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Tres leches cupcakes for Dia de Los Muertos.

November 3, 2010

Did you all have a good Halloween? Hope so. I’m sad it’s over, but there’s more fun holidays to look forward to, right?

I love anything Day of the Dead. Sugar skulls & “Catrinas” especially. I love the entire concept of the day, really. It’s like a last hurrah after Halloween, when it’s still acceptable to have skulls out on display. I know I’m late by a day, but I was busy, so I couldn’t post it yesterday.

Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de los Muertos) is a holiday celebrated in Mexico and by Mexican Americans living in the United States and Canada. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. The celebration occurs on November 2 in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2). Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed and visiting graves with these as gifts. Due to occurring shortly after Halloween, the Day of the Dead is sometimes thought to be a similar holiday, although the two actually have little in common. The Day of the Dead is a time of celebration, where partying and eating is common.

Scholars trace the origins of the modern holiday to indigenous observances dating back thousands of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to a goddess called Mictecacihuatl. In Brazil, Dia de Finados is a public holiday that many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain, there are festivals and parades, and, at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their dead loved ones. Similar observances occur elsewhere in Europe and in the Philippines, and similarly themed celebrations appear in many Asian and African cultures.

When I was young, my grandmother used to tell me about All Saint’s Day/All Souls Day, and although we aren’t Mexican, she’s Irish and the Irish have plenty of superstition and beliefs about the dead. I was just drawn to the way the Mexican’s celebrated it so boldly and not as melancholy or morbidly as the Irish do. It’s more like a celebration, and who doesn’t love celebrations? These dudes certainly do!

A few years ago I made sugar skull toppers and put them on cinnamon vanilla cupcakes with Mexican Hot Chocolate buttercream, and those would be an excellent choice for this day as well. But I’ve been there, done that. So here’s a new Mexican inspired cupcake idea.. tres leches cake! Tres leches literally means ‘three milks’ (which I’m sure you already knew). I love coconut so I thought this was a great way of doing the tres leches thing. Plus I had these little skulls made of sugar… so…

TRES LECHES COCONUT CUPCAKES (modified slightly from


  • ¼ cup shortening
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¾ cup buttermilk
  • ½ cup evaporated milk
  • ½ cup sweetened condensed milk
  • ½ cup coconut milk


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, cream the shortening, butter, and sugar until light and fluffy on medium speed; add egg yolks 1 at a time, beating until all the yellow disappears. Add the vanilla. Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt. Add alternately with the buttermilk to the creamed mixture beginning and ending with the flour.
  3. In a small bowl, beat the egg whites on high speed until stiff peaks form. Fold into cake batter.
  4. Fill standard paper-lined muffin cups ¾ full. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool in pan for 10 minutes. Transfer cupcakes to wire rack that has been placed over a baking sheet to cool.
  5. While cupcakes are still warm, stir together the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and the coconut milk. Using a meat injector needle, inject each cupcake in several different spots with about ½ to ¾-ounce of the mixture. Or, poke several holes in the top of each of the cupcakes with a ¼-inch wooden skewer. Pour the milk mixture over each cupcake while they are still warm, filling each hole. Refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight before frosting.



  • 3 egg whites
  • ½ cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 cup butter, cut into pieces
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla


  1. Place sugar and egg whites in the heat-proof bowl of an electric mixer. Set bowl over a pan of gently simmering water, and whisk until sugar has dissolved and egg whites are hot to the touch, about 3 minutes. Test by rubbing the mixture between your fingers; it should feel completely smooth.
  2. Transfer bowl to mixer stand. Using the whisk attachment, beat on high speed until mixture has cooled completely and formed stiff and glossy peaks, about 10 minutes.
  3. Add the butter, one piece at a time, and beat until incorporated after each addition. Don’t worry if the buttercream appears curdled after all the butter has been added; it will become smooth again with continued beating. Add vanilla, and beat just until combined.
  4. Switch to the paddle attachment, and beat on the lowest speed to eliminate any air pockets, about 5 minutes. If using buttercream within several hours, cover bowl with plastic wrap, and set aside at room temperature in a cool environment. Or transfer to an airtight container, and store in the refrigerator, up to 3 days. Before using, bring buttercream to room temperature, and beat on the lowest speed with the paddle attachment until smooth, about 5 minutes.
Big thanks to Yoyo for sending me that awesome skull table runner!

Sugar skulls photo courtesy of

I topped them with a Swiss meringue buttercream sprinkled with cinnamon and little icing skulls by Wilton that I bought around Halloween. Typically, sugar skulls are white and brightly decorated with multi-colored designs. I just used some Wilton gel food coloring and drew on designs to mimic the sugar skull-style using toothpicks. It’s easy to do and you really can’t screw up. If you want to, you could make royal icing and tint it different colors, then use a very small round pastry tip to create the detailed pattern, but it would take a lot longer (and the way I did it took long enough!). You can also create the same effect using a candy mold of a skull and colored candy melts. There are also sugar skull kits out there, they might come in a mini-size that’s perfect for cupcakes.

These cupcakes were amazingly moist, super tasty… and a bit sticky. The milks make it really moist but they also make it messy to eat. Worth it, though. Just don’t expect your liners to last long. I used liners called Reynolds® StayBrite™ Baking Cups that looked pretty but were also thick enough and foil-lined so that the liquid wouldn’t soak through and ruin the liners. If you use paper liners, expect them to be soaked through with the tres leches.

*Psst, I made a mistake and posted this early this morning with no photos, so if you saw this, then saw it disappear… now you know why!

The “painted” Wilton skulls…

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