Day of the Dead cookies are a sweet day-after-Halloween tradition in Mexico made to celebrate the dead. This version, with its colorful decorations, has the kick of chipotle and the warmth of cinnamon. Here’s how to make and decorate these sugar skull cookies.
“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 love what author and recipe creator Lewis has to say about celebrating Dia de los Muertos, we love these cinnamon chipotle chocolate cookies even more.–David Leite
☞ Table of Contents
Skull Sugar Cookies FAQs
What does flooding cookies mean?
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’re not quite confident using just the pastry bag, or if you want to be extra careful, squeeze a few dollops of 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.
Can I make the cookie dough in advance?
Yes. This Mexican sugar cookie dough can be made up to 3 days in advance and kept tightly wrapped in the refrigerator.
If I want these cookies for Halloween and Day of the Dead, when should I start making them?
Whether you’re celebrating Halloween or the Day of the Dead, it’s best to break up the making of the recipe over a couple of 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 decorations with the other icing.
And just to reiterate what the author said, if you don’t like decorating cookies, you don’t need to do much to them. 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.
Day of the Dead Cookies
- Skull cookie cutters;
- pastry bags for decorating (optional)
For the sugar skull cookies
- 2 cups 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 unsalted butter cool but not cold
- 2 tablespoons cold non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 ounces dark chocolate (60% to 72% cacao) melted and cooled
For the flooding icing
- 3 1/2 to 4 cups 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 confectioners’ sugar
- 2 large egg whites
- 1 to 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- Various food gels or natural food coloring
Make the sugar skull cookies
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, cinnamon, baking powder, and chile powder.
- 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 mix 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.
- Preheat the oven to 325°F (165°C). Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Bake the cookies
- 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 cookie cutter), 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.
- 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 flooding icing and prep the cookies for decorating
- 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.
☞TESTER TIP: 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.
- After 15 minutes, return to the first cookie and flood the icing within the outline. (See the FAQ above "What Does Flooding Cookies Mean?") Let the frosting dry completely, at least 8 hours and up to overnight, before adding the decorating icing.
Make the decorating icing and decorate the cookies
- 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 flooding 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.
- 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).
☞TESTER TIP: 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.
- Apply the decorating icing to the outlined, filled, and completely dry skull cookies. (Feel free to rely on the above photo as a guide for traditional Day of the Dead decorations 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 decorations 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.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
The subtle blend of cinnamon, chipotle, and chocolate in these sugar skull cookies is so good, like a great cup of Aztec hot chocolate, that I almost hesitate to recommend decorating them. I was worried that the icing would detract from the beautiful flavors beneath, but they hang in there. So if you have the slightest inclination to frost them, go for it!
Back to the Mexican sugar cookie recipe. The lovely thing about the combination of chile and chocolate is how it gives the chocolate some backbone. The cinnamon rounds that out. The only adjustment I would make to the recipe is maybe adding either a bit more chipotle chile powder or adding some ancho chile powder in addition to the chipotle.
I used Guittard 63% Extra Dark Chocolate Chips. I put 1/4 inch thickness bands on my rolling pin and the sugar cookie dough rolled out easily. I made a variety of shapes using large skulls, smaller skulls, bats, and pumpkins.
You can find skull cookie cutters in the cake and cookie area of many stores. In fact, when I asked for them at a Mexican grocery store, they had no idea what I was asking for, although I think the right ethnic source will have these without crossing the border. I found elaborate skull cutters so ornate that I almost didn’t want to cover the detail with the icing. I also found a slightly plainer skull as part of a Halloween set on sale.
Some cinnamon, chipotle, and chocolate cookies got Day of the Dead decorations, others were more weirdly spooky.
Usually when someone says “Icing” and “decorating tip #432,” I run the other way, but once in a while you must step up to the plate, try to relax, and get your game face on.
The good part of these step-by-step icing recipe instructions is that you discover the paddle attachment on your mixer is your new best friend. It does a better job of making icing with egg whites than I ever could have expected.
There was a subtle difference between the icing recipes—the first one had cream of tarter and more egg white and a bit more sugar, but wasn’t that different from the second one, which was used to color and decorate.
In fact, I think the first one flowed better and would have been easier to use in fine lines. I had quite a lot of icing left over, needing only half for the cookies. I used piping bottles instead of pastry bags since they often are my nemesis, and I regretted not having that extra icing when I divided my decor batch for coloring and found without enough volume the smaller piping bottles were a challenge.
I can see where the small zip-locs might have worked better if I had been more confident, and it would be faster, thus the icing wouldn’t start to set up and have to be stirred. Last resort—a drop or two of glycerin helped.
The piping sets up quickly, but when I realized my artwork was going to be more rustic, I was glad I had picked up a jar of candy eyes on clearance at Williams-Sonoma and used them to a somewhat less skeletal effect, but hopefully they will get a laugh.
When I couldn’t get more colored icing to flow because the bottles and pens couldn’t cope with smaller amounts, I turned to sparkle. I had dusting (powdery) sparkle that can either be used with a dry brush or wet, and I gave some of the skulls a little makeup lesson, and the bats got pink sparkle inside their ears.
Originally published October 26, 2017