Day of the Dead cookies are a sweet day-after-Halloween tradition in Mexico made to celebrate the dead that are essentially sugar skull cookies. Here’s how to make and how to decorate them.
“Without an ounce of hesitation, I can honestly state that experiencing Dia de los Muertos—Day of the Dead, a day to remember family and loved ones who have died—in Oaxaca, Mexico, is one of my life’s highlights,” says author Matt Lewis. That experience prompted the creation of these spooky yet spectacular skull sugar cookies, also known as day of the dead cookies. “It was the purest form of celebration, lacking sarcasm, crass marketing, and all the other things that make celebrations stateside decidedly impure. It was an intense, beautiful, Technicolor experience. It was—forgive my childlike exuberance here—epic.” While we loooooooove what author and recipe creator Matt Lewis has to say about celebrating Dia de los Muertos, we love these cinnamon chipotle chocolate cookies even more. Originally published October 29, 2014.–Renee Schettler Rossi
When To Make Day Of The Dead Cookies
Whether you’re celebrating Halloween or Day of the Dead or just the latest episode of The Walking Dead, it’s best to break up the making of the recipe over a couple days. On day one, make and bake the cookie dough and also make and apply the filler icing to the cooled cookies. Allow the cookies to sit out overnight, as the filler icing needs to dry for at least 8 hours. Then, on day two, add the decorative flourishes with the other icing. And just to reiterate what the author said above, if you don’t like to decorate cookies, you don’t need to do much to these. But if you do like to add an occasional flourish to your sweets, this recipe is a blank canvas just begging for you to do your magic.
Special Equipment: Skull cookie cutters; pastry bags for decorating (optional)
Day of the Dead Cookies Recipe
- Quick Glance
- 15 M
- 30 M
- Makes about 12 large cookies
- For the Day of the Dead cookies
- 2 cups (255 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for workspace and hands
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon chipotle chile powder or ancho chile powder
- 1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter, cool but not cold
- 2 tablespoons cold non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening
- 2/3 cup (130 grams) granulated sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 ounces (55 grams) dark chocolate (60% to 72% cacao), melted and cooled
- For the filler icing
- 3 1/2 to 4 cups (395 to 450 grams) confectioners’ sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 3 large egg whites, plus more if needed
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- For the decorating icing
- 3 cups (340 grams) confectioners’ sugar
- 2 large egg whites
- 1 to 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- Various food gels or natural food coloring
- Make the Day of the Dead cookies
- 1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, cinnamon, baking powder, and chile powder.
- 2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and shortening together on medium speed until just combined. Add the sugar and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the bowl, add the egg and vanilla, and beat until just combined. Add the melted and cooled chocolate and beat until uniform in color. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, add half the flour mixture, and beat for 15 seconds. Scrape down the bowl again and then add the remaining flour mixture and beat until just incorporated. Loosely shape the dough into 2 disks (it will be sticky, so work quickly and feel free to flour your hands first). Wrap the disks tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
- 3. Preheat the oven to 325°F (165°C). Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
- 4. Unwrap 1 disk of dough, leaving the other in the refrigerator while you are working, and place it on a work surface lightly dusted with flour. Dust your hands and rolling pin with a little flour. Roll the dough 1/4 inch thick, flipping and lightly flouring the dough a few times if needed while you work. Using your favorite Day of the Dead cookie cutter (we use the easy-to-find skull), cut shapes in the dough, then transfer them to the prepared baking sheets, leaving about an inch of space around each cookie. The dough scraps can be rerolled and recut, if desired. Continue the process with the remaining dough. Place the baking sheets in the freezer for about 15 minutes.
- 5. Bake the chilled cookie dough, rotating the baking sheets halfway through the baking time, until the tops of the cookies look set and are just beginning to appear dry, 10 to 12 minutes. Place the baking sheets on a cooling rack for 5 minutes. Using a thin metal spatula, transfer the cookies to the rack to cool completely.
- Make the filler icing and prep the cookies for decorating
- 6. In the bowl of the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine 3 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar and the cream of tartar. Turn the mixer to the lowest speed to mix them together and remove any possible lumps. Increase the speed to medium-low, add the egg whites and lemon juice, and mix until the icing is completely smooth. It should have the texture of a thick, shiny glaze, but be just thin enough to pour. If the mixture is too thick, add additional egg whites to thin it. If the mixture is too thin, add the additional sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time. Scrape the icing into a piping bag fitted with a large round tip (#3). Outline each of the cookies with the icing and wait 15 minutes for the outlines to harden.
- 7. After 15 minutes, return to the first cookie and flood the icing within the outline. (In this context, “flood” simply means to cover the surface of the cookie or cake or whatever with icing. If you feel confident and steady, you can flood each cookie just by using a pastry bag filled with the icing; I recommend using less icing in the flooding process than you imagine you will need, as it should spread to the outline and fill in the surface of the cookie on its own. If you are not quite confident using just the pastry bag, or if you want to be extra careful, squeeze a few dollops icing over the top of the cookie and use a clean, dry paintbrush or the back of a spoon to gently spread it to the outline. We don’t recommend pastry brushes; craft-store paintbrushes with synthetic bristles work best.) Let the frosting dry completely, at least 8 hours and up to overnight, before adding the decorating icing.
- Make the decorating icing and fancy up the cookies
- 8. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the confectioners’ sugar with the egg whites and 1 teaspoon lemon juice and beat on low to medium-low speed until the icing is completely smooth, 3 to 5 minutes. When the paddle is lifted from the icing, a peak in the icing should be created, which should fall over just a bit. It’ll be slightly thicker than the filler icing. To reach the right consistency, add 1/2 teaspoon more egg whites and/or lemon juice at a time to thin the icing, or 1 teaspoon more confectioners’ sugar at a time to thicken the icing.
- 9. Divide this icing into 5 or 6 small prep bowls. Add pea-size amounts of food gel or coloring to all the bowls save one, and mix, adding more gel or coloring as needed to achieve the colors you desire. Keep the last bowl plain (white). Place each color icing in its own pastry bag fitted with a small tip (#1). (Alternatively—though we don’t wholly recommend this method, as you will get cleaner lines using pastry bags and tips—you can place the icing in small resealable plastic bags, cut off just a tiny bottom corner of the bag—as small as possible—and use the bag to pipe.)
- 10. Apply the decorating icing to the outlined, filled, and completely dry cookies. (Feel free to rely on the above photo as a guide for traditional Day of the Dead flourishes or—obviously—decorate as you want. If you need to or want to overlap decorating colors, just make sure the bottom color is dry before applying the top color over it. Let the décor harden completely before serving, at least an hour or up to overnight. The cookies can be kept in an airtight container in a cool and dry environment for 3 to 5 days. Do not wrap them in plastic wrap.