I love to go all out for Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos every year, which is why I’m super excited to debut my brand new Mini Lemon Sugar Skull Cakes recipe! These colorful and whimsical treats may look a little spooky, but they’re filled with bright, sunshiny flavors that everyone is sure to love.

overhead shot of lemon mini skull cakes on a white table, with each decorated slightly differently with powdered sugar, edible writing gel, and sprinkles.

Why I Love This Recipe

These mini skull cakes are the perfect way to celebrate the spooky season! These light and fluffy mini cakes have a delectably tangy citrus flavor from a triple threat of lemon juice, lemon zest, and lemon
extract. Making them in the shape of adorable mini skulls is a perfect way to decorate your Dia de los Muertos altars at home.

Día de los Muertos is a holiday I look forward to every year. It’s a great way to reflect and remember all the happy memories of your departed loved ones without needing to visit their gravestones! You can celebrate and honor them in your home with these delicious lemon cake sugar skulls. 

If chocolate is more your jam, try these Spiced Mexican Chocolate Cake Sugar Skulls instead!

Just like carving pumpkins for Halloween or making gingerbread houses for Christmas, making sugar skulls for Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, is a form of Mexican folk art. Sugar skulls are traditionally made by pressing wet sugar into molds, letting them dry, and then decorating them, but trust me: these tasty cakes are much more fun to eat than a giant sugar cube.

These lemon-flavored skull cakes are also easy to decorate — you don’t need fancy piping skills, and even the kiddos can get in on the fun. I simply dusted them with powdered sugar and used store-bought writing gel to emphasize their mouths, then decorated them with edible cupcake toppers, sprinkles, and marigolds.

Because the mini skull cake pan has such detail, you can also simply eat them plain with a cup of Mexican hot chocolate or cafécito. They’ll be cute no matter what!

lemon skull cake on a terracotta plate with 2 marigolds next to an enameled honey container, a vase of orange flowers, and a photo in a frame.

Ingredients, Substitutions, & Equipment

You don’t need an electric mixer or too many crazy ingredients to make an adorable lineup of skull cakes. Here are the ingredients and special equipment you’ll need to grab:

  • All-Purpose Flour – You can swap in cake flour if you prefer a more tender crumb. While I haven’t tried it myself, my research also leads me to believe you could easily use a cup-for-cup gluten-free flour blend to make GF mini skull cakes instead!
  • Granulated Sugar – Plain white sugar is perfect here. You can also swap in a cup-for-cup sugar substitute for a diabetic-friendly cake if you like.
  • Baking Powder – Remember that baking powder starts to work as soon as it touches liquid, so be sure to preheat the oven before making the cake batter.
  • Ground Ginger – I love the warmth of ginger with lemon, but you can omit this if you prefer.
  • Lemon – You’ll need both zest and juice here, so go for 2-3 fresh lemons. To get the most juice out of your fruit, give them a firm roll on the countertop for 10-15 seconds before slicing in half.
  • Eggs – Let them come to room temperature to make them easier to incorporate.
  • Buttermilk – You can make your own buttermilk by either using powdered buttermilk, or using regular dairy or plant-based milk that you curdle with some acid. The ratio is 1 teaspoon of acid (e.g. lemon juice or white vinegar) to 1 cup of milk.
  • Sour Cream – I prefer the flavor of full-fat sour cream over any alternatives here, but you can swap in full-fat Greek yogurt or your favorite plant-based sour cream alternative.
  • Neutral Oil – Vegetable, corn, canola, peanut, grapeseed, or avocado oil will all work.
  • Lemon Extract – I like the bright, pucker-y flavor of a lot of lemon in these sugar skull cakes, but you can swap in vanilla extract if you prefer. Almond extract would also make a nice complement if you’re in the mood for a milder lemon flavor.
  • Non-Stick Baking Spray – I prefer and highly recommend Baker’s Joy Cake Pan Spray.
  • Mini Skull Cake Pan – There are lots on the market nowadays, but this beauty by Lodge is destined to be a favorite of mine for years to come.
  • Edible Writing Gel, Sprinkles, Frosting, Edible Flowers and Cupcake Toppers – Get as creative as you like when decorating these sugar skull cakes. They’re supposed to be bright and colorful, so go for bold color choices!

How To Make Skull Cakes

Making my lemon mini skull cakes is actually quite simple. Here’s how it’s done:

Step 1: Prep. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Heavily grease your skull cake pan with non-stick baking spray, making sure to get into all the nooks and crannies.

Step 2: Dry Ingredients. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, ground ginger, and salt, if using. Whisk in lemon zest; set aside.

Step 3: Wet Ingredients. In a separate small bowl, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, sour cream, lemon juice, oil, and lemon extract.

Step 4: Wet + Dry. Add the wet mixture to the dry, mixing lightly with a spoon or folding with a spatula until just combined. Small lumps will be present, don’t overmix or try to stir them smooth.

using a disher to pour batter into the skull cake pan mold.

Step 5: Bake. Scoop batter into greased pans. Depending on the size of your molds, you may have extra batter left over that can be baked in a separate cupcake pan or silicone cupcake liners. Fill each well of the skull cake pan no more than ¾ full. Gently tap the pan on top of the counter to evenly distribute batter and eliminate air bubbles. Bake cakes for about 25 minutes, or until the center is set and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean or with a few moist crumbs, but no batter.

3 mini skull cakes cooling on a rack.

Step 6: Cool. Place pans on a wire rack and allow cake to cool before inverting onto a clean surface and decorating.

Make-Ahead Tip: Cake layers can be baked, cooled, wrapped, and frozen up to a month in advance!

lemon skull cakes on a white lazy suzan being decorated with flowers, icing, and sprinkles next to an empty skull cake pan.

Tips For Decorating A Skull Cake

Once your skull cakes have cooled entirely, it’s time to start having some creative fun! Here’s how I decorated mine:

Step 1: Sprinkle Liberally with Powdered Sugar. This will give your cakes a perfectly white base so they really resemble skulls!

close up on a lemon skull cake dusted with powdered sugar and decorated with blue flowers for eyes and sprinkles for a nose with edible purple flowers as a crown.

Step 2: Use Writing Gel to Emphasize their Mouths and Noses. Sugar skulls aren’t meant to be scary, so I suggest giving them a toothy grin.

Step 3: Add Eyes. Using colored frosting, edible flowers, or another color of writing gel, fill out the eyes.

Step 4: Add Decorations! Here’s the time to go nuts. Add dots around the eye sockets, flowered crowns across their brows, and extra sprinkles to brighten their faces.

mini lemon sugar skull cake with edible orange flowers for eyes and edible tiny white flowers for a mouth.

Optional Variations

While I love these tasty little lemon cakes just the way they are, there’s always room for customization in the Muy Bueno kitchen! Here are a few other skull cake ideas to consider:

  • Gluten-Free – Swap in a cup-for-cup gluten-free flour blend like Bob’s Red Mill or Krusteaz for the AP flour.
  • Vegan – Make your own buttermilk stirring together 1 teaspoon of lemon juice per 1 cup of plant-based milk and letting it sit for 5 minutes. Use plant-based sour cream or Greek yogurt. Swap in either store-bought egg substitute or flax eggs for chicken eggs (1 Flax Egg = 1 Tablespoon Flax Seed + 3 Tablespoons Water + Stir + 5 Minutes Rest).
  • Chocolate-Dipped – If you want a shinier exterior for your skull cakes, consider buying chocolate melts (they come in lots of colors!). Place your lemon skull cakes on a cooling rack above a parchment-lined baking sheet, then carefully spoon the chocolate melts over the top of the cakes, letting the excess drip off onto the parchment below. Anything that drips down can be collected, remelted and used again! Once the chocolate exterior cools and hardens, continue with your decorating.
  • Giant Sugar Skull Cake – Want more of a centerpiece for your Halloween dessert table or Dia de Muertos altar? Opt for a full-sized skull cake by using a 2-piece mold. Adjust the baking times as needed (probably around 28-31 minutes for the larger cakes), then cool entirely. Glue the front and back of the skull together using chocolate melts or the frosting of your choice!
3 sugar skull cakes all decorated differently on a grey table with an assortment of pumpkins.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does adding buttermilk do to a cake?

The answer is threefold: first, the added fat helps to ensure a tender crumb. Second, the acidity lends a nice, tangy flavor that pairs magnificently well with the lemon flavor. Finally, that acidity also helps to activate the baking powder, which in turn helps the cake to rise. Who said science wasn’t cool??

Are sugar skulls meant to be eaten?

If we’re talking about traditional sugar skulls made out of granulated sugar, you certainly can eat them if they’re made from all edible materials, but they are basically just a giant sugar cube, so they’re not all that fun to eat (at least in my opinion).

That said, there’s no taboo against eating them! I just prefer my sugar skulls to be in the form of these adorable cakes so they have better texture and flavor.

What do Mexicans call sugar skulls?

The Spanish term for sugar skulls is calaveras de azúcar.

Do sugar skull cakes need to be served for Dia de Muertos?

Absolutely not! I’ve seen people who treasure the aesthetic so much that they make sugar skull birthday cakes or even sugar skull wedding cakes. They’re beautifully colorful and delightfully fanciful, so I totally get why people love them all year round.

How many skull cakes does this recipe make?

This recipe makes 9 mini lemon skull cakes and would make great gifts displayed in a mini cake box with a window.

zoomed out view of sugar skull cake decorating table with different bowls of sprinkles and edible flowers.

More Festive Ideas for Dia de los Muertos

If you make this recipe, please let me know! Leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ rating on this recipe below and leave a comment, take a photo and tag me on Instagram with #muybuenocooking.

Lemon Sugar Skull Cakes

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I love to go all out for Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos every year, which is why I'm super excited to debut my brand new Mini Lemon Sugar Skull Cakes recipe! These colorful and whimsical treats may look a little spooky, but they're filled with bright, sunshiny flavors that everyone is sure to love.

Ingredients

Cake:

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • Pinch salt, optional and to taste
  • 2 tablespoons lemon zest
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk, see notes
  • 2/3 cups sour cream
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 6 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
  • 4 teaspoons lemon extract, vanilla or almond extract may be substituted

Toppings:

  • Powdered sugar
  • Royal icing
  • Edible writing gel
  • Sprinkles
  • Cupcake toppers
  • Edible fresh flowers, optional

Equipment

  • 1 Lodge Mini Skull Cake Pan

Instructions 

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a skull cake pan.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, ground ginger, and salt, if using.
  • Whisk in lemon zest; set aside.
  • In a separate small bowl, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, sour cream, lemon juice, oil, and lemon extract.
  • Add the wet mixture to the dry, mixing lightly with a spoon or folding with a spatula until just combined. Small lumps will be present, don’t overmix or try to stir them smooth.
  • Fill each well of the skull cake pan no more than ¾ full—about ½ cup of batter each. Gently tap the pan on top of the counter to evenly distribute batter and eliminate air bubbles. 
  • Bake for about 25 minutes. Allow the cakes to cool in the pan 15 to 20 minutes before inverting onto a cooling rack. Repeat with remaining batter. 
  • Decorate with royal icing, writing gel, little candies, or sprinkles. For more decorating tips, see photos. 

Notes

  • I prefer and highly recommend Baker’s Joy Cake Pan Spray to grease baking pan.
  • Feel free to make the cakes up to a week in advance and refrigerate before decorating.
  • Cool the cakes COMPLETELY before you start decorating. 
  • Give them as gifts in these mini cake boxes with windows.
Calories: 341kcal, Carbohydrates: 42g, Protein: 5g, Fat: 18g, Saturated Fat: 10g, Polyunsaturated Fat: 1g, Monounsaturated Fat: 4g, Trans Fat: 0.002g, Cholesterol: 75mg, Sodium: 43mg, Potassium: 234mg, Fiber: 1g, Sugar: 24g, Vitamin A: 685IU, Vitamin C: 5mg, Calcium: 120mg, Iron: 1mg