I made these self-portrait baking dishes for a 2014 fundraiser at the haunted Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, to benefit the nonprofit LAXART. I was trying to make something that was a bit spooky and interactive. The final project was presented in the kitchen, where the bread was sliced and toasted, and then guests could add butter, jam, and honey. It was a really fun project, and I enjoyed each step of the way. Here’s how to do it.
1. Plaster-backed alginate face cast
First you need to make an alginate cast of your face. The best product for this is Alja-Safe alginate from Smooth-On, which is nontoxic and designed to be used with body and face casts.
You’ll need a helper for this. Cover your eyebrows and any facial hair with hair gel or petroleum jelly, and put on a plastic poncho or something to cover your clothes. Next, mix the alginate in a clean bucket. Your helper will then apply the lavender-colored alginate to your face and let it set (Figure A). Be sure to leave your nostrils clear (Figure B), and you can also keep a straw in your mouth to breathe. When I made the cast, my face was “relaxed” and the cast ended up as a sort of death-mask frown (Figure C). So think about the expression you want in your mold, and also an expression that you can hold throughout the 30 minutes or so it will take to make this mold.
After about 10 minutes, reinforce the cast with plaster-gauze bandages. Add salt to the water for dipping the bandages to speed drying time. In Figure D, you can see I’m also holding a hair-dryer to speed the drying process.
After the plaster gauze stiffens, carefully demold the cast from your face. Alginate starts to break down within 12 to 18 hours; best practice is to make your next mold within 4 hours.
2. Plaster positive
The plaster-backed alginate cast should be quite stiff, but it can be backed with more clay so that it doesn’t bend or deform. Putting this all in a cardboard box will give you extra support and help contain any plaster drips.
After preparing your mold, mix plaster according to the manufacturer’s direction and pour it into the mold to cast a positive (Figure E). You can use any quality plaster from U.S. Gypsum; I mix No. 1 Pottery Plaster at 10 parts plaster to 7 parts water by weight. I wouldn’t use plaster of Paris, as you want a really fine cast that will capture all the detail.
After the plaster hardens (about an hour), remove it from the alginate mold. If necessary, plaster can be scraped, cut, and sanded, so this is your chance to get the mold how you want it (Figure F and G). You might be able to use the alginate cast again, but the heat of the plaster curing can alter the alginate.
The plaster cast needs to dry. This takes 1 to 2 weeks by air drying, or you can speed it up by putting it in a low oven or hot box. Make sure to keep cured plaster under 150°F or you risk ruining your mold.
3. Terra Cotta Baking Dish
After the plaster positive is dry, the next step is making the baking dish. I used a traditional low-fire red terracotta clay, but you could use just about any water-based clay.
NOTE: Air-dry clays and polymer clays like Sculpey can’t be used in the oven to bake bread, so don’t use them.
You will also need access to a kiln; most community studios will allow you to fire by paying by volume, typically 3¢–8¢ per cubic inch. If your dish is around 10″×6″×6″, it’ll cost about $11–$29.
To make your baking dish, roll out about 5lbs of clay into a 3/4″-thick slab, then press the slab over the plaster positive. Try to use one single slab of clay to cover the entire mold, so you don’t have a crease inside that needs to be cleaned up. Smooth the clay and press it onto the mold, so that you get every detail of the plaster. Do your best to keep the thickness even throughout. Then, add feet (Figure H) or a footring so the baking dish will sit evenly in the oven. After the clay has dried a bit and can support itself, carefully remove the clay from the plaster (Figure I).
Next, dry the baking dish completely and fire in a kiln to cone 04 temperature, or about 1,950°F. Clay shrinks, so your final baking dish, or baker, will be about 6 percent smaller than life size.
4. Baking Bread
Place the baker in the oven and preheat to 450°–500°F. Once the dish is hot, you can drop about 750–1,000 grams of fully proofed dough inside and bake (Figure J). The dough needs to be flexible enough that it will take on the shape of the nose and lips, so a higher-hydration recipe is recommended.
It’s key to preheat the baker so that the bread receives even heat from all sides. Bake until it’s golden brown on top, about 40 minutes, and remove (Figure K).
You may need to use a butter knife to pry the loaf away from the side, but it will eventually pop out and you’ve got self-portrait bread. Let cool and enjoy!
This project was really fun to do, and the result is a baking dish that can be used over and over again. My kids love these loaves, and every so often, I’ll drop an image of the “head bread” on social media and enjoy the comments. If you’re not into self-portraits, this technique could be used to make any sort of baking dish form. Just make sure there are no undercuts or protrusions that will interfere with the bread slipping out of the mold. I look forward to the delicious results from your efforts.