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!

A Spirits & Skeletons wrap-up: 4,000+ guests, 13 Cruella Devilles and nearly 500 pictures

Were you one of the more than 4,000 costumed guests to grace Spirits & Skeletons 2012 on Friday night?

It was one of the best-attended events in museum history, and we were delighted to have everyone out in full, freaky regalia. We’ve compiled a few of our favorite snapshots below:

To peruse the full gallery of nearly 500 photos by Catchlight Group and order prints of your favorites, click here!

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
ZOMG ROFL it’s LMFAO

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
More like Beelzehub(ba hubba)

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
Rosie finds Scooby Doo riveting!

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
I went to Prom with these people. No joke here, just the facts.

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
There’s history here, I can feel it.

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
Ironman meets Leather Lady.

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
Jellyous?

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
It’s heart not to have a blast at HMNS.

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
There! There in the world is Carmen San Diego.

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
Rocket maaan, on his way to Moriannn alone!

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
If Keeping Up with the Kardashians is what’s wrong with America, Duck Dynasty is what’s right.

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
You had me at cat breading.

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
Fred Flintstone parties in the paleo hall.

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
Is that a banana on your person, or are you just happy to see us?

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
Erhmagherd, binders full of women!

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
Dancing with the dino.

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
In the thumbnail version, I thought this lovely young lady was a narwhal. Maybe next year?

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
McKayla Maroney is impressed!

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
Can pandas be the next villains of Gotham? Imagine the pandamonium.

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
Who doesn’t love the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the big, bad Chewbacca?

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
Who are these freaks?

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
Do I make you … oh never mind.

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
Molly & The Ringwalds rocked it.

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
This guy went as a nevernude.

Spirits & Skeletons 2012!
Zombie Christopher Lloyd?

News alert: HMNS field expedition uncovers terrifying evidence of prehistoric zombies?!

Our intrepid fossil-hunters, digging in the sun-baked Red Beds of Baylor County, face myriad dangers to life and limb (and fingers and toes). There are afternoons when the thermometer in the bone quarries reaches 140 degrees, and even Harvard PhDs have been known to hallucinate.

There are two species of rattlesnake, plus the occasional angry Black Angus bull.  At times, thousands of dark, hairy tarantulas — all males — start marching on their courtship walk-about, searching for coy females tucked away in their burrows. Much worse are the fearsome foot-long centipedes who run up inside your pants to sink their venomous fangs into the soft sectors of your thigh. These will send you to the friendly folks at the emergency room at the efficient Seymour Hospital.

Could there be a more malicious menace? Our paleontologists might have found one: Paleo-Zombies!

As cable TV has taught us, the key identification mark of a zombie is its hunger for brains. Well, classical zombies are also cannibals. They are especially fond of the cerebral morsels from the heads of their own species. Given such zombie lore, how would we tell if a prehistoric critter was a zombie? Easy. It would leave gnaw marks on the skeletons of its own kind, concentrated on the braincase bones that housed the brains in life.

Since 2007, we’ve dug up hundreds of chewed reptile and amphibian bones from our Red Beds sites, which were formed during the Early Permian Period about 285 million years ago. We have thigh bones chewed on both ends, shins bitten in half, shoulders and hips deeply scarred by scavenging teeth. We’ve found the “chiropractor’s nightmare” — vertebral spines snapped in two by massive bites. Even some jaw bones and muzzles bear scars made by gnawing, gnashing fangs.

We have some fossils that are truly disturbing — bones that wrapped around the brain in the living animal. We can see clear evidence of determined nibbling and biting. Something was trying to gobble down brains — or so it seems.

Were there paleo-zombies in the Permian?
The back of a Dimetrodon skull. Note the serious nibbling to the left of the brain cavity. Photo by Matt Mossbrucker, Director of the Morrison Museum in Morrison, Colorado

Our brain-bitten victim is a Dimetrodon, the top predator of early Permian times. Dimetrodon was about as heavy as a tiger, but with short legs and scaly toes. So who was the biter? We have some CSI evidence in what we call “fossil ballistics.” When Dimetrodon fed, it shed tooth crowns shark-style. A hard-gnawing D’don would lose a crown or two, but no harm done — new crowns were already growing up through the tooth sockets to replace the old ones. Crowns get fossilized in the mud next to the skeleton that was chewed. The shed crowns are like the bullets found in crime scenes today — unambiguous evidence of who chewed whom.

Our HMNS field crew is super-compulsive about “fossil ballistics.” We crawl around on hands and knees, scouring the red rock, gently extracting every scrap of dental clue. We shovel up piles of mud and then dissolve the sediment over fine-mesh screens to catch the tiniest crowns. We’ve recovered more hard evidence on gnawing than any other expedition to the famous fossil fields north of Seymour.

But enough about us. Let’s get back to our brain-bit victim, Dimetrodon. Shed teeth dug near the skeletons are strong evidence pointing to the perp. The identification of the chewer is clear: It was another Dimetrodon! That is seriously spooky. Even for a veteran dino hunter, the image of brain-crazed Permian reptiles is a bit unnerving.

Were there paleo-zombies in the Permian?
A scientifically accurate reconstruction of a brain-seeking zombie Dimetrodon.
Don’t worry, no Federal funds were expended in generating this image.
(Dr. Bob drew it while eating a breakfast burrito.)

But there’s a catch. Human zombies are more efficient predators of their own kind.  Human brains are huge, with each braincase offering up to three pounds of easily digested food that’s naturally low in cholesterol, to boot. (If you’re not a zombie, I’d suggest going to one of our fine Greek restaurants and sampling Miala tiganita, or fried calf brains, to get a sense.)

By comparison, Dimetrodon brains were tiny. A determined Dimetro-zombie would get only a few ounces of Permian brain-meat from an adult victim. When I cleaned out the inside of a big Dimetrodon braincase, the brain inside was smaller than a cocktail frank.

Gnawing and losing crowns just to get at a D’don brain appears to be a waste of time and teeth. So what was going on? Is there an alternative explanation for the bite marks on the braincase?

Maybe.

What do you think is a more believable hypothesis to replace the notion of Red Bed Paleo Zombies?

Learn more about Dimetrodons and what their extinction can tell us about our own evolution this Tuesday, Oct. 30 at a lecture I’m hosting: “Life After the Dinosaurs: Darwinian Saga of the Mammalia.” Click here for tickets.

Roach races, edible bugs, a mad scientist + more! Join us at HMNS Sugar Land for Spooktacular 2012

Looking for a Halloween celebration that’s more treat and less trick?

Join us at HMNS Sugar Land on Sunday, Oct. 28 for Spooktacular, a costumed celebration for the whole family! This kid-friendly party includes our Spook House, a mad scientist, and a creepy entomologist who will offer a different kind of Halloween treat — this one with a crispy bug.

Sugar Land Spooktacular 2012While you’re there, try your hand at our roach race track, participate in holiday crafts and leave with a treat bag! All Spooktacular activities are included with the price of general admission, so explore our museum halls while you’re here.

For more info on Spooktacular and other HMNS Sugar Land programming, click here.

What: HMNS Sugar Land Spooktacular
When: Sunday, Oct. 28 from 2 to 4 p.m.
How Much: FREE with general admission