A few weeks ago a friend from my old running group asked me to make her husband’s 60th birthday cake. She requested a skull, after explaining it might be unusual, but her husband would love it. At first I didn’t know if I could, but then I researched it a bit, and realized I could definitely do this. I had not made a sculpted cake before but learned a bunch of tricks over the past few months that I knew would help.
So I said yes, I will make your skull cake. Fortunately they only needed to serve about 10 people, so I did not have to make a lot of cake.
I will share some tips in this post from what I learned while making this sculpted cake and share some photos I took throughout the process.
Well, I first baked a 9×13″ cake, and then one 6″ round. I didn’t get photos of this process, I kind of forgot. Essentially I just made my favourite butter cake recipe, converted to a chocolate version.
Once the cake was baked and cooled, I cut the cake exactly in half, so there were two pieces about 6.5″ wide by 9″ long. I sliced those in half as well, so there would be about 4 pieces of cake roughly and inch thick. I stacked them all with swiss meringue buttercream in between. Then I placed the 6″ round on top (only one layer of 1″ high cake).
I crumb coated the whole block of cake, but later realized I did not need to crumb coat it just yet. I froze the block of cake, after wrapping it really well in plastic wrap. I double wrapped it.
The next day, I took the cake out and placed the frozen stack on my cake wheel. I had a few photos of skull cakes and real skulls that I found online, and I kept them nearby on my tablet so I could reference as needed. I find I work well when I have an image to copy or replicate. But this cake ended up being an amalgamation of all the photos. These are some of the photos I referenced:
I used my serrated bread knife and began to carve the cake to look like a skull. I cut away large pieces of cake at first, and as it narrowed down to finer details the cake bits were smaller that I carved off. I had a HUGE pile of cake below my turn table. But all of these scraps froze well, and saved them for future cake pops. Cake freezes really well.
After carving most of the cake, I realized the top of the skull was not quite round enough. Fortunately i had lots of solid scrap pieces and I was able to mold the top of the head to be more rounded. Seen above there is a bit of a mix of cake and icing on top, while the rest of cake is layered more nicely.
Once I achieved the desired shape of cake I wanted, I started to coat the cake in buttercream. Then I chilled it in the fridge to let it set.
Once it chilled, I used a small offset spatula (or you could use the back of a pairing knife, the straight edge) and gently smoothed all the edges of buttercream. This helps ensure the fondant covering looks as smooth as possible.
Then I chilled it again, and prepared my space for rolling fondant. The night before I made my marshmallow fondant, learned in school; and my first batch of white modelling chocolate. The latter was a chore, as I never made it before, but wanted to use it because I knew white chocolate would offer the most realistic colour for a skull bone. I researched a bunch of recipes and figured out how to make it, it was easy but I later learned I over mixed it. Then I learned that once it set, it was more chunky and should have been smooth. I managed to correct that with a little nudge of heat in the microwave. Then it kneaded very smoothly.
I mixed half fondant and half white modelling chocolate for the finishing layer of this cake. It was a great combination because it offered the best colour and the most flexibility for covering this shape of cake.
I did all the sculpting and finishing details in one afternoon/evening. Once the fondant was on, it was just a matter of the finishing details and ensuring it was balanced/ symmetric (as best that I could get it). By this time, the cake had softened to room temperature and was easier to manipulate details into, like the brow and cheek bones. I gently used my hands to shape these areas.
For most of the finishing details I wore disposable gloves so that the details looked as smooth as possible. Once I achieved the desired finish look, I started on the teeth. I basically used little pieces of fondant and adhered them to the mouth area. I even counted them so there was a realistic number. The teeth were pretty fast to make actually.
Now that I had everything done in terms of the fondant, I added the finishing colour using cocoa powder. Disposable gloves were absolutely needed for this, or you could cover your hands with plastic wrap, or a sandwhich baggie. At any rate, you do not need much cocoa powder at all – it goes a long way. I just dipped my fingertip in the cocoa and then massaged it over the areas of the skull that needed some depth and darkness.
The teeth needed the most cocoa powder, I used a combination of my little cake brushes to paint the cocoa onto the teeth and my gumpaste tools to add the powder. I started with a heavy application of cocao and then brushed it away to create this finished look.
Once the cake was all done, I cleaned up my space and prepared the cake board to transfer it to. I covered this in fondant as well. Then transferred the cake to the board. This is always a stressful part of the cake process for me, but I am feeling more and more confident each time I move a cake. With practice, I have learned that you start to get a better feel for the cake and “how it moves”, and thus, how you have to move it.
The final touch on the cake was writing the message on the board, I used dark chocolate. I also added some beeswax birthday candles I recently found – and love – I thought it would be fun to use these natural looking candles with the cake.
Here is the finished skull cake. I am very proud of this cake, I think it is my best work yet.
My real birthday is coming up, I might make another a sculpted cake for myself. I think I want to build a snowman… gingerbread cake! (**Insert Disney’s Frozen lyric track here**). Ha!