Monday, November 2, 2009

Días de los Muertos

In my family we celebrate Días le los Muertos (Days of the Dead), a Mexican holiday observed on November 1 and 2. Though we don't spend all night in the cemetery, by the graves of loved ones, as many do in Mexico, we do put up an altar every year at home. The belief underlying the holiday is that a thinning of the veil between worlds at this time of year allows the souls of the departed to come back for a visit.

A public Day of the Dead altar in San Francisco.
Photo by Mars Vilaubi

The custom is to build personal altars, decked out with food, photos, memorabilia, and anything else that might entice loved ones to return. The altars are bright and colorful, with festive decorations that signal a celebratory party rather than a spooky seance. On our altar we honor Grammy and Poppop (Libby and Jack), Grandma Ivy, Grandpa Charlie, Grandpa Joaquin, Grandma Mom (Rosa), my beloved cat Cybil, cousin Clifford, dear friend Gannon, and even past heroes that have all passed on. If nothing else, it gives me an opportunity to remember and honor them.

Skeletal women in turn-of-the-last-century gowns
are known as Catrinas and are a popular icon of
Días de los Muertos. I adore them and have
a small collection that I keep up in my house all year round.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Festively painted skulls are also a Días de los Muertos staple.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Días de los Muertos is widely celebrated in San Francisco. When we lived there, I always looked forward to the parade, which is more of a happening: everyone participates, marching through the Mission neighborhood with candles to the accompaniment of a musical cacophony.

A Day of the Dead parade in San Francisco.
Photos by Mars Vilaubi

Back in California, we had ready access to the traditional foods and holiday decorations. We have a lifetime supply, really, of skull rattles, cut tissue paper banners, skeleton figurines, colorful votive candles, paper flowers, and other bells and whistles of the day. Now that we're in Berkshire County, where the Latino population hovers under 2 percent, if you want perishables like pan de muertos or sugar skulls, you've got to make them yourself.

Pan de muertos, shaped like a person "at rest," is a treat placed on altars.
Photo by Mars Vilaubi

Sugar skulls, candles, and a photo make a simple memorial.

So, I was excited to get a Facebook update from my friend Brenda Modliszewski, who took a sugar-skull workshop at Devout Home, in Rocky River, Ohio ( The owner, Lorelei, provided the following instructions.



Meringue powder
Granulated sugar
(For every cup of granulated sugar, use 1 tsp meringue powder and 1 tsp
Sugar-skull molds
Concentrated paste food coloring, optional

Important Note
Do not attempt to make sugar skulls on a rainy or humid day because they won't turn out well.

Mix sugar and meringue powder well. Sprinkle on the appropriate amount of water for the quantity of sugar being used. (If colored skulls are desired, add paste food coloring, not liquid.) Mix well with your hands until
every bit of sugar is moistened; the mixture should feel like beach sand.

Pack the sugar mixture very firmly into the mold. Use a straight edge to scrape the back of the mold flat. Pack on more sugar, with flat fingers, until it's perfectly tight, scraping the back flat again when you're done.

Place a stiff cardboard square over the back of the mold, and invert it. Lift the mold off carefully. If the sugar mixture doesn't fall out of the mold easily, it is too wet. Remix, and add in more sugar. If the mixture is too
dry, spritz it with a water bottle, and remix.

Molded sugar skulls need to air dry for 8 hours before being scooped out (small sugar skulls don't need to be hollowed). When the skull feels dry enough to handle, hollow it with a spoon, leaving a half-inch-thick wall. Do
not scoop the neck area. (Sugar "scoopings" will be moist and can be reused.)

Allow the hollowed skulls to dry for another 8 to 12 hours. If you are using a two-piece, front-and-back sugar-skull mold, you may join the two pieces together after this round of drying. Use Royal Icing to attach the
two pieces together. Allow the icing to dry before decorating.

Decorate your sugar skull with colored Royal Icing, sequins, feathers, beads, edible cake-decorating pieces, colored foils, labels, wrappers, trinkets, shells, and whatever else will personalize your skull in honor of
your dear, departed loved one. (Note that sugar skulls are not edible.)


2 lbs powdered sugar
1/2 cup meringue powder
2/3 cup water
Concentrated paste food coloring (not liquid)
Disposable pastry bags

Mix dry ingredients, then add the water. Beat with an electric mixer until icing peaks start to form (about 9 minutes). Store in a tightly covered container; do not refrigerate. Royal icing is strong and pretty, and it
lasts, but it doesn't taste great.

Mix icing with paste color in a disposable cup. Make a tiny snip in the tip of a disposable pastry bag (optional: insert a metal decorative tip), then put 2 to 3 oz of the colored icing into the bag (so it's no more than one-quarter full). Make as many colors as you'll need. Squeeze to decorate. (Each 5 lbs of sugar skulls will need 2 lbs of Royal Icing.)

Thanks, BMod!

Alethea Morrison, Creative Director


Melanie Jolicoeur said...

What a great post, Alethea.

I actually found Pan de muertos at Bread Euphoria in Haydenville on Saturday. They weren't cheap ($8 a loaf) but delicious.

Also, I did a Day of the Dead themed costume for Halloween night — I'll bring in some photos.

brendamod said...

Alethea, This is lovely! And your photos are wonderful. I'm hoping to make pan de muertos today....Cheers.

Melanie Jolicoeur said...

Also you might like to check out this blog: