A showstopping centrepiece from expert baker Juliet Sear
This crazy Day of the Dead-style skull cake is a real showstopper and dead simple to make. To make the shape, I used a ready-shaped skull cake mould. I used bright colours against a black base colour so it really ‘pops’, and used a build-up of simple flat sugar cut-outs with piping to bring out the edges around the coloured shapes and fill gaps. You’ll need to start making this cake at least a day before you need it, in order to let the marzipan set.
For the vanilla bean sponge cake:
200g salted butter, at room temperature
200g superfine golden caster sugar
Seeds scraped from 1 split vanilla pod, or 2 tsp vanilla bean paste
1 tsp good quality vanilla extract
4 medium organic free range eggs, lightly beaten
2 tbsp sour cream or yoghurt (optional—makes gluten-free sponges softer)
200g self-raising flour or gluten free flour
For the vanilla bean buttercream:
250g unsalted butter, softened
2 tsp good quality vanilla extract
Seeds scraped from 1 split vanilla pod or 2 tsp vanilla bean paste
500g natural unrefined confectioners’ icing sugar, sifted (this gives it a lovely caramel quality—if you want a whiter finish, use regular white icing sugar)
2 tbsp strawberry jam, for the sponge filling
A little apricot jam, just boiled
Icing sugar, for dusting
Vodka or cooled boiled water
1kg black sugar paste
Small handfuls of a selection of bright sugar paste colours (I used lilac, orange, fuchsia, poppy red, pink, pastel yellow, mint green, atlantic blue and baby blue)
1 tbsp each of white and bright-coloured soft-peak royal icing (I used white, mint green, tangerine and pale yellow)
Ice blue dust colour
2 edible silver balls, for eyes
Red modelling-chocolate roses, to decorate the cake stand (optional)
For the royal icing:
250g sifted icing sugar
1 medium egg white
Juice of ½ lemon (approx 2 tbsp)
Skull cake mold
Piping bag with a number 2 nozzle
Preheat the oven to 180C and grease the cake moulds. First, make the sponge cake. Place the butter, sugar, vanilla seeds and vanilla extract into a mixing bowl and beat until the mixture is very pale, soft and fluffy, and the granules of sugar have disappeared.
Add the beaten eggs, a quarter at a time. Mix in each addition until thoroughly combined, then gradually fold in the sour cream or yoghurt (if using).
Add the flour gradually, mixing it in gently. Take care not to over-mix or beat too vigorously, or the sponge can turn out a bit tough.
Spoon the mixture into the prepared tins as required. Begin checking each sponge after 20 mins. The cakes should be a light golden brown, springy to the touch and a sharp knife or metal skewer inserted into the middle of the cake(s) should come out clean. Leave to cool, then cut down each sponge to the level of the tin to make flat surfaces.
For the buttercream, cream the butter with the vanilla extract and seeds until very pale, soft and smooth. Add the icing sugar slowly at first then, once mixed in, beat faster into the butter until the mixture is really fluffy and pale.
Assemble the skull by adding a layer of buttercream to the cut side of one half, a layer of jam on the other half, and sandwich them together to create the 3D skull shape. Chill for 1 hour to set.
Brush the entire surface of the skull sponge with hot apricot jam using a pastry brush, then roll out the marzipan on a surface dusted with icing sugar, to guide stick thickness. Remove the guide sticks and continue rolling out the marzipan until it is a few millimetres thinner: you want a thin coating so that the detail from the skull mould isn’t lost.
Carefully pick up the marzipan and drape it over the skull, smoothing it all over the sponge, avoiding air bubbles. Trim away the excess around the base and use your fingertips to press the coating against the sponge to bring out the teeth, eye sockets and jaw features etc. Leave to set overnight.
The next day, lightly brush the marzipan layer with vodka or cooled boiled water and repeat the covering process with the black sugar paste. Make sure there are no air bubbles (use a scriber needle or pin tool if you need to). Leave overnight to set.
Now make the royal icing. Place all the ingredients in a large bowl or in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle. Whisk by hand or on the slow speed for about 5 mins, until all the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is very stiff—when you lift up a spoon from the mixture, you should get a stiff ‘peak’, or peaks, forming. If you need a little more liquid, add a dash more lemon juice; if it’s too wet, add sugar. Beat slowly for about 3 mins to eliminate lumps and make a smooth icing.
Next, roll all your bright sugar paste colours to a thin layer, and cut out colourful shapes. You can really make this design your own, because it’s so busy, but try to keep it symmetrical. For the yellow nose, I chose a heart-shaped cutter. I then made sugar teeth with white sugar paste, measuring the height of the teeth indentations and cutting pieces from a strip to create rounded-corner rectangles, and sticking them on with edible glue.
For eyes, I used a floral cutter shape and cut a circle from the centre to give me a floral white band around each socket. Add lots of different shapes to fill the front, top and side of the skull. I overlapped some large and smaller florals in different colours to add more detail.
Once you are happy with the shapes on your skull, pipe icing around some of the edges using a piping bag with a number 2 nozzle, add centres to the floral shapes, and finish the eyes. I used a touch of ice blue dust colour in the centre of the eye sockets on the white paste, to add streaks coming from within the eyes, and finished each eye with a small floral shape topped with a silver ball. Step back and see where there are spaces you need to fill. Pipe small tendrils and leaves in mint green with a number 2 nozzle, and join up a few of the floral details to break up the mirror image. Leave to dry overnight.
To display the cake, place it directly on a table or a stand. I like to add a few sugar or chocolate roses around the base, so it looks even more authentic. The roses also hide the bottom of the cake where you cut away the excess icing, so the skull looks like it is floating on a bed of roses.
Recipe: Juliet Sear
Image: Helen Cathcart