Sugar Skulls For Dias De La Muertos

The Mexican Days of the Dead are celebrated on November 1st and 2nd; a two-day celebration of deceased loved ones. In this ritual observance rooted in a bizarre blend of pre-Colombian and Roman Catholic practices, Mexican families make merry with the souls of their dearly departed. Spirits of the dead are welcomed back to their “homes” with beautifully decorated altars made by their loved ones with offerings such as sugar skulls, food, candles and flowers to enjoy a day on earth.

Sugar skulls are a traditional folk art from Southern Mexico and are an integral part of Dias De La Muertos or “Day of the Dead” celebrations. Sugar skulls are exactly what the name implies: skull-shaped sugar made from a granulated white sugar mixture that is pressed into special skull molds. The sugar mixture is allowed to dry and then the sugar skull is decorated with icing, feathers, colored foil and more. While the ingredients of sugar skulls are edible the skulls are generally decorated with non-edible items and used only for decorative purposes.

When considering the origin of Mexican sugar skulls, it's important to remember that sugar is not actually native to Mexico. The making of sugar figures is actually a European tradition as well, and can be traced back to Palermo, Italy, where figurines were made out of sugar as religious decorations.

Sugar was first introduced to the Americas before "Mexico" even existed as a country. The original Spanish settlers quickly discovered that the conditions in the "New World" were perfect for growing sugar. Mexican sugar sculpture dates back to the 17th century when Italian missionaries visited the Americas. Mexicans during that time period had very little money, but had learned from the Catholic friars how to make decorations out of a plentiful resource; sugar. As Spanish Catholic beliefs began to mix with native Mesoamerican beliefs, the Mexicans started making sugar skulls as part of their Dias de los Muertos festivities. These decorated memorials have become more and more creative and extravagant over time. The designs are usually whimsical and brightly colored with stripes, dots, and swirls of icing to enhance the features of the skulls. They are meant to be festive, not morbid or scary.

Sugar Skulls
2 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons corn starch
1 egg white

Add the water and mix with your fingers until all the sugar mixture is moistened.   Once the mixture is about the texture of "moist beach sand" it is ready to mold.  You may need a bit of extra water if so just add a few drops at a time. If it is a really humid day, you may choose to try this project on another day!

Once the sugar is evenly moist, pack it into the molds.  We used a “medium-sized” mold which yielded 4 skulls. Make sure to pack the mold very firmly. It was surprising how much sugar dough was needed to pack each mold tightly. Scrape the mold with a straight edge (use the back of a butter knife), then pack again. Check the mold to make sure all the indentations are smoothly filled. Lay a small square of cardboard cut to fit the mold on top of the molded skull and invert onto the cardboard. Gently lift the mold away from the sugar skull and place the sugar skull in a warm, dry space for at least 8 hours to dry. This time will vary depending on room temperature and humidity.

If you are impatient and you try to move the skull before it dries, it will fall crumble apart.   If this happens just place the sugar mixture back in the bowl, add additional moisture if needed and remold the skull. When the skulls are completely dry, brush them off (we used a paint brush) and assemble. Make a batch of Royal Icing (click here for recipe).

Use icing bags and pipe icing and decorate as desired. We named the skulls before we started and relayed memories about the dearly departed we were celebrating as we decorated our skulls. Set the skulls aside to allow the icing to fully dry.

~Research and article written by Sonny Romeo for AP World History project