Last Friday the Pacifica Sharp Park Library hosted a Día de los Muertos Festival with live Mariachi band, painting Calavera masks and decorating sugar skulls where participants learned about this tradition of Mexican culture.
Día de los Muertos is a holiday which focuses on family and friends getting together to pray for and remember loved ones who have died. It is particularly important in Mexico, where it is celebrated at the level of a national holiday. The celebration takes place on November 1st and 2nd, in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2).
Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars honoring the deceased using sugar skulls and marigolds, along with the favorite foods and beverages of the departed. Family members and loved ones visit the graves of the deceased with these items as gifts.
Sugar skulls are an important part of this tradition because they are a "representation of life and death," said artist and youth program associate Alejandra Ortega, who puts on an annual Day of the Dead workshop in Pescadero at the nonprofit Puente. "People decorating them and putting a lot of work and thought into them with icing, pieces of bright foil, colored sugars, and usually bearing the name of the deceased loved one being honored."
It is typical to use the smaller sugar skulls to represent the children who are deceased and who will come down from heaven on November 1 and the bigger sugar skulls for the adults who come on November 2, said Ortega.
Sugar skulls are easy to make by children and adults, and if kept dry, they can last a year.
Here’s how to make your own courtesy of mexicansugarskull.com (with a video above) and some tips and tricks from Ortega:
(To make 20 medium-sized skulls)
Medium altar sugar skull mold (order here)
Cardboard square (approx. 5" x 6")
5 pounds granulated sugar
¼ cup meringue powder – order from CK Products (do not use meringue powder from hobby shops or cake supply shops as it's usually too diluted)
3 TB water
Decorations, colored tin foils, paper flowers, sequins (order here)
2/3 cup water
1/2 cup meringue powder
2 pounds powdered sugar
Concentrated paste food colorings (order here)
1. Mix with your hands 5 pounds granulated sugar and ¼ cup meringue powder in a large bowl.
2. Sprinkle sugar mixture with 3 TB water.
3. Mix well with hands until every bit of sugar is moistened.
4. If your fingerprints remain when you squeeze the sugar in your hand, it is ready to mold.
5. Pack sugar mixture FIRMLY into mold with special attention to chins and edges. Use a straight edge to scrape the back of the mold flat. Pack down some more until perfectly tight.
6. Place a stiff cardboard square (approx. 5" x 6") over mold and invert immediately. Lift mold off carefully. Throw any "mistakes" back into your bowl, stir up and try again. If mix is too dry, spritz with a water bottle. If all the sugar mixture does not fall out of mold easily, it is too wet. Re-mix with a bit more sugar.
7. Air-dry on the cardboard from 8 hours to overnight before they are ready to decorate.
8. When ready to decorate, mix 2/3 cup water, 1/2 cup meringue powder and 2 pounds powdered sugar with an electric/stand mixer until icing peaks (about 9 minutes).
9. Mix icing and paste colors in disposable cups for 5-6 different colors to decorate with. Put in disposable pastry bags and/or use metal decorating tips.
10. Squeeze colored Royal Icing to decorate each skull.
11. Add sequins, feathers, beads, colored foil and icing to decorate. Foil is pasted down with icing, and is great for making crowns, crosses, hearts, shiny eyes. Labels, wrappers, trinkets and shells can personalize a skull in memory of a deceased loved one.
12. Place the traditional Mexican sugar skull on a family altar or tombstone to honor a deceased loved one.
When it comes to making the royal icing to decorate the sugar skulls, Ortega says that it is better to use disposable icing bags which can be purchased at stores like Michael's craft stores or Joann’s Fabrics. “Icing can be made a couple of days in advance and has to be stored in a tightly covered container,” she said.
She also recommends ordering supplies like the molds, colored foil and paste colors from http://www.mexicansugarskull.com, which also features step-by-step photos of how to make sugar skulls as well as variations on the recipe for a higher yield.
Also, the name of the loved one is usually written on the skull with icing. You can customize your skulls with characteristics that you remember — like a tin foil pipe for Grandpa Joe who smoked a pipe on the porch after dinner.