Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tutorial Time! Sugar Calaveras

19th century Mexican illustrator Jose Posada created la Catrina, an image that mocked the excess of high society ladies of fashion. To this day, La Catrina-style art is very popular.

It is often said that the people of Mexico have a special relationship with death. Much of the Western world prefers to ignore the inevitable. Relatives are regarded as truly gone from this earth, images like skulls or cemeteries are seen with either morbid glances or very clinical, clean scrutiny. There isn't nearly the soul or celebration in death that the Mexicans have that is, quite frankly, beautiful. Many cultures have veneration of the dead holiday or tradition. Native American tribes had spring rituals that evolved (thanks to the colonizing French who introduced All Saint's Day) into modern Ghost Suppers (myself and Aaron over at Steampunk Cookery are planning to host one as we speak) to which you would invite dead relatives by hanging wreaths on their graves. In Vietnam the anniversaries of loved ones' deaths are celebrated with feasts and the burning of so-called "hell notes", paper money intended as gifts to the dead person.

But Dia de Los Muertos tops them all in popularity and liveliness. It's captured the imagination of people outside of Mexico and venerates the dead, but with a joyous twist for the living. Traditions include cleaning and decorating relatives' gravesites, eating pan de muerto (spindly loaves of sweetened bread that look like cracked bones), and designating offering altars in the home called ofrenda. These colorful tables are adorned with flowers, paper decorations, photographs of the deceased, food (and booze), items the deceased enjoyed, and perhaps the most iconic image of Dia de Los Muertos: the calavera, or sugar skull. Note that the dead cannot actually eat the food, they simply indulge in the aroma, sight, and memory attached to it.

More calaveras-style art from the 19th/early 20th century. (Mexican Folk Art Guide)
Calavera (skull in Spanish) was originally a folk art form that began to become popular in the 19th century and was said to be influenced by Aztec and Maya art, which used a lot of skeletal imagery. The first sugar skulls were said to have been made in the 17th and 18th centuries. Dia de los Muertos actually has its origins with a much older Mesoamerican festival that venerated the dead. When the Spanish conquered the region in the 16th century, they attempted to obliterate the old holiday: No dice. People LOVED this festival and refused to give it up. As we saw with St. Patrick, instead they moved the holiday to All Saint's Day and reinvented it as a Catholic one. Since the locals didn't have a lot of the fancy materials to make offerings for their ofrendas, they took sugar (which was cheap and plentiful) and pressed them into skulls.

Now you might notice that this is a tutorial and not a recipe- well this is because there are multiple methods of making calavera and it's recommended that you not eat certain ones. The upside is, these things will last for years if you take care of them properly, and therefore I consider them (at least this technique) to be decoration more than confection. I chose this technique because unlike many guides on the internet, this requires NO special equipment (no molds, no meringue powder) and is safe for anyone to use! So gather up the following materials and make it a fun project with friends, family, and even children!

You will need (for 4 medium/fist-sized calavera, feel free to scale up or down on whim):
-1 Medium-sized mixing bowl
-1 Large spoon
-Newspaper or butcher's paper
-Paintbrushes, toothpicks, or anything needed to decorate with.

-4 cups (950mL) of powdered sugar (Out of powdered sugar? Make your own!)
-2 egg whites
-2 (30 mL) tbsp corn syrup
-1/2 tsp (3 mL) of vanilla extract (if you can get the brown stuff from Mexico, all the better. It is DIVINE.)
-Cornstarch (enough to dust on your hands and work surface. I like to pile a little on top of a paper plate for standby)
-Anything you might want to decorate with: food dyes, pre-made or homemade icing, sequins, sprinkles of varying sizes, beads, gears, flowers, toothpicks, feathers- the sky's the limit!

First of all get your wet ingredients together. Separate your egg whites from the yolks and add them to your vanilla and corn syrup in the bowl.

Wet team, ASSEMBLE!

Next, add the powdered sugar. I know what you're thinking: Miss K, THAT MUCH powdered sugar for that little liquid? Quiet you! First use your spoon, then your hands (did you wash them then coat them in corn starch?) and gradually work the wet into the dry, until a crumbly play-dough consistency is reached. This phase can be a little bit awkward to achieve. If your dough is too wet, add a little more sugar. If it's dry and falling apart, add a tiny bit of water to hydrate it.

Took a little more powdered sugar to get it to this point, but this is essentially what you're looking for.
Ideally you'll have this mass of dry, yet pliable dough. It should be moist enough to be sculpted, but dry enough to hold its shape. If it's too moist (greasy) it'll be too heavy and your calaveras will droop and melt like Nazi faces in Raiders of the Lost Ark. You'll find that the more you knead it, the more the powdered sugar is absorbed, so you'll need to (again) add more. At this point you can wrap your dough in plastic and store it in the refrigerator for future use or carry on to the next step!

Commence sculpting! Now, skulls are the most traditional form- but doves, angels, animals, and hearts are all documented. But don't restrict yourself to just that! Sculpt a zeppelin (I'd do it in two pieces then skewer them together with toothpicks), or a character from your favorite cartoon, or...

Ladies and Gentlmen: Dorkiness has reached critical mass.
You can use knives, toothpicks, spoons, and all sorts of kitchen implements to help you sculpt. It might get frustrating because of the consistency- the dough is soft and yields to persistant pressure, but a lot of sharp details will either crack or spring back. When you've finished sculpting, add any sequins, sprinkles, or objects you'd like embedded in the surface. Remember: It's going to get hard and brittle, so do it now while the dough is soft.

Elder gods prefer paring knives to help them take shape. FEAR HIM!

This is perhaps the hardest step of all: wait. Depending on the size and density of your sculpture, it'll take between 12-48 hours to dry out. My first batch (Boba Fett and Mrs. Skullivan) were rock-hard in two days. Humidity will also effect the drying times, so moister climed readers might have to wait even longer! When your calavera is dry, commence decorating! This can be as simple as piping swirls of frosting on, to painting elaborate scrollwork in primary or metallic-colored food dye. Traditionally the name of the deceased or the person it was being given to was written somewhere on the skull.

I follow original trilogy, so alas poor Fett, I knew thee well.

So there you are- a simple method to make your very own Dia de los Muertos calaveras. Let your imagination and creativity go wild! They make great window dressing and home decor, as well as thoughtful gifts- just store them in a dry place!

For more information on Dia de los Muertos, check out the book: Skulls for the Living, Bread for the Dead by Stanley Brandes.


  1. This method/recipe is similar to making peppermints but much more interesting. Will have to try this.

  2. Our age of steam ancestors had a more familiar relationship with death than we. The elegant municipal cemeteries are a testament. They were and are lovely destinations with both elegant landscaping and sculpture. One would come and visit your dead family members, bring a picnic lunch, and have a nice stroll. Just because someone is dead doesn't mean they're no longer family.

  3. I so agree Professor Wetware and I must visit my grandmother and grandfather this weekend. My Nana died early this year and I scattered her ashes, on top of my grandfathers, on the day of their 70th Wedding Anniversary. They are beneath a weeping rose and as it is Spring here, the roses are in bloom. They are very much in my life.

  4. I didn't know there was such a thing as Steampunk cooking?

  5. I must point out calavera does not mean sugar skull, it means skull; if we wanted to say sugar skull we would call them "calaveritas de azúcar", although sometimes sugar skulls ARE called simply calveritas (mainly for practical reasons).

  6. Posada's woodblock print's real name is "La Calavera Garbancera". For some reason people started to call it "La Catrina", but I took that particular History Art class like tow years ago, so I really don't remember the reason. XD
    The pan de muertos also has it's meaning: the top little ball is actially supposed to be the skull, and the four lines crossing down the mound are supposed to be the arm and the leg bones (forgot the names sorry). there's also another interpretation that says that the four lines are Quetzalcóatl-Camaxtli, Xipetotec, Tláloc-Huitzilopochtli y Tezcatlipoca.
    The shape also varies from region to region. The most characteristic Pan de Muerto you'll see is from central Mexico. ^^

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