Melting Head Cake

Barbara Jo made this delightful severed head presentation for a party celebrating our 400th review on theyrecoming.com

Watch the melting on YouTube

I admit that we celebrated Bride of Zombiefest before we had actually
posted our 400th review on theyrecoming.com (which the party was
ostensibly in honor of), but we were close and we needed to schedule it
while I was still visiting Barbara May for the summer.

Bride of Zombiefest was also the perfect opportunity for me to make a cake
that has been percolating in my head for a while now. The idea was a
severed head cake, served up on a silver platter with an attractive array
of garnishes, with flesh that would melt off over the course of the party,
revealing the grinning skull underneath.

It was obvious that the skull should be made of royal icing, but the
question of what to make the flesh out of proved to be a thornier problem.
My initial plan was to use buttercream icing and put the cake on a
hotplate. I’m glad that I decided to test this plan prior to
implementation because the experimental buttercream nose, piped onto the
experimental royal icing skull fragments, did not melt at all. Not even a
little bit. Barbara May and I thought that the nose got a little shinier
with the heat, but even that may have been wishful thinking.

This preliminary test did teach me a few important things, in addition to
the big lesson that buttercream icing does not melt, at least not
when I want it to. For instance, I learned that it is, in fact, safe to
put buttercream icing onto royal icing, provided that the royal icing is
dry first and it’s the quick and easy buttercream, not the fancy cooked
buttercream. I tried to put royal icing onto cake filled with the fancy
buttercream for Barbara May’s baby shower and the royal icing just
dissolved into oily goo. I also learned that both red piping gel and
seedless raspberry jam are fully compatible with royal icing. This was
important because I needed something red to put on top of the skull and
underneath the flesh so that the melting would also be bloody. I settled
on the raspberry jam because it tastes better, but I actually think in
retrospect that the red piping gel might have worked a little better.

At this point, though, I was far more concerned about the flesh’s failure
to melt. Clearly buttercream icing was not the answer, so I tried boiled
icing. Boiled icing really doesn’t taste very good at all, but I had high
hopes for its melting properties as I confidently made another test nose
and set it on the hot plate. And . . . nothing. No melting. Nothing even
close to melting. Not so much as a little bit of softening or a sheen of
moisture.

At this point I nearly gave up on the melting aspect of the cake. Bear in
mind that while I was carrying out these tests the day of the party was
fast approaching and I was already well into the creation of the advance
elements of the cake – the bloody eyeballs, the skull, and the garnishes,
which I will discuss in more detail later in this narrative. But I decided
to persevere and test one final type of icing – whipped cream icing. I
have never used whipped cream icing before because it is notoriously
unstable and the cake, once frosted, has to be frozen or refrigerated.
Surely this intimidating, unreliable icing would be fragile enough to melt
off my cake!

I made a few test noses this time, so I could test the icing in the fridge
and the freezer as well as on the hot plate. I also made test noses of a
50-50 mix of boiled icing and whipped cream icing, because I was afraid
that the whipped cream icing, by itself, would be too unstable.
(I also tried mixing the whipped cream icing with the buttercream icing,
but this instantaneous collapsed into a lumpy mess.) It turned out,
however, that the whipped cream icing is actually sturdier and more
structural by itself than in conjunction with the boiled icing. And, to my
lasting delight, it turns out that whipped cream icing does, in fact, melt
when placed on a hotplate!

With rekindled hope for the melting face, I performed a few additional
tests on the whipped cream icing to determine if it can be painted with an
airbrush (It can.) and to determine if it can be painted with a paintbrush
(It can, but only if it’s thoroughly frozen.). At this point I also hit on
the idea of using a heat lamp to melt the cake from above in conjunction
with the hotplate melting it from below. Of course, I didn’t have a heat
lamp, but I tried a 60 watt bulb and even that melted the test nose, so I
went out and bought a heat lamp from the hardware store across the street,
as well as a 200 watt bulb. I would have bought two heat lamps, but they
only had one, which, as you’ll see later, was very fortuitous.

And thus ends the saga of my icing experiments, leaving me ready to move
on the saga of the actual cake. So if you thought the icing story was
long-winded and melodramatic, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The first step of the cake construction was to make the royal icing skull.
For maximum accuracy, I purchased a plastic skull to use as a mold. I used
tin foil to cover the skull because it holds the shape really well, but it
does have some disadvantages. Because tin foil is opaque it was hard to
see the breaks between the skull segments and tin foil also seems to
lengthen the dry time of the royal icing. This wouldn’t be a problem
except that I’m impatient and wasn’t willing to wait more than a day to
try to unmold the pieces, at which point they were not completely dry.
Thus, it took me three tries to make a solid jawbone. I actually managed
to wait three days before unmolding the last one, so it was completely dry
and came off perfectly.

Unmolding aside, actually making the icing skull was really quite easy. I
piped the icing on with a wide, flat tip, then smoothed it with a slightly
damp paintbrush.

While I was making things out of royal icing, I also made fifty-odd little
tiaras. Why, you ask? Well, we were afraid that a cake the size of a human
head wouldn’t serve the twenty-five to thirty guests we were expecting at
our party, so we decided to make supplemental cupcakes. If the party was
Bride of Zombiefest, and the cake was the Bride, then clearly the cupcakes
should be the Bridesmaids of the Monster – little fuzzy monster cupcakes
(with cotton candy fur; more on that later.) So they needed tiaras, which
I piped flat, then draped over a roll of wrapping paper so they would dry
with a nice curve. I also made little royal icing eyes for the cupcakes,
with painted irises and tiny red veins.

The next pre-baking project was the eyeballs. I have made cordial cherry
eyeballs several times before and they’re also summarized in the
description of the
href=”http://www.theyrecoming.com/extras/zombiefest/index2.php”>Zombie
Cake
from our first Zombiefest. Basically, maraschino cherries are
soaked in brandy for a few days then drained and dipped, first in a melted
coating fondant, then in white chocolate. The nice thing about the
eyeballs is that they actually look better when I don’t dip the cherries
neatly because weird drips and blobs look like veins and pools of blood.
Once the chocolate is set, the eyeballs are painted with powdered food
coloring dissolved in melted cocoa butter. Some of the eyeballs were
served on their own; others were used as garnishes on the head’s serving
tray; still others served as the eyes of the head itself.

Next came the other garnishes for the head platter – lettuce, tomatoes,
and parsley. Barbara May came up with the idea of how to make the lettuce.
I bought actual lettuce (Romaine), dusted the back with corn starch, then
pressed a very thin sheet of gum paste onto it so that the gum paste
picked up all the lettuce veins. I then ripped the edge a little to get it
rough, rolled the edge with a ball tool to ruffle and thin it, and draped
the gum paste lettuce over a bed of wax paper so it would dry with nice
shape. The parsley was even easier. I just used a very small gum paste
flower cutter, then cupped it with a ball tool.

For the tomatoes, I used a 50-50 gum paste-fondant mix, mostly because I
didn’t have enough gum paste so I had to use the fondant to stretch it. I
colored this mixture bright yellow and rolled it into cherry tomato-sized
balls. I used an umbrella tool to make the little divot in the top and
then rolled the tomato in my hand once more to get it nice and round.

I colored all of these garnishes with ground up chalk pastels and then
steamed them in front of a kettle of boiling water to set the color and
give it a little sheen.

Finally, we’re at the baking stage! I made a chocolate cake for the bottom
of the head, then a lemon butter cake, swirled with black food coloring to
give it a nice brain color, for the top of the head. I also made about
fifty lemon butter cupcakes.

Once cool, I torted and filled the cakes with buttercream icing and, using
my plastic skull as a model, carved the cake into the proper shape. My
royal icing skull fit together remarkably well over top of the cake. At
this point, it would actually have been a pretty cool looking cake in and
of itself, but I was nowhere near done.

A coating of raspberry jam made the skull look delightfully freshly
skinned, especially once I had popped the cordial cherry eyeballs into
place.

At this point I transferred the cake onto its silver serving tray
(borrowed from a church where a friend of mine works) and I could no
longer avoid the part of the operation of which I was most terrified – the
icing. I put the head in the freezer for a little while first so it would
be nice and cold when the icing hit it.

Actually icing the cake went more smoothly than I had feared. It took me
three batches of whipped cream icing and between each batch I put the cake
in the freezer. Piping the whipped cream icing for details like the nose,
lips, ears, and eyelids was a little challenging because if I held the
piping bag for too long the icing got too soft, but all in all I was happy
with the face creation process. I was trying for a woman’s face because
she was supposed to be a bride, but it turned out looking androgynous,
possibly skewed a little towards the masculine. I hoped that a little
airbrushed makeup would tip it into womanhood. Into the freezer it went!

Airbrushing the cake was a little nerve-wracking because the room where I
was working was really hot so I had to work fast. I also had to mask off
the eyeballs and teeth with parchment paper which was very difficult to do
without messing up the icing, but it all went pretty well in the end. The
blue eyeshadow (I grew up in the 80′s so it somehow got into my head that
eyeshadow is always blue. Since I don’t wear makeup myself, I’ve never
really been disabused of this notion.), blush, and lipstick did make her
look a little more feminine, but she still had a bit of an old man in drag
vibe about her.

The garnishes went into place quickly and easily with a few dabs of royal
icing and that was all I could do until right before the party. At this
point, she was still bald, but my plan was to use cotton candy for the
hair and cotton candy doesn’t have a great deal of longevity. So the cake
went into the freezer and I went to bed.

The party was scheduled for 12:30 in the afternoon, evening parties being
inadvisable now that Barbara May has a five-month-old son. At about 9:00
a.m. we started making cotton candy. First we made some colored cotton
candy for the cupcake fur, using sugar mixed with powdered food coloring.
A little ball of cotton candy went on top of each cupcake, followed by a
tiara and a pair of eyes.

Our cotton candy machine is actually a children’s toy that we purchased at
a garage sale for three dollars, so it is perhaps not surprising that it
overheated after about half of the cupcakes. I had a few moments of panic
when I thought that it would not be in service to make hair for the cake
itself, but Barbara May suggested putting it in the freezer to cool it off
quickly, which worked like a charm.

Afraid that the machine would crap out altogether next time, I made the
hair for the cake next – a tower of white hair with black
Bride-of-Frankenstein-style streaks on the side. I assembled the hair on
the tin-foil-covered plastic skull first, then plopped it readymade onto
the cake. It looked like a wig and only exacerbated the resemblance to a
drag queen – a very old one, given the gaunt cheeks, the white hair, and,
due to the icing texture, the pockmarked skin. But I considered that a
minor problem. Barbara May said she looked like Mrs. Haversham. Dad
thought she looked like a French aristocrat, which also might have been
pretty appropriate, given that whole guillotine escapade.

I added a little red piping gel blood to the mouth so she would look more
dead and a little red piping gel blood writing on the lettuce stating, of
course, that, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara”. Then I took a whole
lot of photos and popped her back in the freezer to await the party.

By this time the cotton candy machine had overheated again so I had to put
it back in the freezer for a while before we could finish the cupcakes.
But finish them we did, just before the party. By this time, the cotton
candy on the first cupcakes was already wilting and we were afraid that
the cotton candy hair on the cake herself would fare even worse, due to
condensation from the freezer, so we decided that the cake would remain in
the freezer until most of our guests had arrived, at which point we would
dramatically reveal her, then turn on the heat lamps and hope for the
best.

And . . . amazing enough . . . the best actually happened! Even better
than I had hoped! I brought her out and set her on the hotplate, turned on
the heat lamp on one side and the 200 watt bulb on the other and . . . her
flesh started to melt! And, because I only had one heat lamp, at first
only the left side of her face melted. Which was incredibly cool looking!
She ended up with one side of her face still solid and the other melted
all the way to the skull. The heat lamp even toasted the melted icing a
bit at the closest point, so it looked like the skull had been cooked.

First, the hair melted, then the flesh on top of the skull. The eye socket
started to appear, followed by the cheekbone, and the lower jaw. The nose
was sloughed off, revealing the nasal cavity and the teeth appeared with a
horrifying smile. The eyeball melted away, first crying tears of melted
colored cocoa butter, then bursting open to reveal the shiny red cherry
within. Red piping gel blood ran out of the mouth, mingling with the gooey
white melted flesh.

Once the first side was thoroughly melted away, I switched the heat lamp
to the other side until I was left with nothing but a gooey skull sitting
in a pool of its own liquefied flesh. Even the garnish cordial cherry
eyeballs melted away, leaving only bright cherries amidst the little red
tomatoes.

In my darker moments I doubted the melting head cake. I’m ashamed to say
that I even seriously considered throwing in the towel and just making a
non-melting severed head cake. But that would have been unworthy. That
would have been cowardly. I’m proud of myself that I didn’t surrender to
the temptation of taking the easy way out. I persevered and, in spite of
the combined efforts of many different kinds of icing and a finicky cotton
candy machine, I succeeded! It was a beautiful moment.

57 thoughts on “Melting Head Cake

  1. This is fabulous!!! What a great job! I'm very impressed with the whole thing. Sort of tempted to try something like that myself if the occasion arises. What an amazing cake! Oh, and the little bridesmaid cupcakes are adorable, too.

  2. This is definitely a fine work of art! The fact that you documented the whole process to such great deal is so cool and I would be lying if I didn't say this is one of the best culinary creations of all time. I sincerely hope you patent this cake and make millions selling it to zombie lovers and scientists around the world. GREAT WORK!
    Aaron

    PS…how did it taste?
    aaron.samuel.nudelman@gmail.com

  3. Thanks for comments, everyone! In answer to the most frequently-asked question, yes, we did eat it. It actually was even about the right size for the number of people at the party, unlike most of my cakes, which tend to be way too big, since I'm more concerned with sizing the cake to the concept than sizing it to the number of friends who are actually willing to come to my parties. It was quite tasty. I always make my cakes from scratch because they both taste better and are easier to carve.

  4. Just AMAZING!!!

    I'm a medical illustrator and worked for seven years preparing cadavers for a major medical school's anatomy program, as well as assisting in hundreds of autopsies.

    In such an unusual work environment what can one make for one's colleagues Halloween luncheon that would truly thrill and delight (and totally gross out the rest of the medical staff?)? I only wish I'd known of you then. I'd have paid just about anything to commission one of your masterpieces.

    If you do take commissioned assignments and cab ship to the Los Angeles area, please let it be known for future reference. We will hire you.

    -Patricia

  5. I LOVE YOU.

    No, seriously. I linked to your head cake tutorial so long ago I don't even remember how long ago it was. Now this.

    Egads. It's fricktastically awesome. And you're my heroes for posting the how-to info.

    Why don't you live near me so I can come hang out with you fabulous people? Or at least insist that you make something for the Austin cake show (see http://thattakesthecake.org )?

  6. You have earned a special place in web history. I applaud you and thank you for sharing all of your insights. seriously… you are so freakin' awesome.

  7. That is gross and crazy and amazing. I got grossed out by the melting-ness of it. I bet I could make that, but I don't know that I could eat it when it was done melting. I'm weird that way.
    Nice job and what a epic imagination you have.

  8. That cake is genius! The detail is perfect. your skill such a great gift. I would love to attempt this but i have no idea where to start.

  9. Pingback: Torchiere Wedding Cake | Do it myself!

  10. Hi Barbara,
    I’ve been a long-time admirer of this cake and though I don’t have the skills to master it fully, I’m going to attempt it anyway. I have a question for you, if you don’t mind:

    how did you make the skull? you said you used a plastic skull as a mold, but did you have to make some sort of inverse mold? I’m trying to see the process in my head, but it’s just not coming together. I would appreciate your help, if you don’t mind giving away your secrets ;)

    • I covered the plastic skull with tin foil because the dried royal icing releases easily from it. Then I piped the royal icing on top of that and smoothed it with a damp paintbrush. So I wound up with a royal icing skull that was actually a little bit bigger than the plastic skull because I just built the royal icing skull on the outside of the plastic one. I guess I wasn’t really using it as a mold so much as using it as a template. I hope that makes some sense.

      Good luck with your cake. I’d love to see a picture when it’s done.

      • it does… mostly…
        so the actual details of the royal icing skull- am i right in saying you created those free-hand because the detail of the plastic skull would be covered by the foil and then be imprinted on the “back” of the icing?

        • Yes, that’s right. There aren’t too many details on a skull, really, so it wasn’t that difficult. The teeth are the only part where the detail is really evident.

  11. Barbara, you are, without a doubt, a complete and utter genius
    and I love you to death, a-hyuck.

    I’m a makeup special effects artist who also loves to cook and is dating a fellow who is just about as funky & weird as me – We happen to have the exact same birthday, which -also- happens to be our anniversary, so I want to do something really special. I think I want to try my hand at this daunting task, with full credit given to you (of course) for the idea.

    My questions, if you’d be so kind, are: when making the skull did you use a break-away model skull or did you ruffle up some tinfoil and form your own breaks to make the assembly easier (and did you use more royal icing to glue them together after baking the cake?); about how long would you recommend in advance a non-master-baker should start working on a project like this? Our birthday/anniversary is in 5 months but I’m so excited I’m not sure I can wait that long. You mentioned building the skull in advance, should I start making practice skulls now?
    And lastly – any carving tips, I’ve never carved a cake before in my life D: Is it advisable in this instance to cheat a little and see if I can’t buy a life sized skull shaped baking pan since I’m afraid I may super-botch carving a layered cake? Thank you for being so amazing, even if I don’t hear back from you about this you’re still my heroine for forever and a day.

    • Hi Tracy,

      Thank you for the compliments, and I’m happy to help however I can.

      To make the skull, I started with a plastic model skull. I covered it with tin foil and pressed it down really well so that I could see that I could see (mostly) the cracks between the various bones of that skull. Then I piped royal icing on top of this (the tin foil is so that the royal icing will come off easily) and smoothed it with a damp paintbrush, leaving slight gaps between the various bones of the skull. That way, when I took the skull off the form, it was in pieces. I think I wound up with eight separate pieces – the lower jaw, the nose and upper jaw (which I think is really two separate bones, but I made it together), the frontal bone, the two parietal bones, the two temporal bones, and the occipital bone. That way, it was easy to assemble it around the carved cake and seal up the gaps with more royal icing.

      You can make the royal icing skull as much in advance as you want. As long as you keep it somewhere dry and cover it so it won’t get dusty, dry royal icing keeps really well. Especially if you’re excited about it, I’d say you should go ahead and try it out now. If you have trouble, you’ll have time to try again and if you don’t you can just keep the skull until you’re ready to use it.

      As to carving the cake, the only skull pan that I’ve ever seen is this one: http://www.wilton.com/shapedpan/Dimensions-3-D-Skull-Pan. I’ve never used it and I’m not sure that I’d recommend it for this application. It doesn’t look to me like it’s accurate enough to work with the plastic skull. The nice thing about this being your first attempt at cake carving is that it doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as the royal icing skull basically fits around. You’ll also have your plastic skull right there to refer to as you’re carving.

      A few tips on carving cakes:

      1) Use a nice firm cake recipe. I usually use the chocolate cake recipe from Colette Peters’ book: http://www.colettescakes.com/book_cc_cc.html but there are lots of good ones out there. If it would be helpful, I can scan the recipe and send it to you. The important thing is not to use a box cake mix because they tend to be very squishy.
      2) Use a nice firm icing, especially if you aren’t confident in your assembly skills. The firmest choice that I know is a chocolate or a white chocolate ganache. Again, I use Colette’s recipe, but that’s a very easy recipe to find online. It’s basically just chocolate and cream. Also, if you carve off too much cake anywhere and want to add some back, you can mix the ganache with some cake crumbs to get a sort of icing spackle that dries quite firm and can help correct a multitude of carving mistakes.

      I hope this helps, and please let me know if you have other questions. I’d love to hear how it turns out.

  12. Phenominal!! I wish I had the guts and talent to try this fantastically gross looking cake. What a hit I would be at our Halloween party this year:)

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  14. My questions, if you’d be so kind, are: when making the skull did you use a break-away model skull or did you ruffle up some tinfoil and form your own breaks to make the assembly easier (and did you use more royal icing to glue them together after baking the cake?); about how long would you recommend in advance a non-master-baker should start working on a project like this? Our birthday/anniversary is in 5 months but I’m so excited I’m not sure I can wait that long. You mentioned building the skull in advance, should I start making practice skulls now?

  15. Pingback: Melting Severed Head Cake « Shane's Killer Cupcakes

  16. i don’t know if it needs to be said again, but BRAVO .. you are amazingly skilled and absolutely inspiring. i am making a skull & crossbones cake for my friend’s birthday–my royal icing skull is currently hardening. here’s hoping it turns out as well as yours did :)

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