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Lighthearted and Solemn: Skulls Made of Sugar
Both decorative and edible, sugar skulls, or Calaveras de azúcar, are one of the most iconic elements of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration. These cranium-shaped objects are created in sizes from tiny to life-sized and adorned with brightly-colored icing, metallic paper, sequins, or other decorative details. Often, attached to the forehead is a tiny slip of paper featuring a person’s name—the person creating the skull, the one receiving it, or the person being remembered. The skulls are used both as an offering for the dearly departed on a family’s altar and as a sign of affection to the living when given as a gift (a gentle reminder of our own mortality).
Visit any Mexican market in the month of October and you will see entire stands dedicated to the sale of skulls made out of sugar, chocolate, amaranth, gumdrop-like gelatin, and other edible materials. If you live where these objects are unavailable for purchase or would like to try making your own, sugar skulls are easy—and fun!—to create. All you need are a mold, a few simple ingredients, some ordinary household supplies, and utensils.Continue to 2 of 8 below.
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Assemble Your Supplies
Making sugar skulls is not difficult if you carefully follow each step and have everything you need. Having one or more skull-shaped molds is critical. The shape and size are up to you; some skull molds are faces only and some include two parts that you put together to make a whole skull. You can find excellent sugar skull supplies online; one great source is the Reign Trading Company.
You will need a few ingredients and some special equipment to make your own sugar skulls, some of which you may have in your pantry, like granulated sugar and powdered sugar, and perhaps meringue powder and paste food coloring.
The quantity of the granulated sugar will depend on how many sugar skulls you will be making and what size they will be. Approximately 1 cup of sugar should be enough for 6 very small skulls, 4 medium, or 1 large. The powdered sugar is used for the decorative icing, and the paste food coloring—best in bright colors—is to tint the icing. The meringue powder, available in supermarkets and baking supply stores, helps to hold the sugar together.
You will also need a large bowl, some water, a flat plate or piece of cardboard, an electric mixer, icing decorator bags, and any other decorations you like such as foil, sequins, or feathers. Having a few disposable cups and some popsicle sticks is also handy. Make sure you have a large, dry area for the sugar skulls to dry undisturbed (once for the sugar to dry and solidify, then later for the icing to dry and harden).Continue to 3 of 8 below.
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Prepare the Sugar
The first step is to ready the sugar mixture to form the skulls. For every cup of sugar, mix in 1 teaspoon of meringue powder and sprinkle 1 teaspoon of water on top.
Work the water into the sugar with your fingers until the mixture feels like cool beach sand. This takes a few minutes, so be patient. The sugar is ready when you can press your finger or thumb into it and the print will stay.Continue to 4 of 8 below.
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Fill the Mold
Fill the mold with the sugar paste and press firmly with the palm of your hand. When the skull is full and pressed into the mold, use the back of a knife to scrape off excess sugar and then even off the surface. Lightly re-press the scraped surface to smooth it.Continue to 5 of 8 below.
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Remove From Mold and Let Dry
Place a piece of cardboard or flat plate over the sugar skull. Hold the skull mold tightly on the cardboard or plate and flip it over. Remove the mold from the sugar and place the skull—plate and all—in a place where it can dry undisturbed.
Repeat these steps until you run out of sugar.Continue to 6 of 8 below.
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Make the Icing
To make the icing you will need 2/3 cup water, 1/2 cup meringue powder, and 2 pounds powdered sugar. Beat the water, meringue powder, and powdered sugar with a large electric mixer until the icing peaks, about 9 minutes.
Divide the icing into smaller portions (disposable cups and popsicle sticks work well for this) and use the paste food coloring to tint each portion a different color.
Place the icing in the decorator bags. Snip the end of each bag when you're ready to decorate. Start very small with the snip; you can make it bigger if necessary.Continue to 7 of 8 below.
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Decorate the Skulls
Now you are ready to decorate your skulls however you like. Use the icing to create designs. If you're adding foil, beads, or feathers, use the icing as a glue to attach them. (If you attach non-edible items to the skull, remove these before eating, or use the skulls only for decoration.) You can also use ready-made royal icing or tubes of colored white chocolate to use for decorating your skulls.
Place the decorated skulls in a place to dry undisturbed. The icing will harden as it dries. Once dry, attach the skull halves of any 2-piece skulls to each other, which you can do with the icing.
Once both the sugar and icing are completely dry, your sugar skulls can be touched, eaten, bagged, displayed, etc.Continue to 8 of 8 below.
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Tips for Sugar Skull Making
To achieve sugar skull success, you should keep a few tips in mind. It's best not to omit the meringue powder in the sugar; some people make their sugar skulls with egg white instead, but these may not solidify well when they dry. And if the sugar gets too dry while working to create the paste, lightly spritz the sugar with water.
If possible, make your sugar skulls on a very dry day. If it is too humid outside, they may not dry well. If you do have trouble getting your skulls to dry and harden, try putting them in a warm oven for 2 hours or so.
For the larger skulls, scoop out some of the front and back pieces to make the finished skull lighter. First, let the skull dry in the mold for a couple of hours, then use your fingers or a spoon to scoop out a hole in each one, leaving a 1/2 inch solid flat border around the edge where you will glue the two halves together later with icing. The “scoopings” can be re-used to make more skulls.