Throw Your Own Sugar Skull Decorating Party

Celebrate Día de los Muertos with sugar skull candies and persimmon margaritas.

Photos: Jeanine Thurston, Jenna Sparks; Image by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist

For those who observe Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, death is a thing to be celebrated. Between the night of October 31 and November 2, departed souls awaken to reconnect with their living family and friends. The holiday has indigenous roots as an honoring of Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of the underworld. The Aztecs believed life was a dream and only in death did one truly become awake.

Calaveras de azúcar, or sugar skulls, have become a ubiquitous symbol of the holiday, often taking on a smile to signal the bright side of the afterlife. Traditional sugar skulls are inedible, elaborately decorated with rhinestones, feathers, and glitter. But Yvette Marquez-Sharpnack, food blogger and author of Mexican cookbook Muy Bueno, has created mini candy versions, perfect for snacking on as is, or for using as a topper on a cupcake.

Decorating them, though, is half the fun, and Marquez-Sharpnack suggests inviting friends and family over to make a party out of it. Keeping your lost loved ones in mind, set up an ofrenda, or altar, to encourage their visit. Make a meal that reminds you of them. And once you’ve adorned a sugar skull in their name, reward yourself with a festive cocktail.

“I often say you don’t have to be Mexican to celebrate this holiday,” Marquez-Sharpnack says. “So if you have somebody who loved spaghetti, or somebody who loved their coffee in the morning, put those foods or those drinks on your altar to honor them.”

Set up your altar

When putting together an altar for someone, think about creating a space that feels reminiscent of their life. “My daughter was just under two when my grandma passed away. Even though she didn’t have any memories of her, I didn’t want her to not know who her great grandma was,” Marquez-Sharpnack says. “So, Día de los Muertos was a perfect time to bring out photos and share stories and make some of the recipes that my grandma used to make.”

She adds that photos are the most important element. “What I like to do is buy antique frames, just to try and give the altar a theme, and then I print out photos of our departed,” she says. “And the other thing is adding objects that remind you of them. Whether that’s a CD that they loved, or maybe a religious symbol. For my grandma, I always add a rosary and the rolling pin that I inherited from her.”

For decorations,papel picado is a popular choice. The colorful sheets of tissue paper are perforated with intricate designs, so that souls may freely pass through. Marigold flowers, which bloom around this time of year, are also very symbolic of the holiday. Marquez-Sharpnack notes that their smell is particularly pungent, but it’s this aroma that lures the spirits back. Burning some sage or palo santo is another option, a way to clear the space of negative energy.

“I always tell people the altar doesn’t have to be elaborate—whether you do it on a side table or a little nook in your home,” she says.

Make a dish in honor of a loved one

Some traditional Día de los Muertos foods include tamales, chicken mole, a pumpkin dish called calabaza en tacha, the chocolate-based atole, champurrado, and of course, pan de muerto. “You see it in Mexico, when people are going to the actual cemeteries and leaving something behind, or just eating it as they’re sitting around a gravestone,” Marquez-Sharpnack says. Any seasonal dish or drink will do, but most important is that you channel a connection through food memory, making the meal that most reminds you of that person.

Decorate your skulls

Then it’s time for the main event: decorating the skulls. “They symbolize death and the afterlife,” Marquez-Sharpnack says. “I know a lot of people get scared when they see a skull, or think it’s creepy looking. But the calavera is also supposed to symbolize happiness.”

And the best way to celebrate by giving the skulls the personalities of your loved ones. “If that person wore glasses or had a mustache, you can decorate your sugar skull in their honor,” she says. “You can also write their name in icing, on the forehead or back of the skull.”

Traditional sugar skulls are made out of white sugar and meringue, but Marquez-Sharpnack likes to use candy melts. She recommends finding a sugar skull mold at Michaels, William Sonoma, or Amazon. Then you can get creative with different cake decorations—frosting colors, candy flowers, and sprinkles—and end the night with Marquez-Sharpnack’s persimmon margarita.

Día de Los Muertos Candy Skulls

Ingredients:

  • skull silicon mold
  • candy melts
  • 6 frosting colors
  • 6 frosting tips
  • 6 frosting couplers
  • 6 frosting bags
  • cake decorations
  • candy flowers
  • cupcakes (optional)

Directions:
1. Melt the candy melts according to the instructions on the package. Pour into skull mold and allow to dry, according to package instructions.
2. For the frosting, cut a small hole in the empty frosting bag. Drop tip and the ringed coupler inside the bag. Secure the remaining piece of coupler on the outside of the bag. Carefully fill each bag with the frosting colors.
3. Carefully remove candy skulls and begin decorating. Apply decorations and adhere flowers with a small drop of frosting.
4. Place your skull atop a frosted cupcake or any other dessert of your choice!

Persimmon Margarita

Ingredients:

  • 1¾ ounce tequila reposado
  • 2 to 3 non-astringent persimmons, such as fuyu, peeled
  • ½
    ounce Agave Nectar or simple syrup, equal parts sugar and water, dissolved
  • 1 ounce lime juice, freshly-squeezed
  • Ice cubes
  • cinnamon-sugar for glass rims
  • lime wheel for garnish

Instructions:
1. On a salad plate, make a cinnamon and sugar mixture for the glass rim. Wet the rim of a margarita or martini glass with a lime wedge and dip it in the cinnamon and sugar mixture.
2. Puree persimmons (remove skin), in a blender or juicer. Add agave nectar or simple syrup to taste. In a shaker, combine the tequila, 2 ounces of persimmon puree and the lime juice. Shake the mixture with ice and strain into the cinnamon and sugar rimmed glass. Garnish with a lime wheel.

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Food & Drink team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram