Sugar Skull How-To Part II: Royal icing’s not just for royals

When last we left you in the sweet lobotomies how-to, we had made the actual sugar skulls, let them dry and scooped the backs out.  In this post, you will learn how to make the icing used to decorate the skulls and cement them together.

We taught you how to make sugar skulls from scratch; here's how to decorate 'em!Materials:

  • 2 pounds powdered sugar
  • ½ cup meringue powder
  • 2/3 cup water
  • Several bottles or jars of gel food coloring in a variety of colors (available in the baking aisle of your local craft store)
  • Heavy-duty Kitchen Aid-style mixer
  • Sturdy tall cup
  • Good quality plastic sacks
  • Clear packing tape
  • Scissors
  • Small rubber bands

 

Procedure:

1.  The most important part of this whole how-to is obtaining the heavy-duty mixer. If you don’t own one yourself, you’ll need to find one or borrow one. I’m a pretty proficient baker, but one year (with great hubris) I tried to skip this step and use my hand mixer.  After we put the fire out, we swept up the pieces of my sad little hand mixer and said a few kind words before dumping it in the trash. In short? Do not skip this step.
2.  The second thing you need to know is that royal icing for sugar skulls is not an exact science, and you will likely have to feel your way through the first batch. You definitely want your icing to be pasty rather than runny, so adjust as needed.
3.  Once you have your heavy-duty mixer, dump a 2-pound bag of powdered sugar into the bowl. To this, add ½ cup meringue powder and about 2/3 cup water.
4.  Start the mixer on slow, but after you know the powdered sugar isn’t going to go everywhere, bump it up to a medium speed. Keep an eye on it.
5.  Stop the mixer after a minute or two and scrape the bowl. You may need to add a little bit more water or powder to get the right consistency.
6.  Let the mixer run again on medium speed.  I don’t have an exact time, but here’s what I usually do: Start the mixer, get distracted with something, forget that you are making icing, come back in 3 to 15 minutes, add a tiny bit more water, mix again, and then think, “That’s probably alright.”
7.  Now we are going to get some piping bags ready by reinforcing them.  The point of steps 7 through 11 is to reinforce the edge of the sack so that it doesn’t split when you squeeze it. To reinforce your sack, you will need to get out your good quality plastic sacks, scissors and clear packing tape. My version of this can be a little tricky, so I have included a terrible drawing and a picture of the finished product. Enjoy.
8.  Cut off a piece of tape about 7 inches long. The piece of tape in the photo has the edge outlined in black so that you can see and hopefully follow the line.

We taught you how to make sugar skulls from scrach: Here's how to decorate 'em!

9.  Lay the tape on the edge of the counter, sticky side up.
10.  Place the bag on the table with one tip touching the edge of the counter.
11.  Wrap the extra pieces of tape up on the bag so that the lower two edges end up meeting on top of the bag, perpendicular to the edge of the counter.

We taught you how to make sugar skulls from scratch; here's how to decorate 'em!12.  Once you have your sack reinforced, tuck your taped corner into a sturdy glass and fold the edges down — much like you might put a trash bag in a trash can. Pull the edge of the sack down tight so that the least amount of sack is in the glass.

We taught you how to make sugar skulls from scratch; here's how to decorate 'em!13.  Take a big fat dollop of your icing and stick it in the sack.
14.  Pull the sack out and twist the open end shut. Rubber band it tightly! You don’t want any escapees.
15.  With your fingers, massage some of the icing into the reinforced tip of the bag.
16.  Snip off about 1/8 of an inch from the corner of the bag. If you aren’t sure what an 1/8 of an inch looks like, snip off the least amount you can possibly cut. You can always cut more off, but you can’t put any back on, as they say somewhere about something.
17.  Take the sack in your dominant hand (unless you want to make things harder for yourself), and cup it gently in your palm with the twisted end in between your thumb and pointer finger.
18.  Squeeze your thumb against your pointer finger. If your sack is super full, you won’t be able to touch the two together. The point is to keep the icing from coming out of the twisted end.
19.  Practice squeezing the frosting out of the hole onto a piece of paper towel by rolling your fingers — pointer to pinky — down the bag. With a little practice, you will get a feel for it and probably develop a technique that feels okay to you.
20.  Adjust the size of the hole as needed. (Note: More pressure does not equal more awesome. If you use too much pressure, your sack of icing will explode). If the frosting isn’t coming out, there may be a lump caught in the hole or your icing is too thick. If it’s the former, pinch the tip between your fingers to squish lumps. If it’s the latter, put the frosting back in the mixing bowl and add a bit more water.
21.  Now for the fun part! Take one of your scooped skull fronts in your hand, face down, and squeeze out a line of icing along the scooped rim.
22.  Take a scooped skull back and press it to the frosted edge.
23.  Press the two skull parts together with a tiny, tiny bit of twisting back and forth. If some icing squishes out of the joint, wipe it off with your finger.
24.  The skulls are technically ready to decorate now, but if you need a little more practice with the piping bag, let them dry a bit first. Wet, the skull bits might shift if you aren’t careful. Dry, nothing will get those two to move!
25.  To get colored frosting, you will want to scoop all of the icing out of the mixing bowl and then put back just what you want to tint with the first color of gel food coloring.
26.  Select a color for the icing from your gel food coloring options. I suggest starting with the lightest color first so you don’t need to wash out the bowl between batches. Some might call this lazy; I prefer “efficient.” We made our icing in this order: First batch, yellow, orange, red and second batch, green, blue, purple, black.
27.  Put about a quarter of the food coloring into the mixing bowl and mix well.  If it is too bright, add more white. If it’s too soft, add more coloring.
28.  When you have the right color, reinforce another sack and put the colored icing in it.  Don’t cut the tip yet.
29.  Repeat steps 25 to 28 until you either run out of frosting and have to make another batch or have all the colors you want.
30.  Black icing is not necessary to make a sugar skull, but many people prefer it for eye sockets, noses and teeth. To make black icing for the skull, get an unreasonable amount of black food coloring – let’s say three bottles or jars. Add the coloring a half a jar at a time until you get the right color. It often seems purple, grey or dark blue for a long, long time but eventually turns black. If you have the time and are patient enough to wait, letting the black icing sit in the piping bags for a few days seems to help the color darken.
31.  When you’re ready, snip the bag corners and decorate your skulls. Pay attention to where your skull touches the table when resting and try not to decorate it there.

We taught you how to make sugar skulls from scratch; here's how to decorate 'em!

32.  If you want to save your bags of icing for more skulls or a later use (like gingerbread houses), squish the icing out of the tips so that the tips are flat for a centimeter or so, and then put painters’ tape across the holes. If you are going to use the icing within a week or 10 days, you can leave it out. If you are waiting longer than that, you might want to put it in the fridge. When you are ready to use the icing again, bring it to room temperature and remove the painters’ tape.

Fun Facts:

Fun Fact No. 1: Gel food coloring will stain everything you own. Do not decide to make colored icing the day before you are in a wedding, or your hands will be purple.

Fun Fact No. 2: As far as we can tell, sugar skulls are unattractive snacks to pests because of the meringue powder. So, if you are careful with them, you should be able to use them from year to year!

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About Nicole

Nicole has worked for HMNS in some capacity since 1996, whether part-time, full-time or as a volunteer. She taught for seven years in public school, including four years in Fort Bend and a short stint overseas. While she never taught science, she was always the teacher called when someone needed to remove a swarm of bees, catch a snake in the playground, or get the bat off the ceiling of the cafeteria.

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