Tuesday, November 1, 2011

…El Día de los Muertos 2011

Halloween came and went, but that's never the end of the craziness for me.  

As a Spanish teacher, I have to acknowledge the celebration of “El Día de los Muertos”, or “The Day of the Dead”.  Put simply, it is a Mexican holiday held on November 1st and 2nd to celebrate the spirits of those who have died.  Typically, November 1st celebrates the spirits of children who have died, and November 2nd is the day to celebrate the spirits of adults who have died. 

The Hispanic concept of death is quite different from our own here in the United States – death is celebrated, even played with, in the culture.  To los hispanos, death is not something to be feared - life lives on after death, and those who have died should be remembered and have their afterlives celebrated on El Día de los Muertos.  See http://www.peoplesguide.com/1pages/chapts/viva/dodead/bobbi/dodbobi.html for a more detailed explanation.

Many events take place to celebrate this holiday – people decorate ofrendas, or altars, in honor of their dead relatives, both in their homes and in cemeteries.  They put items on the ofrendas that will help to draw their spirits back – pictures, their favorite foods and personal items, pan de muerto (a sweet bread – see recipe here), cempazuchitl (yellow marigolds), candles, copal (incense), and skeletons and/or skulls to represent the person in the afterlife.

The skulls that are placed on the altar are typically made out of sugar and are known as “calaveras de azúcar”.  Decorating sugar skulls is a favorite activity of children and adults in Mexico (although they can be purchased for the altars as well).

It also tends to be a favorite activity of American students.

When I was student teaching back in, um, 2002, I bought sugar skull molds from Teacher’s Discovery, figuring that I would get a lot of use out of them.  I found a recipe online for making sugar skulls, and got to work practicing.

I have now mastered the art of making sugar skulls.

The recipe is as follows:

1 cup white sugar
1 tsp. cream of tartar (dried egg whites)
1 tsp. water


I usually quadruple this and do it in batches.  It usually makes 8-10 sugar skulls, meaning that there is as much as ½ cup of sugar in each skull.  Every year, I tell the students this, and every year I recommend not eating the skulls because ½ cup of sugar is way more than anyone should consume in a week.

And every year, there are at least a few students who don’t listen.  Shocker.  Halloween candy + sugar skull = parent & teacher nightmare.

First, I add the ingredients to large bowl (in that order – sugar, cream of tartar, water) and mix it with my hands until it feels like wet sand.

Adding the cream of tartar to the sugar
I then press the sugar into the molds with my hands, and level off the back with a cake icer or leveler.

Leveling off the back of the mold
 Then, I take a bar-sized (small) cutting board loosely-but-still-firmly-covered (you’ll see why soon!) in foil and press it firmly to the back of the mold.  I carefully flip the mold over, so that the skulls are now lying flat on the cutting board.

Flat on the cutting board, still in the mold
 I then carefully lift the mold straight up, as not to disturb the still-fragile skull.

 I don’t have an unlimited amount of bar-sized cutting boards in my house – I only have one – so I need it back to do the next 2 skulls.  I carefully unfold the foil from the bottom and side edges of the cutting board, as necessary (hence the “loosely-but-still-firmly-covered” description), and carefully slide the cutting board out from below the foil while pulling the top of the foil in the opposite direction.  Believe me, it has taken YEARS to perfect this, but I rarely end up with broken (or cracked) skulls anymore.

TA-DA!  Sugar skulls!

 They should be left to dry for at LEAST 24-hours – I try to let them dry longer, if possible, especially if the weather is humid.  I also leave the ceiling fan on in my dining room to help with the drying process.

For our Spanish Club party for El Día de los Muertos, I brought in the sugar skulls for the students to decorate.  I have done this with my classes in the past, but this year, I didn’t have the money nor the time to make 168 skulls.  20 was manageable.

Undecorated sugar skull
 I also brought in icing to use to decorate the skulls.  Sugar skulls are typically NOT eaten, so they use non-edible decorations in addition to icing, such as colorful foil, plastic pieces, and glue.  Since I have students who don’t listen (and I don’t want to create a choking hazard), I stick to icing only.

I think that the students did a beautiful job!  Scroll down to see some of them, and keep scrolling for a little shocker...




Hopefully next year, time and money will permit more…

…Oh, yeah, the "little shocker" - I ate my first “walking taco” at the party – Fritos, taco meat, lettuce, tomato, cheese, salsa, and sour cream, all mixed together in a Frito bag.  Easy?  Yes.  Authentic?  NO WAY.  Perhaps that’s good enough for the kids, but not for this Reyna de Autenticidad

*sigh* Not authentic

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