I adore all things Halloween – the costumes, the candy, the spooky decor – so each year I try to post something special here to celebrate. The past two years I’ve created movie-inspired cakes (see here and here), but this year I’m doing something a little different. Recently my best friend created the most beautiful ofrenda skull, and it inspired me to make one of my own!
If you’re not familiar with sugar skulls and their meanings, then here’s the gist of it: Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is a Mexican holiday that takes place October 31, November 1st and 2nd. During this time, spirits are welcomed back to their homes with decorated altars made by their loved ones. Sugar skulls are an important part of this decor and they commonly bear metallic embellishments, brightly colored icings and the name of the deceased loved one being honored.
I’d never made sugar skulls before, so I thought it’d be fun to document my first attempt with a video (you can find that a little later in this post). It was a fun process, and reading all the history and tradition behind the holiday really made it meaningful.
It wasn’t too hard to choose a subject for my sugar skull. Mexican painter Frida Kahlo is one of my favorite artists of all time. Her work is beautiful, tragic, ugly, and honest. It’s full of pain but also the love of life. Much of her life was spent in physical pain due to a bus accident that shattered her spinal column, and she also suffered emotional pain because of the man she chose to love (the marriage of a dove to an elephant, some called it – you can guess which is which). But from all this pain and loss and love grew beautiful works of art from her hands, most of them self-portraiture.
Speaking of hands – I bet you saw the above picture and wondered why my sugar skull is wearing a hand as an earring. You can see Frida wearing these in “Self Portrait Dedicated to Dr Eloesser“. The earrings (called milagros) are wax pieces shaped in the form of the body part that a person wants to be healed. The earrings were a gift from Pablo Picasso, during the time she was recovering from a hand injury.
But enough backstory for now – on to the creative deets! To get started, you’ll need a sugar skull mold. I love the look of the larger 3D skulls (more room to decorate!) and I found a nice mold here. According to this site, good meringue powder is also a must! I followed their advice and used CK products meringue powder, and the blanks turned out beautifully. You can see the results of my very first attempts in the video embedded below.
You’ll need to whip up a batch of royal icing to assemble the skulls, which shouldn’t be a problem since you’ll already have the meringue powder on hand. Before putting the two halves together, the middles of the skulls need to be scooped out to about 1/2 inch thickness. This lightens the weight of the skull so they can stand upright. Only scoop out the skull portion – leave the chin portion as-is.
Normally you’d decorate the skull blanks with royal icing, but I wanted to paint on the details with food color, so I chose to cover the skull with fondant. My technique for painting with food color comes directly from the SprinkleBakes book. It’s simply gel food color mixed with clear liquor or extract to speed the drying process.
I made her thick braid with two pieces of black fondant; twisted them together and tacked on with royal icing. Her eyes are two isomalt candy jewels surrounded by dragees. You can find the jewels here, or make your own with a mold. Her red lips were painted on and then embellished with glittering red disco dust.
An important part of Frida’s iconic look (besides the uni-brow and bit of ‘stache) is the floral crown she always wore. I decided to make it with fondant roses. You’ll find my flower-making process in the video below. I didn’t have any flower petal cutters, so I improvised with a small round cookie cutter. I also lacked the piece of specialty foam that you use to form the petals, but folded up paper towels work just fine. One tool that I find important is the ball fondant tool. It’s inexpensive and easy to store. I left the bottoms of the flowers unfinished because they were tacked on with royal icing and covered with leaves. I hope to include the full finishing technique in another video tutorial.
You can buy the rose centers from a cake supply company, or make your own with fondant or gum paste. It’s just a little cone that helps shape the first petal. If you make your own, just be sure to let it stand overnight or until it is firm enough to support many layers of petals.
The decors on this skull are all edible, right down to the metallic dragees, but traditionally the skulls are solely for decoration so you could use whatever inedible embellishments you wish! I’d imagine pretty printed paper or vellum cut into flower shapes would make a gorgeous display.
You’ll find my recipe for sugar skull blanks and royal icing below. The batch yields about three large sugar skulls – the rest is up to you!
- 6 cups/1200 g granulated sugar
- 6 teaspoons meringue powder I use CK products
- 6 teaspoons water
- Large 2-piece 3D sugar skull mold
- 6 pieces of cardboard large enough to accommodate the skulls
- 4 cups/512 g confectioners’ sugar sifted
- 3 tablespoons meringue powder
- 1/4-1/2 125 to 250 ml cup warm water
- 1/2 teaspoon clear flavoring extract
- lemon, orange, almond, clear vanilla
- Combine the sugar and meringue powder in a large bowl using your hands. Sprinkle in the water and mix with your hands until the mixture feels like damp sand. Squeeze a bit of the sugar in your hand, if it holds together, your sugar is properly mixed. If it falls apart, then mix again.
- Pack sugar mixture firmly into the front and back halves of a plastic skull mold. Scrape the tops level with a straight edge (the cardboard pieces work well for this). Place a piece of cardboard over the mold and flip over. Lay the cardboard and mold on a flat surface and gently remove the mold. Let the skulls dry 5 hours, then *carefully* scoop out the centers of the pieces with a spoon to 1/2 inch thickness. Do not scoop out the chin area. Allow the skulls to completely dry overnight.
- Assemble the skull halves with royal icing (recipe follows). Decorate as desired.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, stir the confectioners’ sugar and meringue powder on low speed until combined.
- Add the water (1/4 cup first and add more as needed) and beat on medium-high speed until very stiff peaks form, 5 to 7 minutes.
- Add the flavoring and beat on low until combined.
- Use the icing immediately or drape a damp tea towel over the mixing bowl or bowls to prevent the icing from drying out.