Sometimes I am reminded that baking is really hard, that you can't take it for granted. A little mistake here, waiting too long or not long enough - heartbreak. I thought I was going to write a sweet little post about a cake for my daughter's school, but this cake had other plans. I started questioning my skills about halfway through and I almost gave up on the whole thing. But I had made a commitment, so I stuck with it. In the end I was happy with the results. Alls well that ends well, right?
It all started a little while back, a friend of mine asked me to make her a cake that looked like a brain for her son's birthday party. (He is obsessed with zombies. It was a theme). I spent a lot of time figuring out just how I wanted to do it, but not actually baking anything. Then my friend's son got sick and they had to post-pone his party - she no longer wanted the cake. I was a little bummed because I like a good challenge but these things happen. Flash forward to a month ago when my daughter's school asked for donations for a cake walk – right around Halloween – I knew the perfect time to try a brain cake had come.
When I first started researching, I needed some help about what an actual brain looks like. I asked a good friend of mine that happens to work in the field of neuroscience for help. She sent me some great reference material and some pictures of actual brains.
They were wonderful, but unless you are Hannibal Lecter, probably not that appetizing. I decided to take some artist license and make a red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting and some raspberry "blood" sauce.
I had some very grand plans for this cake, eyeballs and the like, but the cake had other plans.It started right away with the cake layers. I very slightly adapted this wonderful recipe from Smitten Kitchen. Maybe I'm still getting used to my new oven or maybe the time is just a touch too long but I overcooked it. I wouldn't say burnt necessarily, but definitely ribbons of dark dark cake swirling through (Although the pictures makes it look worse for sure).
Usually I would check the cake – at least look in through the glass before the time was up, this time I just set it and forgot it until my timer went off. I thought about redoing it, but the kids and I agreed the test pieces I shaved off tasted good so I wrapped the layers and put them in the fridge. (I like to divide up the work a bit with cakes and make the cake one day and the frosting the day I am decorating. Also, if I need to carve a cake, cold cake layers are much easier to work with).
I wanted the cake to look like a medical specimen so I set the cake layers up on a medal pizza pan. Carving the cake actually went pretty well. I used a template I made with a piece of paper to get the shape I wanted. This had the added bonus of giving me shavings I could nibble on.
I had more trouble with the frosting. I wanted to make a Swiss Meringue Cream Cheese frosting.I had made it before for a carrot cake and it is amazing.Well, that time it was. This time my butter wasn't quite warm enough and so it didn't fully emulsify. I had little chunks of butter making the whole mixture look a little chunky. It still tasted fine, but did not look fine – not at all.If I had been patient I might have been able to whip it into submission, but I surged ahead adding the cream cheese and well, not my best work.I decided to use it anyway to fill the cake and for the crumb coat. It was supposed to be a brain – I suppose looking a little chunky wasn't the worst thing. That and I only had so much time to put together this cake before the deadline for the cake walk…so, I made a quick, more traditional cream cheese frosting with powdered sugar. (That is the recipe I included below because it is so smooth and worked well for the brain folds. It is also stiffer and looking back, would have been the right choice from the begining).
A quick crumb coat and then I sat with my research pictures. With my new frosting I went to pipe all the wiggles on the surface of the cake. Based on the pictures I had to copy, I drew a line down the middle and tried to stay as close as I could to the pictures. The halves of the brain are close to a mirror image so I tried as much as I could to keep them similar.
To finish the cake off, I took my raspberry sauce and added some "blood" down the center line and then randomly in the folds of the frosting, (A brain specimen doesn't really have blood all over it, but I still thought it looked pretty cool).
There you have it – a red velvet brain with cream cheese frosting and some raspberry "blood". Happy Halloween!
Red Velvet Brain Cake
Red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting - carved into the shape of a brain. Raspberry sauce added for "blood". Adapted slightly from Red Velvet Cake recipe on Smitten Kitchen.
Red Velvet Cake
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 3 1/2 cups (448g) cake flour
- 1/2 cup (59g) unsweetened cocoa (not dutch process)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 2 cups canola oil
- 2 1/4 cups (450g) caster sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon red gel food coloring
- 6 tablespoons water
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste
- 1 1/4 cups buttermilk
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 2 1/2 teaspoons white vinegar
Cream Cheese Frosting
- 8 ounces cream cheese (room temp)
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter (room temp)
- 3 cups (375g) confectioner's sugar (sifted)
- 1 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 10 ounces frozen raspberries (thawed)
- 6 tablespoons (divided) sugar
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon water
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 pinch salt
Red Velvet Cake layers:
1. Preheat over to 350 degrees. Prep three round 9-inch cake pans with pan grease, line with parchment and grease the parchment. Set aside.
2. Combine cake flour, cocoa, and salt in a medium bowl and whisk to combine.
3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine oil and sugar and beat on medium speed un well blended. Add eggs one at a time and scrap down the bowl between additions.
4. In a small bowl, combine the 6 tablespoons water and 1 teaspoon red gel food coloring and mix well. With mixer on low, slowly add the red food coloring to the egg mixture. Add the vanilla and mix to combine.
5. Add the flour mixture, beat until just combined.
6. In another small bowl, combine baking soda and vinegar and add to the batter with the machine running. Beat for 10 seconds or so.
7. Divide the batter amonst the prepared pans and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Let cool in the pans on a rack for 20 minutes. Then remove from pans, flip layers over and peel off the parchment paper. Cool completely.
Make the frosting:
1. In a medium bowl, combine butter and cream cheese. With a handheld mixer, beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
2. Add sugar and vanilla, beating on low speed until frosting is well combines and slightly stiff. (If the frosting is still too soft, chill about 10 minutes).
Make the raspberry filling:
1. In a medium bowl, combine thawed raspberries and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Blend with a stick blender until smooth.
2. Press the puree through a fine mesh strainer with a spatula to remove the seeds.
3. In a small bowl, make a slurry with the cornstarch, water, and lemon juice.
4. In a small pot; combine the puree, 1/4 cup of sugar, pinch of salt, and cornstarch slurry and stir to combine. Heat on medium/low until the mixture boils for a couple minutes, stirring continuously. Mixture will quickly thicken as it boils.
5. Taste raspberry sauce and add a touch more sugar if it seems a bit too tart.
Putting it all together:
1. Stack the cake layers with a thin layer of frosting between each. Using a template, carve the cake into a brain shape and then cover with a crumb coat. Chill for 30 minutes.
2. Draw a line down the center of the brain with a spatula. Using a piping bag and a round tip, pipe on the brain folds trying to make both sides mirror each other as much as you can. Cover the entire cake with folds.
3. Place raspberry sauce in a squirt bottle and fill in gaps in folds at random with raspberry sauce. Add raspberry sauce as you like, depending on how "bloody" you would like your brain cake.
Serve cake at room temp.