Day of the Dead Cookies

November 2nd marks the Mexican Day of the Dead–Dia de los Muertos–a time for honoring and celebrating the memory of departed loved ones.  Skeletons are everywhere in the artwork that attends the  festivities, all dressed up as they would be in life–making music, baking break, riding horseback…

This year Claire and I decided to celebrate in our own way by making  Dia de los Meurtos cookies:  gingerbread people (recipe follows) dressed up in their own skeletons.

We admit to being rather tickled by our skeleton-cookies.  They bring to mind  the work of Ikkyu, a 15th Century Buddhist monk and poet who I studied while living in Kyoto during my college years.  He drew hundreds of calligraphic skeletons, all of them busy about their day:  playing the flute, having a temper tantrum, tending the sick, making soup, making tea, making love.

The skeletons are accompanied by Ikkyu’s simple verse:

The vagaries of life
Though painful,
Teach us
Not to cling
To this floating world.

Why do people
Lavish decoration
On this set of bones
Destined to disappear
Without a trace?

These few days, while cross-cultural commemorations of harvest and the turning of life are being celebrated (Samhain, Halloween, All Souls Day, Dio de los Meurtos...) these little  cookies offer a good, non-threatening reminder of my body’s humble, earthen origins–and destination!

Rest in Peace all our dear departed, especially Tom’s grandmother, Lourice Furtwangler:  January 1907-September 2010.

It’s hard to find a good gingerbread recipe, one that holds up well for cutting, but isn’t too dry.  My current favorite is one I’ve adapted from Nancy Baggett’s All-American Cookie Book (the best kind of cookbook, full of lore about each cookie, and the history of American baking).  These cookies are nice and spicy,with a pleasing molasses crispiness. They are never dry.

Old Fashioned Gingerbread Cookies

Beat until fluffy:

  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 scant teaspoons ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Add, and beat until well-blended:

  • 2 teaspoons baking soda, dissolced in 2 tablespoons of water
  • 1 cup light molasses

Add in three parts, and mix until thoroughly blended:

  • 5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

To decrease stickiness, let the dough stand at room temperature for about an hour (you can skip this step if you don’t have time).  If necessary for handling, add a few more tablespoons of flour.

Divide the dough into three pieces and pat into disks for rolling.  For best success in rolling out cookies for cutting, try rolling between two layers of wax paper or parchment, then freezing the rolled-out dough for about half an hour. Spread the cut-out cookies on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet (I love parchment, but use it over and over again–you can just wipe it off) and put them in the freezer for a few more minutes to prevent spreading while baking.

Bake the cookies at 350 for just 5-7 minutes in the top third of the oven.  Decorate with your favorite Royal Icing recipe or, like me, just use a simple powdered sugar icing.  I like my mom’s recipe:  1/4 cup butter, 4 cups powdered sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/4 teaspoon cream tartar, and enough cream to make it the right consistency for the pastry bag–start with 2 tablespoons.  If it gets too milky, fear not–just add more powdered sugar.  This recipe is very forgiving.  (You probably just need half a batch for outlining skeletons.)  Enjoy!

Oh, dear. Even skeletons have bad days...


  1. kate

    Yup, that’ s the first thing I thought of when seeing these cookies… Ikkyu, the 15th century monk.

    Naw, I just thought Cute! Delicious! Clever! Love the creativity! xo k8

  2. Pingback: dia de los muertos « one deep drawer

  3. Dana

    I’m so happy you posted this recipe!! I made these cookies with my kids at Christmas when they were little and wanted to eat the dough, and because there are no eggs, I felt safe to let them. It’s great dough (very eatable!).

  4. lyanda

    Kate–Yes, alas–I was a philosophy major, and I just can’t help things like Ikkyu popping out, even when I’m just talking about cookies. Thanks for your good -humored comment!

    Kort–thanks for the link-love, sister!

    Dana–You’re right, and I hadn’t thought of that–this IS the perfect eggless nibbling dough.

  5. angie

    MMmm what a thrilling treat! I love your skelly cookies! Thank you for sharing the gingerbread recipe, I’ve been looking for a good one because the “Joy of Cooking” version just doesn’t cut it.

  6. Perfect! We celebrate Dia de los Muertos every year. This may become a new tradition for us! I bet we could make some great sugar skull shaped gingerbread cookies too and put food coloring in the icing. Oh yes–we are doing this. Thanks for this post and your inspiration!

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