take home to display or to bring to their local cemetery on the Day of the Dead.
DAY ONE: MOLDING THE SUGAR SKULLS
Gather your supplies. You will need:
- Sugar Skull Molds
- Granulated Sugar
- Meringue Powder
- Measuring Cup
- Measuring Spoon
- Butter Knife
- Mixing Bowl
- Squares of Stiff Cardboard (a little bigger than your mold)
- Cookie Sheet
- NOTE: It is advised to not make your skulls on humid days to avoid mushy heads!
- The amount of granulated sugar, meringue powder and water to mix together will depend on the size of your molds and the number of skulls you make. The ratio is 1 tsp meringue powder : 1 tsp water : 1 cup of granulated sugar. Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. We mixed 5 lbs of granulated sugar with 1/4 cup of meringue powder.
- Sprinkle water on top of the sugar mixture using the ratio above. We used 10 tsps of water (which is 3 tbsps plus 1 tsp). Let the kids use their hands to mix the water into the sugar, making sure to work the water into all dry sugar. The mixture should hold together slightly when squeezed, sort of like damp beach sand. The meringue powder will make the mixture solidify once dried. If you’re worried about your kids sneaking samples of sugar, let them know that sugar skulls are made for decorative purposes only … and consider using organic sugar instead.
- Marie found her molds at www.MexicanSugarSkull.com. They have a variety of sizes to choose from. We used a medium sized mold. When filling your mold up with the sugar mixture, be sure to press (not pat) the sugar mixture down firmly. If using a medium to large mold, fill up half way, press down, and then continiue to fill to the top and press down again. Using a butter knife, evenly scrape off the excess back into the bowl.
- Using a square of stiff cardboard cut slightly larger than your mold, place on top of the mold and then flip it over and rest on a hard surface. Resting on cookie sheets makes it easy to move a group around. Remove the mold from the sugar cast. Do not touch before the cast dries or it will fall apart. If the kids can’t help themselves, make a demo sugar cast for them to touch. See the result of pre-mature touching here.
- Allow the sugar casts 12-24 hours to dry in a cool dry area of the house.
DAY TWO: MAKING ROYAL ICING & DECORATING THE SUGAR SKULLS
First make up a large batch of royal icings and then prepare a variety of different colors. Royal icing is the stuff used in assembling gingerbread houses and is a tasty and strong sugar “glue.”
- Powder sugar
- Meringue Powder
- Icing Color Pastes
- Disposable Decorating Bags (or freezer bags)
- Decorating Tips (optional)
- Electric Mixer
- Mixing Bowls
- Measuring cups
- Measuring spoons
- Butter Knives
- Small Bowls
- Small beads and sequins
- To prepare your icing, mix 2 lbs of powdered sugar, 1/2 cup of meringue powder and 2/3 cup of water and beat with an electric mixer until peaks form. This can take several minutes, but don’t over beat or the icing will become too stiff. This amount should be sufficient for the number of skulls made out of a 5 lb bag of sugar. If you are making more sugar skulls and you need more royal icing, mix up a separate batch. It’s advised to not mix up more than 2 lbs of sugar at a time or it will effect the consistency of the icing.
- Separate out the icing to small bowls and mix in the icing color pastes (not liquid food coloring) to the shades you desire. Five to six different colors should be just enough. The icing must be covered tightly when not in use (but not refrigerated) or it will become dry and harden.
- Now place each color into a decorating bag. You can either purchase disposable decorating bags or use freezer bags with a small snip off of the corner. We found that regular sandwich bags weren’t durable enough to withstand the strong squeezes of little hands. We also discovered that while freezer bags were more readily available and economical, disposable decorating bags with a decorating tip would have offered our young artists more control in their decorating. The youngest of the bunch can use the icings as finger paints.
- Once the palette of icing colors is bagged, let the kids decorate away! Beads and sequins jazz up the skulls and the icing is a wonderful glue. For creative inspiration check out this slide show of different sugar skulls.
- Allow the icing to dry and then display with paper marigolds and candles at home, or place at your local cemetery on El Diá de los Muertos (November 2nd), offering the ancestors a taste of sweetness from this life.
Read more about El Diá de los Muertos here, and be sure to check out ArtStar’s display of Mexican Sugar Skulls during the month of October at the Meekins Library in Williamsburg, MA. To find out about different workshops Marie is offering at ArtStar, visit her web site at www.artstarlounge.com.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Marie is the creative force behind ArtStar , an art enrichment studio in downtown Williamsburg, MA which offers art programs for kids and adults, including homeschool and after-school classes and workshops. She is an artist and art therapist and has been working for the past 20 years with people of all ages and backgrounds. She is especially drawn to working with girls and women to facilitate their expression, empowerment and connections through art. Marie is passionate about community, painting, cake decorating and collaboration with others doing anything creative or meaningful. She lives in Williamsburg with her husband and two daughers. Check out what classes she’s offering at www.artstarlounge.com.