Introduction: Sugar-Free Cheese Skulls for Dias De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead)
Traditionally, during the Day of the Dead, a major holiday in Mexico, people make skulls out of sugar. You can give the skulls as presents to the living or you can use them as offerings to the dead. Skulls are sometimes made to represent a deceased relative or friend. Other times, they are more simply reminders of death and the journey beyond.
Additional Artist Statement
I had the idea to carve skulls from cheese because at the same time as Dias de Los Muertos this year in San Francisco (2014), it is also voting season. On the ballot is Proposition E, a proposed tax on sugary drinks such as soda. The tax will generate millions of dollars annually to help fight diabetes and the obesity epidemic (40% of revue goes directly to public schools, 25% to parks, 25% to Dept. of Public Health and 10% to community organizations). This means healthier communities.
I'm drawing a connection between Dias de Los Muertos and "Yes on Prop E" because I have friends who've lost toes, legs, loved ones and even their lives from diabetes. Soda is the largest single source of sugar to our diet and we can't fight this epidemic alone or without policy change. Instead of ironically honoring our dead this year--and namely those who died from diabetes-related causes--with exactly the substance that brought them to their graves, I've decided to honor the dead this year with sugar-free skulls, carved from my favorite medium--cheese!
Photo credit: Jessy Ellenberger
Step 1: Gather Cheese and Decorations
First, gather the cheese. I usually buy the largest chunk I could find of low-moisture, part-skim mozzarella. Basically, I want a medium-soft white to off-white cheese that doesn't have any eyeholes (so don't use Swiss). For these photos, I used Clover Brand Mild Cheddar but you can use harder cheeses (for example a large chunk of Comte) too. They will cost more and the carving will proceed more slowly.
For decorating the skulls, I gather a colorful variety of edible ingredients. If I'm going to melt the skulls onto pizza as the grand finale, I choose only ingredients that will work well on a pizza. Below are some ingredient ideas for skull decoration:
- Red, yellow, orange and dark purple bell peppers
- Purple cabbage
- Carrots cut into fine strips
- Apples and apple skins
- Raw beet slices
- Serrano, aneheim, jalapeño and other hot peppers
- Black and pink peppercorns
- Springs of thyme, marjoram, rosemary, etc.
- Black, green and purple olives
- Cloves, star anise, cinnamon sticks
- Pretzel sticks
- Almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, pecans
- Dried fruits such as blueberries, golden raisins, strawberries, pineapple
- Freeze-dried fruit like these Simple & Crisp things
- Seeds such as black sesame, poppy and chia
Step 2: Chop Up the Cheese
Determine how large you'd like your skull or skulls to be then roughly chop down the block accordingly. I found that a 12 oz. block of cheese formed nicely into two skulls--but the dimensions of the block will play a part in determining how many skulls you'll get out of it.
Step 3: Round the Edges
Once you have a rough rectangular shape (think 2 inches x 3 inches x 1 inch depth), start to carve by rounding off the corners on one side. This will become the top of the skull. Remember to save the bits and pieces which you carve away. Snack on them now or save them for a future pizza topping.
Step 4: Make a Pear Shape
Round off the other edge of the rectangle--but with a narrower neck. Your cheese block should start to look like a 2D pear.
Step 5: Carve From the Nose Downwards
When you're happy with your 2D 'pear', move onto 3D by carving away 1/4 inch from the 'waist' of the pear towards the stem.
Step 6: Shape Nose Area / Add Cheek Bones
Make a v-shaped cut (v points towards top of skull) near the middle of the skull (where you just carved away the 1/4 inch of cheese) and carve about 1/4 inch deep. Start to round out the bottom of what is now becoming the cheek hones. Above the cheek bone area, remove a bit of cheese to form the temples.
Step 7: Add Eye Sockets
Using a very small melon baller or another carving tool, form the eye sockets. These sockets can go fairly deep into the head (to look realistic and to make space for whatever topping you want to stuff in them). The sockets should be relatively large and should sit above the check bone, between and or even a tad below the temples.
Step 8: Oil the Skull
Since medium-soft cheese will dry out with exposure to air, it is important to regularly moisten the skull you are carving with a bit of oil. I used olive oil but any vegetable oil or shortening will work.
Step 9: Store Skull in Baggie
While you are finishing up each of your skull carvings, store finished (but not yet decorated pieces) in an air-tight container or baggie. This will keep the skulls from cracking before you've finished.
Step 10: Prep the Decorations
Go through your decorative ingredients and get them ready. Here are some examples:
- Make thin slices of pepper skin, removing the bulky inside flesh
- Break cinnamon bark into spears
- Slice olives in half
- Make feathery accessories out of apple skins
- Break pieces of dried mushrooms into mustache shapes
Step 11: Fill in the Faces
Let each skull will take on its own personality. Roll with it! If your cheese skull honors a particular deceased relative, try and remember a distinct facial characteristic--such as reading glasses, a side part or bushy eyebrows. Or honor a deceased relative by decorating a skulls with that person's very favorite flavors.
Step 12: Honor at an Altar or Table
Now that you've made cheese skulls, place them at an altar (could be a private home altar or a community altar). Add to the altar other objects that were meaningful to your deceased. Decorate the altar with flowers, candles, incense, sweets and liquor.
Alternatively (or later on) you could also consume the cheese skulls by setting them in the middle of a homemade pizza and allowing all the decorations (if you've used pizza-specific decorations) to melt into a scrumptious gooey mess.