How to make “calaveras” or Mexican sugar skulls without meringue powder

The net is an incredible place, because 10 years ago, if I wanted to make “calaveras,” which are those sugar skulls that kids and lovers give each other for the Mexican holiday El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), how on earth would I have figured out how to do that without going to Mexico and hanging out in some grandma’s kitchen? So I was all excited a couple of weeks back when I ordered my sugar skull mold (just a cheap piece of polystyrene that looks like the containers that things like Ipods and flash drives come in…that stuff thats practically impossible to cut open without slicing your hands) and got ready to make 40 calaveras for my fall dinner party.

Mold to make calaveras, or Mexican sugar skulls for El Dia de los Muertos

Exhorbitantly expensive for some plastic packaging!

The website that sold me the skull mold (for an astonishing $15 considering the cheap production cost…this stuff is just basically packaging) has a recipe for sugar skulls that I found repeated virtually EVERYWHERE on the internet. If a site had a recipe for sugar skulls, this was the recipe. And there simply were no other recipes. The problem was that their recipe called for an ingredient called “meringue powder” which is an obscure ingredient typically only found in commercial bakery kitchens, and it’s offensively expensive. Sure, their website will be happy to sell you a small quantity, enough to make about 4 big skulls, for around $10. Maybe that’s a bargain if you only want to make 4 skulls (which, with your $15 mold and $10 meringue powder, plus shipping, is going to make your skulls cost around $9-$10 per skull once you buy the rest of the ingredients). I can’t afford that for 40 skulls.

But their recipe specifically states, “This recipe will not work if you leave out the meringue powder, the skulls will fall apart.” And it was the ONLY recipe I could find on the net that looked legitimate. “Surely,” I thought, “those little grandmas in Oaxaca aren’t pulling out their tin of ultra-expensive imported meringue powder when it’s time to make calaveras.” Knowing that meringue powder is basically powdered eggs whites, I figured…why not just try using egg whites to help cement the sugar together, and maybe bake the skulls at a low temperature to speed the setting and drying process?” An experiment proceeded to unfold. And I got it right with the first try! So if you can find yourself a sugar skull mold, here’s how to make perfect calaveras without meringue powder:

6 cups sugar
2 egg whites

That’s it folks.

Put the egg whites in the bottom of a big bowl, dump in the granulated sugar, and get your hands all messy squeezing and churning it together until the sugar feels like wet sand at the beach. You want the sugar to be as dry as possible but still stick together in the mold, but it’s better for it to be too damp than too dry.

Sugar and egg whites for calaveras or Mexican sugar skulls for El Dia de los Muertos

It should be the same consistency as beach sand for making sand castles

Take a handful, dump it into your skull mold and press it down, and continue until the mold is full. Make certain that you press VERY firmly so the sugar is packed hard into the skull.

Filling the skull mold for calaveras, or Mexican sugar skulls for El Dia de Muertos

Packing the sugar firmly into the mold

Over fill the mold for calaveras or Mexican sugar skulls for El Dia de los Muertos

Over-fill the mold, pack it HARD!

Then rake a knife or straight edge across the back of the mold to give yourself a flat edge for the bottom of the skull.

Raking off excess sugar from the calaveras mold

Using the cardboard square to level off the back of the skull

Then take a spoon and scoop out a little sugar from the center of the back of the skull so that you don’t waste sugar and so the skull doesn’t weigh too much.

Scooping out excess sugar and egg white from the calavera

Careful, now!

Make sure the walls of the skull will be at least 1″ thick when you dump it out of the mold, or it may collapse on itself.

Hollowing out the calavera, or Mexican sugar skull for El Dia de los Muertos

This is an optional step but results in a lighter skull and you waste less sugar

Then take a square of cardboard just a little larger than your skull, place it against the back of the mold, and flip the mold over.

Gently flip the skull mold

Gently flip the mold over onto the cardboard

Gently pull the mold up off the sugar and you’ll have a perfect replica of a skull staring back at you.

Removing the mold from the Mexican sugar skull for El Dia de los Muertos

The mold should come off if your sugar isn't too damp with egg white

The mold should come off easily. If it is hard to pull off, your sugar is too wet and you need to add an extra handful to the bowl and work it in well with your hands. The mold should pull off easily leaving a smooth, perfect replica, and the drier the sugar is, the better this will happen.

Rinse the mold between each skull and dry with a paper towel. Continue making skulls with more sugar and more cardboard squares until you have all your skulls formed. Then, very carefully, place your skulls inside a preheated 200F oven for 30 minutes. When you remove them, the surface will be very hard to the touch. But don’t put too much stress on them yet…they need a week of drying before they’ll be hard enough all the way through to handle vigorously.

Google images for “sugar skulls” or “calaveras” to see pictures of how the skulls are decorated. Traditionally, the name of the person receiving the skull is written on a piece of colored foil which is placed across the skull’s forehead, and then the rest of the skull is decorated with brightly colored icing. You can get tubes of premixed icing at the grocery store which work just fine, or make your own by using lots of powdered sugar, an egg white, a few tablespoons of corn starch, food coloring, and a few drops of water. Stir it until it’s thick, then stuff it into a decorating bag. If you don’t have a decorating bag, make a cone of wax paper, parchment paper, or just plain paper, fill the cone with icing, and cut a tiny bit off the tip of the cone. Fold the top paper down until you can squeeze the icing out of the tip you just cut. Use the icing to decorate the skulls, which can be done as soon as they come out of the oven and cool. Then let the skulls, icing and all, dry for a week and you’ll have a perfect Mexican sugar skull.

Calaveras, or Mexican sugar skulls for El Dia de los Muertos, WITHOUT meringue powder

Calaveras, or Mexican sugar skulls for El Dia de los Muertos, WITHOUT meringue powder

The recipe above will make about 2 complete large skulls. (Molds come with a front and a back. You make them separately and then glue them together with icing. I found it was just as cool to just make the front of the skull, the face, and decorate it so it lies flat on the table and stares up at you.) So the recipe above will make 3-4 large skull faces, but this will vary depending on the size of your mold. If you make lots of skulls, buy a huge bag of sugar and lots of eggs. I went through 25 pounds of sugar and 18 eggs to make 40 skulls, and only made the front half of the skull.

66 Responses to How to make “calaveras” or Mexican sugar skulls without meringue powder

  1. Can you eat these sugar skulls? I heard royal icing on top of the amount of sugar needed for the skulls is way too sweet for consumption and also the meringue has a tendency to harden too much for easy eating?

    • Brink, you CAN eat these skulls. But, man…wayyyyyy too sweet for most people! The candy skulls eaten in Mexico are usually made with powdered sugar and are very small.

  2. Thank you my skulls turned out awesome! Solid advice

  3. What is the 6 Cups of sugar converted to English cooking we don’t use cups 😛

  4. I used this recipe last year-and it was awesome!!i did not use a mold to shape the 4 kids and I simply formed them by hand and put them in the oven to dry out..and then the next day we painted them with regular paint since we made them for our Dia De Los Muertos decorations:)they came out incredible! And by shaping the skulls ourselves instead of using a big mold, we were able to make over 6 skulls..and since the mixture is like beach sand it holds the shape very well:)We are getting ready to make them again tonight:)thank you Ben for this recipe that has now become a tradition for my family to make!!

  5. I also bought those expensive plastic molds but balked at buying the expensive meringue powder. Instead, I just made several batches using egg white powder which I happened to have languishing in my pantry from years past. I figured, why waste the fresh eggs. I added a bit of cream of tartar. (I saw a recipe online saying you could replace the eggs entirely with cream of tartar. Hmmm. Suspect, but maybe….) Then after the first few batches, which came out great, I ran out of granulated sugar and replaced 25% of the sugar in the recipe with powdered which I had lots of. (I had also seen on a Mexican website a recipe using powdered rather than granulated sugar to make a dough for hand forming them.) This partial powdered sugar batch came out even better than the first granulated sugar ones. It was firmer and had a slightly doughy consistency which picked up and retained the detail of the molds better. It was also a bit less crumbly and more forgiving.

    Fun! Thanks!

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