Host a Day of the Dead party with all the traditions of the celebration but with a healthy twist! Make these no-sugar calavaras de azucar, or low carb sugar skulls. They have no table sugar but use instead a low-carb sweetener. We even show you how to paint your skulls with naturally dyed sugar glaze!
I’m not Hispanic and I’m not Catholic but I LOVE the Day of the Dead festival! It’s a two-day event to honor and celebrate those of our family members who have passed on. Though not a somber celebration, it is a sincere one and draws families closer together through food and fun. One of the most enjoyable traditions of this holiday is the decorating of skulls formed out of sugar and decorated in bright colors.
The only problem is that, as fun as decorating sugar skulls is, it’s SO sugary. The kids love to decorate them but then always ask to eat them. It’s just too much unhealthy sugar for one celebration in my house – we’d all get sick! So, we made up a low carb sugar skull so we can still enjoy this traditional activity for Dia de los Muertos.
Before we get into the healthy information, here’s a brief recap of the Day of the Dead celebration from our upcoming book, Homestead Holidays. To learn how to get your own copy of the book and even get in on special deals and coupons, be sure to join the list below and we’ll reserve you a spot!
Day of the Dead
This day is Mexican sister of All Saint’s Day and All Souls’ Day, also being celebrated on the first and second of November. It is a national holiday in Mexico, but is also celebrated in countries like the Philippines, and the United States. Day of the Dead has its roots in ancient Aztec celebrations of the harvest that were reigned over by the Goddess Mictecacihuatl—the Lady of the Dead. Even though it falls near Halloween, El dia de los Muertos isn’t meant to be spooky! The festivities are meant to be a grand celebration of the lives of the deceased.
Traditions of the day include dressing up with masks and costumes, feasting, signing and dancing. The graves of the departed are cleaned up and decorated, usually with bright marigolds, incense and offerings of favorite foods. It’s a very recognizable holiday around the world because of the stylized designs associated with it. Decorations featuring grinning skeletons and bright colors are often set up doing goofy things, showcasing the sense of fun and humor that goes with the day. Not to be forgotten are the lovely Papel Picado banners that hang from most businesses and homes.
Carfts and Foods for Day of the Dead
- Don’t know what Papel Picado is? No worries, here’s a post explaining what they are and how to make them easily from The Crafting Chicks
- If you’d rather not make them out of paper, here’s a version using colored doilies.
- Making paper flowers is another typical craft for this holiday and is especially fun for kids. Here’s a version from Jennifer Maker.
- If you decide you’d like to make sugar skulls but don’t want to deal with food at all, here’s a version made of felt from Activity Village.
- Another tradition of the Dia de los Muertos is the bread of the dead. Here’s a gluten free version from G-Free Foodie.
- Here’s a traditional dish for the day from Sweet Life Bake called Calabaza en Tacha, or Candied Pumpkin.
- Bellalimento has a great recipe for Bones of the Dead Cookies, or Ossi dei Morti cookies. These are really an Italian tradition for this day, but are nonetheless awesome.
Low Carb Sugar Skull Recipe for Day of the Dead
Make these no-sugar calavaras de azucar, or low carb sugar skulls. Using a basic recipe for the Indian treat Barfi (or Burvi), you can make these skulls with ricotta, monk fruit sugar and whole milk powder. Don’t forget a little spice and naturally dyed sugar glaze for decorating.
- 4 Oz. Butter, melted
- 3 lbs. Whole Milk Ricotta, drained*
- 2 1/2 Cups Whole Milk Powder
- 1 1/2 Cups Monk Fruit Sugar, powdered
- 1 tsp. Cinnamon
- 1 tsp. Nutmeg
- For the Naturally Dyed Sugar Icing
- 1 Cup Monk Fruit Sugar, powdered
- 1 Egg white or 1 Tbsp. Egg White
- 1 Tbsp. Milk or Cream
- Natural Icing Dyes, see article
- Generously grease the sugar skull mold with butter or a light oil like avocado. Remove any extra butter or grease.
- In a bowl, mix the milk powder, sugar and spices. Set aside.
- Melt the butter in a 12" cast iron skillet, or any quality pan with good heat distribution, on medium heat. A copper bottom pan would also work well. If you don't have either, use whatever large skillet you have.
- Using a wooden kitchen spoon, or any heat resistant kitchen tool, add the ricotta and mix into the butter. Warm the mixture and stir frequently to prevent scorching.
- Add in the dry mixture and mix thoroughly. It may seem like it will never mix together, but it will.
- Gently stir and mash the mixture in the pan and continue to cook over medium heat until it thickens. This can take anywhere from twenty to thirty minutes of consistent stirring to prevent burning. You want it very dry so that the mixture will come out of the sugar skull mold.
- One the mixture has thickened and is much drier than when it started out, it's time to put it into the mold. You should be able to pinch some out of the pan and have it hold its form without sticking to your fingers.
- Working quickly, press the mixture into the mold.** Be sure to press the mixture in firmly so that each part of the mold is covered. Allow to sit in a cool, dry place for several hours or overnight.
- When the mixture has dried a little further in the molds and is slightly movable within them, turn over and gently bang to release the sugar skulls. Place them on individual plates to decorate.
- Mix all ingredients together to desired consistency. It should be smooth enough to pipe from a piping bag but not so wet it runs down the skull.
- Break into even amounts and place into ramekins. Mix in dyes of desired colors. Natural dyes can be more muted than chemical dyes, but not always. Don't be shy about adding color until they're just like you want them.
- Decorate as desired. A frosting piping bag will make this easier. You can also use a plastic storage bag with a small corner cut out to use as a tip. You may also use a beeswax reusable wrap in a similar way, though it will be slightly harder to control.
Instructions for Low Carb Sugar Skulls
Instructions for Naturally Dyed Royal Icing
*To drain the ricotta, simply place it into a cheese cloth and allow it to hang for ten or twenty minutes.
**According to the sugar skull mold company, the molds can take up to around 125F/52C degrees of heat. If the mixture is too hot, simply cut at it with your spoon to even it out and cool it just a bit. You don't want it too cool, or the mixture won't bond and it will end up crumbly. However, too wet and the mixture won't come out of the mold without sticking.
It may take one or two tries until you learn just the right texture. The upside is that you can eat any batches that don't turn out the way you want!
A Note on Texture
One of the neat things about using this recipe specifically for sugar skulls is that because of how it dries, there are cracks that look a lot like an actual skull! FYI, the longer you cook the recipe, the more it will dry out. You don’t want it so dry that it won’t stick together. However, the drier it is, the more cracks – the more skull-like!
Special Products for Low Carb Sugar Skulls
It’s true that this tradition takes a few specialty tools. Some traditions are SO worth it, though! The first thing I should say is that you should use high quality dairy. You can make your own ricotta cheese using this recipe from Our Salty Kitchen to use. Or, you can purchase it. Just be sure that’s it rich and full fat.
Likewise ensure that your powdered milk is high quality because cheap, nasty stuff will ruin the flavor of your sugar skulls. I usually purchase Bob’s Red Mill Powdered Milk.
Sugar Skull Molds
I purchased my sugar skull molds from the Mexican Sugar Skull company which I found on Amazon. The molds are high quality and when I had questions about using them for this project, they were super helpful. They shared that people often use them to make Day of the Dead soaps and chocolate skulls. Both sound like something my family would love to incorporate into our celebrations!
I’m happy to recommend the Mexican Sugar Mold company. They’re even a family company, which is extra neat!
From Easter Eggs to Yarns, I love natural dyes. Natural dyes for frosting, though, are something I’m willing to purchase most of the time. Oh, a beet frosting is fun to make, but I often run short on time. I don’t DIY EVERYTHING ALL OF THE TIME! And you don’t need to either, unless you want to.
I’ve purchase several different brands of natural dyes and usually use India Tree. However, I really like the gel dyes for royal icing frosting because they blend so well. I’ve been using Chefmaster All Natural Dye lately and like it.