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Halloween Midnight Cake

October 31, 2011

“O what was that bird,” said horror to hearer,
“Did you see that shape in the twisted trees?
W.H. Auden “O Where Are You Going”

I have to admit, Halloween really isn’t my favourite holiday of the year. I don’t mean to be a big downer, but I don’t really enjoy giant parties or going out to clubs at the best of times and the added stress of dressing up usually puts me over the edge. But I don’t like not doing anything for Halloween! So this year, my friend Jenn came up with what will now be our annual “Treat-a-Stein”, an evening of making tons of delicious Halloween treats then eating them. PERFECT.

I came up with this cake over a series of bus rides to and from the Vancouver Writers Festival, which is a wonderful festival filled with tons of creative and interesting people that always puts me in the right space to come up with something new. There are so many Halloween treat recipes out there but I really wanted to come up with something new this year. This Midnight Cake is dark throughout with mostly dark decorations and I like that it’s the textures that stand out more than the colours. It’s the first time I’ve come up with a cake myself (how baked goods are composed is still a mystery to me) but I’m glad I did it, since I wanted to focus on “dark” ingredients not only in colour but also in flavour. It’s a layer cake with ganache icing and all three parts, plus decorations, are outlined below.

I didn’t think of it when I was first conceptualizing the cake, but it really reminds me of W.H. Auden’s “O Where Are You Going”, which I first read in high school and loved immediately. The rhythm of it gets stuck in my head a lot but I had almost forgotten the words until I started shaping the caramel tree and licorice birds and realized what a perfect Halloween image it really is.

Chocolate Espresso Cake

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/3 cup butter, room temperature
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
3 ounces chocolate
1.5 oz espresso (Katie passed on her espresso machine to me before leaving for Providence, but if you don’t have one, you could use strong coffee or instant coffee/espresso powder – in this case, add a bit more milk)
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 1/3 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
pinch of salt
1 cup milk

In a large bowl, beat sugar and butter until fluffy, then beat in egg and vanilla. In a pot on the stove (very low heat!), melt chocolate then beat in espresso and cocoa powder. Let cool until warm rather than hot, and whisk into butter/sugar/egg/vanilla mixture until well-combined. Add about a third of the flour and beat in, then about a third of the milk and repeat until everything is combined. On the second addition of flour, add the extra ingredients (baking powder, baking soda, salt). Pour into a buttered and floured springform pan (8″ or 9″) and bake at 350 degrees for about 35 minutes, until a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean. Let cake cool completely, then with a long serrated knife, cut in half producing two thin layers. Gather some crumbs for the ground (see Decorations below).

Melted Chocolate Middle Layer

1 cup chocolate (this is really approximate – basically, as much as you think you’ll use)
1 tsp to 1 tbsp butter (this depends on whether you want to keep the chocolate in the fridge or out – butter will soften the chocolate so use a bit less butter if you’re keeping it at room temperature so it doesn’t fail to form)

Melt the two together then let cool. I had to put it in the fridge (and even freezer), stirring frequently before it hardened. Spread on the bottom layer of the cake, then place the top layer above. Don’t try to form this layer if the chocolate it too melty or else the weight of the top layer will displace the chocolate.

This layer provides a nice crunch for the cake, plus what’s more delicious than chocolate and butter?!

Chocolate Espresso Ganache

1 cup chocolate
1 tsp butter
1 oz espresso
1/2 cup whole cream

Melt chocolate and butter together. In a separate pot, boil cream and espresso together until just at boiling point, then whisk slowly into the melted chocolate. Let stand in the fridge until just starting to become spreadable rather than liquid. Spread on the top and sides of the cake.


This is definitely the most exciting part of the cake! I’m sure there are tons of creative things that can be done with this scene, but here’s what I did:

Caramel Tree: Heat 1/3 cup sugar on low until the sugar melts. I used a silicone mat to form the shape, which was PERFECT but you could try parchment paper as a good alternative. Using a spoon, pour the base of the tree then branches spreading out from it. My recommendation is to not be too careful – I did mostly random strokes and it ended up looking quite good. My tree was a bit big, so I let it hang over the edge.

Licorice Birds: I found black licorice cylinders in the bulk section and was able to cut these down to shape. They were about 2 inches long and .5 inches in diameter. I cut these lengthwise to make flat rectangles, then shaped the parts of the birds, usually separately (sticking the pieces together usually works, but you can always just place them on the ganache). My best tip is to google image search “crow silhouette” for shape ideas. Feather the wings and tail by making about 3 to 4 lengthwise cuts.

Ground: Before adding the middle chocolate layer to the cake, gather some crumbs from the bottom layer of the cake. Sprinkle around the bottom of the cake, letting some spill over the side and onto the caramel tree.

Moon: Take a tealight out of its metal casing and cut a hole in the cake of the same size. Nestle the tealight in the cake and light just before serving.

Stars: I found these “silver koufetta” at a Greek import store near my house – I had remembered seeing them there about a year ago! I wasn’t able to find them at Safeway, but they’re probably easy to find at specialty cooking stores. In the states, no foods can contain metal, so these can only be sold as inedible decorations – something to keep in mind when trying to scan the baking aisle.

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