I love skulls, but more importantly, I love making skulls!
I've cast skulls in almost every material possible including plaster, chocolate, and even meat. I've made crystal skulls using Borax and other skulls using resin...but for this project, I wanted to do something different...something that has never been done before. Something life-sized.
I turned to the internet and took inspiration for the final look of my project from a number of sources including the artist Jack of the Dust and his skulls as well as the work of Tyler Thrasher. Coming up with the final project was easy; I knew I wanted to cast a life-sized skull and crust it with crystals. What was difficult was deciding what material to make it out of.
Resin in this quantity, while doable, can be expensive and potentially dangerous (resin cures through a thermal chemical reaction and large quantities, if not handled properly, can cause burns). It's also been done before and by people with way more talent than I have (again, back to Jack of the Dust). Doing it in plaster and borax (or other chemicals) was also a possibility, but again...it's been done before. On top of that, I wanted something with a translucent final finish...something you can't get with plaster at all.
Then it hit me...a sugar skull...but not a traditional sugar skull...a hand poured crystal clear sugar skull encrusted with violet sugar rock candy!
Sugar is a fabulously flexible medium for projects like this...and as long as you follow the directions and are safe, it's not difficult to work with. It's also affordable, which in my book is a HUGE win!
Taking my love of skulls and my love of sugar and combining them together into one epic project was an absolute no-brainer for me, and I'm so excited by how absolutely stunning the final product ended up being!
Step 1: Gather Your Ingredients
The first thing you need to do is make sure you have all your ingredients ready.
- 3 1/4 cups white sugar, divided
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1 cup light corn syrup, divided
- 1 1/2 teaspoon flavoring oil (optional)
- Gel food coloring
- Rock candy in your choice of color (I used a combination of violet and clear)
- Purple sanding sugar
- Cooking spray
- Edible Silver luster dust
- Edible Purple metallic luster dust
You'll also need:
- Large stove safe pot
- Candy thermometer
- Pastry brush
- Food-safe paintbrush
- Heat resistant, food-safe silicone mold
- Clear sealing spray (optional)
Step 2: Making the Sugar Base
Combine 3 cups of your white sugar with 1 1/2 cups of water and 3/4 cup of your light corn syrup over medium heat. Stir until all your sugar is dissolved and then STOP STIRRING!
Pop in your candy thermometer and watch the sugar as it cooks. You want to bring the temperature up to 300F/148C.
As your mixture cooks, you'll notice small crystals forming on the sides of your pot. Resist the urge to scrape these off or stir your mixture. Instead, dip your pastry brush in a little warm water and gently brush the sides of your pot. The crystals will dissolve and run back into the syrup. Stirring your sugar syrup at this point can actually cause it to crystallize prematurely and you'll end up with a grainy nasty mess.
Step 3: Getting Moldy
While your sugar is coming to temperature, let's prep your mold. Do this by lightly spray your mold with cooking spray. Don't lay it on heavy. It will discolor your final skull as well as damage your mold over time. Just a light spritz immediately wiped out should be all you need.
Speaking of molds, let's talk quickly about the one I'm using. I've got a LOT of skull molds but this one is my absolute favorite. I picked it up on Ebay, here. Yes, it's expensive, but it's also the best one on the market! It's an incredibly detailed 4 part mold and I've used it for a ton of food products and have never been disappointed. Spend the money...trust me...it is worth it.
For this project, we'll just be using the upper cranium section, so save the lower jaw for later.
Step 4: You Spin Me Right Round, Baby, Right Round!
By now your sugar should be reaching temperature. Once your sugar reaches just below 300F (usually about 25-90), remove it from heat (Don't worry, it'll keep cooking for a while longer, this way it won't overcook).
If you're planning on eventually eating your skull, now is the time to add in your flavoring. Make sure to turn your head away from the pot as you add any flavor as it can release a puff of intense vapor that can cause eye and nose irritation.
Stir in your flavoring along with any coloring you want. For this skull, I added a touch of gold luster dust to give it a light sparkle but the final color is up to you.
Now let's get casting! For this process, we'll be doing what's called "rotational casting," filling our mold partially full of our molten liquid sugar and then sloshing it around inside to create a lightweight hollow skull.
Carefully pour your liquid sugar syrup into your mold and seal it up tight. Because this is a sectional mold and the sugar we'll be filing it with is molten, you'll want to make sure the mold is secured. I keep mine in a box that I've stuffed with bits of foam to help keep all the pieces locked together. I then run a strap all the way around the entire thing, lid and all, to make sure that while I'm sloshing the sugar around, nothing pops open or leaks.
Once your mold is secured, it's time to start turning! (The mold I'm using is thick and insulated which means I can safely do this step with my bare hands. Depending on your own mold, it's a good idea to have pot holders nearby, just in case.)
For the first 60 minutes, you want to turn your entire mold over and over and over again almost continuously, ensuring that the molten sugar gets into every possible nook and cranny in your mold. I usually do this step while watching TV so I have something to do to occupy my brain and eyeballs while my hands are working. Two episodes of a good sitcom or 1 episode of an hour-long drama is about perfect.
Once you hit that hour, you should continue to turn your mold, but it can be once every 5 minutes or so. As the sugar cools, it'll harden inside the mold and continuously rotating the mold like this helps to ensure that the sugar is evenly distributed.
Like I said, the mold I'm using is thick and insulated which means it retains heat pretty well. Because of this, it takes about 3-4 hours for the sugar to cool enough to be able to demold safely. Do NOT demold early! You'll risk spraying hot sugar syrup everywhere.
Carefully peel back your mold and reveal your perfectly formed hollow poured sugar skull!
Step 5: Ooh, Sparkles!
Now let's add our violet colored sugar crystals!
I wanted my skull to have a geode-like appearance so I used my torch to gently heat up the upper temple of my skull until the sugar softened and slumped. Then it was a simple matter of using scissors to pull away a small section to reveal a hole.
The rock candy I purchased came in long strands with a cotton string through the center. I used my scissors to clip these apart into manageable chunks. I also scooped up lots of the little broken pieces and bits from inside the bag the rock candy came in to use on my skull as well.
I started attaching the biggest chunks of rock crystals to my skull by lightly passing over sections of the skull with the flame of my torch and then pressing the crystal chunks into the softened sugar.
A word of warning: If you use your torch, use it sparingly. Too much heat and your skull will melt and/or burn. Hit the skull with just enough heat to soften the sugar and then move onto another section. Don't come back to the first section you softened until it's fully cooled and firmed up again.
To add your smaller crystal chunks, use your food safe paint brush to brush on a layer of corn syrup "glue." I found the best way to make this look realistic was to brush on a layer of corn syrup and then sprinkle on the crystals. I then followed that with a dusting of purple sanding sugar and a final pinch or two of regular white sugar for color contrast.
This part of the project is where your own personal aesthetic gets to come into play. Put the crystals where you want (if you use them at all!) and play with the final look any way you want.
Once you're satisfied with your crystal placement, set your skull aside to "cure" for at least 24 hours. I found I was happiest with my skull when I let it cure for 24 hours, then gently shook off any crystals or sugar that didn't adhere properly, and then repeated the process for a total of 3 days.
Once you're totally happy with how your skull looks, use your food safe brush to lightly add highlights using your silver and purple edible luster dust (available at most cake decorating stores and craft stores as well as online.)
Step 6: Displaying (and Possibly Eating) Your Final Skull
Congratulations! Your crystal encrusted sugar skull is now complete!
To eat, I suggest placing it inside a paper bag and striking it sharply with a hammer and then enjoying the shards like you would a piece of hard candy or a sucker.
If you don't want to eat your skull (and who can blame you, it's so BEAUTIFUL), you can preserve it for all time by giving it a good coating of clear sealer and making sure it's stored in a cool, dry location.
Bonus: Because the sugar is translucent, the skull will glow if placed over a light source...just make sure the source is a cool source (I've found battery operated LED lights work the best.)
No matter what you do with your skull, enjoy!