by Kate Heyhoe
I started creating unique sugar skull sculptures in 2010, and they're not like anything you've seen before. My "Dreams of the Dead" pieces are hollowed out, filled with tiny scenes, and lit by LED lights—and they're made from real sugar and sugarpaste. See them at InsideMySkull.com. They're sold at art galleries and on Etsy.
Don't attempt to make these types of skulls at home. Each undergoes up to 30 stages in creation, requires special tools and colorings, and takes weeks to make. I also seal them so they'll last indefinitely, and use non-traditional methods and materials found in art studios.
BUT: If you're making traditional sugar skulls, I've got a few handy tips to share. Follow my advice and you'll get better-looking results in the basic casting.
First, you'll need plastic sugar skull molds. Find them at MexicanSugarSkull.com and other places online, at party shops, craft stores, and some Mexican import stores. (I now use my own special molds, but these work just fine.)
Use my basic sugar skull and royal icing recipes below, or follow the guidelines at MexicanSugarSkull.com which include a handy mixing chart for the different sizes of skulls.
You'll need regular granulated sugar, meringue powder and water for casting (and confectioner's sugar for the royal icing). You can buy meringue powder from their site or at bakery supply shops and in the baking section of craft stores. CK and Wilton are the most common brands. Most experts prefer CK. Our Amazon store sells it here: Meringue Powder.
Basic Sugar Skull Ratio: Follow this ratio and increase quantities as needed:
Ratio = 1 cup sugar; 1 teaspoon meringue powder; 1 teaspoon water (plain or dyed).
Adjust the liquid as needed; the mixture should feel like cool, wet beach sand and stick together in a tight clump when squeezed in the fist. If it crumbles, it's too dry. If it's too wet, add more sugar. Tip: 1 cup sugar = about a half pound. Figure on 1 pound of sugar for a large skull, and 1/2 to 1/4 pound for a medium skull.
Basic Royal Icing: Combine 8 ounces confectioner's sugar; a scant 2 tablespoons meringue powder, 4 tablespoons water (plain or dyed). Mix in an electric mixture (stand or hand-held) about 9 minutes until soft to firm peaks form when the mixer blades are lifted out. Test a small amount in a pastry bag: very fine pastry tips work best with icing on the softer side.
For better-looking skulls, follow my expert sugar skull-making tips:
Sift the meringue powder into the sugar. Actually, a fine sieve or strainer works well to evenly distribute the meringue powder. Avoid any small lumps by sifting it onto and then gently stirring it into the sugar mixture. Small lumps of meringue powder can, over time, discolor and leave blotches. (Not important if you don't plan on keeping your creations for more than a month.)
Opt for superfine sugar. If you want crisper details, use superfine sugar. It's just finely ground granulated sugar and sold in the sugar section of supermarkets. You can make your own by whirring granulated sugar in a food processor until the desired granule size is reached (do this in batches for best results). Measurements are the same as for regular sugar.
Use paste or gel food coloring for richer colors. Dissolve the coloring in the water you'll be using for the casting or the icing. Regular food coloring is okay, but paste/gels work best. Find the prettiest colors in bakery supply stores and sometimes in the baking department of craft stores. Of course, you can leave the sugar skulls white and just color the icing if you prefer.
Go heavy on the food coloring. Whatever type of coloring you use, don't hold back. I always add extra to the water. Food coloring fades over time, and the sugar and icing mixtures look bright when wet, but after they dry, the color loses a lot of intensity.
Wear gloves if coloring the sugar. After the color is mixed in, I sometimes remove the gloves so I have better hand-feel when packing the sugar. At this point, the color is mixed into the sugar and leaves very little (if any) stain on the hands. Of course, you can leave the gloves on through the whole process if you prefer.
Let the mixture rest. After mixing in the liquid, let the sugar skull mixture rest for about 5 minutes. Cover the bowl with a dishtowel to prevent evaporation. This allows the sugar to fully absorb the liquid. Stir it up again before casting.
Lightly coat the mold with cornstarch, to bring out the details. Before casting the sugar, dip a dry paintbrush in a small amount of cornstarch and whish it around in the mold cavity. Shake out any excess. This helps small details (like teeth and veins) to unmold with crisper, sharper definition.
Pack the molds firmly with the sugar mixture. I find pressing down on a flexible cake spatula works well, and you can use the same tool to scrape off excess sugar and level the packing. Once packed, place a piece of heavy cardboard (cut to fit) over the sugar-packed mold, flip over and place on a heavy sheet pan. Gently lift off the mold. If any errors occur when unmolding (not uncommon), reposition the mold, flip it back over with the cardboard on top, and pack the sugar down again, adding more sugar if necessary. Then cross your fingers and unmold again.
Stop after 3 to 4 castings. At this point, the mold will be getting gunky. Rinse it out and dry it thoroughly before casting more skulls.
Once your skull halves are cast and dried, "glue" them together with royal icing and decorate them with royal icing, feathers, foil and anything that inspires you.
Mexico's Dias de los Muertos (Days of the Dead) occur on November 1 and 2. Read more about the tradition at our Days of the Dead Special Feature
And for some wild inspiration or to purchase my Dreams of the Dead skulls, check out InsideMySkull.com (I also make custom skulls as shrines, gifts or art pieces).
Copyright © 2011, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page modified October 2011
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