Saturday, November 1, 2008

day of the dead sugar skulls. (a guest blog.)

ivonne's skulls
photographs by Ivonne Carley.

Well, guys- Halloween was a blast, and Summer and I had a crazy party with lots of fun food. But until we get that posted, I'd like to hand the reins over to my friend Ivonne, a freelance illustrator and mom living in San Diego. (To see some of her work, check out her flickr page.) We were chatting the other day, and we got to talking about sugar skulls. I mentioned that I wanted to make some, someday- but as usual, the idea went on the backburner with about 100 other craft plans. She got the bug up her butt right then, and popped out to buy some supplies. I thought it would be nice to hear about the day of the dead from someone who actually grew up in Mexico, so I asked her to contribute to the blog:

ivonne's skulls

"It happens every year. Halloween comes and goes, and shortly after, Day Of The Dead. I haven't lived in Mexico for well over 12 years now and not one November 1st goes by without that inherent sense of emptiness. I miss the air of it, the bright colors, the crowded cemeteries full of those who go to honor their dead.

It's a sea of flowers, people walking with brooms, buckets of water... all walking back and forth to the communal water tap so they can clean up their headstones. I guess what I like about it the most is that death is not about sadness but it is about celebration. They set up their altars, bring food, alcohol, music and sit around with their dearly departed for a good portion of the day.

ivonne's skulls

I miss it. A lot. And it just isn't the same on this side of the borderline. So one day I woke up with this itch- "I am going to try
to make some sugar skulls." I acquired the recipe and bought the same molds that are shown here.

Besides the mold, the key ingredient to the mix is the meringue powder. Some recipes suggest egg whites, but I found this to be cleaner and probably smelled better than handling raw egg. I found it at a local gourmet bakery speciality store but I come to find that you can also get it at Michael's, in the cake decorating section. Don't ask the employees, they never know where anything is. Michael's also carries the dye paste which you use for the frosting mix later on, when decorating. The process can be very time consuming depending on the volume and sizes of the skulls. For me, this was a 2 day process.

ivonne's skulls

What you will need:
granulated sugar
meringue powder
powdered sugar
dye coloring paste
(you can find the dye paste + meringue powder at Michael's)

sugar skull mold (I used the medium sized "Oaxaca Style" mold)
a large metal mixing bowl
an electric mixer or food processor
cardboard cut out to the sizes of the mold pieces
pastry bags for frosting
colored foil for decorations

The recipe and process is well documented here.

Day 1 consisted of making the actual skulls and letting them dry. Combining the ingredients you wonder, "How is this going to turn hard?" Trust me, it does. Press the sugar mix into the mold, pack it in tight. Take a straight surface to the back and scrape off the excess so the back is flat. Then, take a piece of cardboard, flip it over, just like you would with a cake. The sugar should fall out easily, if it sticks, that means your mix is too moist. I found that rinsing out the mold every few pieces helped out, just make sure it is very dry before you make another piece. If a piece doesn't come out right, just put it back in the bowl, mix and try again.

This is the downside, you have to allow an 8-12 hour drying period. Mine sat for well over 12 hours and they were ready to go the next morning. If you have leftover sugar in the bowl, throw it out. It will harden in your cookware. Do not attempt to do this on a humid day, the sugar will not set up properly and you will be disappointed.

Day 2 is about assembly and decorating. I did not have to scoop out the backs of my faces as suggested on the tutorial website because they were completely dry. The first step was to make the royal icing which is basically sugary cement. Do not attempt to make this unless you have an electric mixer or food processor. Once it is done you smear some on the back piece, press it against the face part. Some icing will ooze out of the seam, just run your finger over it till it is smooth. Try to only do it in one passing.

Set them aside to dry while you mix your frosting colors. Mix your desired frosting colors and pack them in frosting bags.

Then the fun part finally arrives. Decorating. I set up a little station with all the frosting colors on hand, a piece of cardboard for the the skull and a paper or kitchen towel to wipe up messes.

Frosting + Decorating Tips:
Use plastic or disposable cups to mix your colors, you will save yourself the aggravation of cleaning it up later. Only use concentrated paste to dye. Liquid food coloring dilutes the frosting, rendering it useless. Keep the frosting covered as much as possible, it will begin to harden if exposed to air. Close any windows near the frosting cause it will dry it out quicker. If you find that it is drying out too much add a little bit of water and remix it. If you are not skilled with a pastry bag, they sell squeeze bottles you can use that will give you awesome detail, they just clog easily because of the frosting consistency. Find one that has a larger nib diameter. The foil pieces are adhered with frosting.

Once your skulls are decorated, set them aside to dry.

I used a medium mold and 5 lbs of sugar. It rendered 13 skulls. Once
they're ready you set them up in your location or altar of choice."

ivonne's skulls

I'd love to give this a try next year. I think it's awesome that Ivonne has this tradition to begin with her daughter, who is only a month younger than my son. To answer the question I know you're going to ask (because I asked Ivonne already, har har)- no, you don't eat the skulls. The Wikipedia page on Day of the Dead mentions sugar skulls, but doesn't explain why they're made of sugar. Ivonne suggested to me that it's just because sugar is so white, so it makes a nice looking skull. She said that people (little kids, usually) sometimes eat the smaller ones, but the large ones would be kind of gross- just a mouthful of hard sugar and cement-like frosting.

I grew up Roman Catholic, so we never got to experience the brightly colored skulls or anything associated with Day of the Dead- in fact, today, All Saints Day, is pretty drab as far as Catholic holidays go. I hope to incorporate some stuff from other cultures as my son gets older, because even though I'm a fanatic for pumpkin carving, I can't let him miss out on everything else, either.


Nancy said...

I also grew up in Mexico, and boy do I miss this colorful holiday. Some pan de muerto sounds good with some hot chocolate right now.

VeggieGirl said...

Incredible skulls!!

Wendy said...

A friend invited us over to her house to make these on Friday morning. They were so fun, but the kids just glued beads and feathers to them. We didn't know to use the icing.

Next year, though.

Thanks so much for showing these. They're gorgeous.

Lovebird said...

Very cool!

Teresa said...

Wow.The decorative icing is awesome! Great job!

CrowMolly said...

Those are great! Just added to the short list of things to try. Thanks!

onesilentwinter said...

So great!

Jesse said...

How fantastic! I definitely want to have a little party to make these next year! Thank you for the instructions!

The White Apron said...

These are awesome! I love the detail on the black one, reminds me of henna.