Introduction: Flaming Skull Cake
This cake draws inspiration from Dante Alighieri's Inferno, specifically Canto XII and the seventh circle of Hell and the river Phlegethon, a river of boiling blood and fire.
Much like Phlegethon, this cake is hot both literally and figuratively. It's a jet black buttermilk chocolate cake spiked with chili wrapped in thick sweet frosting and sweet shards of black chocolate. Spicy hand pulled flames of cinnamon sugar rise from the surface and surround a jet black hand poured skull of pure chocolate.
Let's get started!
Step 1: Heads Will Roll...literally
Let’s start with the hard part first, the black molten lava skull.
(for the purpose of this tutorial I am using white chocolate as it's easier to see exactly what I'm doing and it photographs better than the black chocolate.)
This is a step that can be done quite a while ahead of time (as in days or weeks, depending on your schedule). Plan for at least 2 1/2 hours to make the skull as it is a little labor intensive.
Start with a skull mold. There are a number of them online for purchase right now. My personal favorite is one I picked up a while ago that is a 1:1 anatomically correct mold in food-safe silicone.
You’ll also need:
- 1 ½ bags black candy melts
- ¼ bag yellow candy melts
- ¼ bag red candy melts
Assemble the two halves of the upper cranium and secure. I placed mine inside a box that just happens to be almost the perfect size to hold the two halves together. I brace the sides with a little extra foam to keep it from wiggling.
Melt down ½ bag of your black candy melts. You can do this either by placing them in a crock pot or electric fondue pot set to low, or by zapping in the microwave for 30 seconds at a time and stirring between cookings.
Once your candy melts are melted and smooth, pour the entire pot into the half of your mold that makes up the upper cranium. Tilt the mold back and forth to make sure you get an even coat on all sides. A pastry brush can also assist in getting the chocolate into the grooves and spots that might be a bit tougher to reach just by tilting. Set this aside and allow the chocolate to cool.
Melt the other ½ of your first bag of black candy melts and repeat the process with the lower portion of the mold, again allowing it to cool and harden.
Melt your third and final ½ bag of candy melts, but this time allow it to cool almost to room temperature. You want to be able to pour it into your mold without having it melt through the layer you’ve already poured.
When it’s cooled down enough, pour the entire bag into the upper half of your cranium and then assemble the mold, placing the two halves together. Make sure your mold halves are secured together. I use a strap wrapped around the entire thing to make sure all the pieces stay where they are supposed to stay.
Now comes the fun part…rotational casting.
Step 2: I Lava You So Much!
Carefully start rotating your mold around 360 degrees. You want to make sure that the liquid chocolate inside the mold fully coats and covers every inch of the mold which means you have to turn it upside down and all around.
Do this for a good hour. It’s a workout, but worth it.
Now place your mold in the fridge. Every five minutes for the next 30 minutes, rotate your mold by flipping it onto each side.
At the end of those thirty minutes, turn the whole thing upside down so the front of your skull is facing down and leave it alone for 2 hours! WALK AWAY. Go watch a movie. Take a stroll. Do whatever you want, but leave the mold alone.
When it comes time to open the mold, do it carefully. Gently rock the silicone pieces back and forth to help release their hold on your chocolate.
Be prepared, you’re going to have breaks. It happens…but for this cake, it’s okay… If it happens, save the pieces and you can either glue it back together using more liquid candy melt, or simply leave it broken and tell everyone you meant to do that. In fact, when I was unmolding the black skull for this cake, my hands slipped and I dropped it, knocking a huge hole in the back. Rather than panic and remold the whole thing, I just rolled with it…and I’m glad I did. I think it looks better with the hole back there. In fact, I’m so happy with it, I’m gonna just tell anyone who asks that it was intentional.
Now let’s decorate it and make it look even creepier! Start by melting down your red and yellow candy melts. Using a paintbrush or toothpick, carefully drizzle these across your skull along the natural bone joints and seams.
To give it the appearance of melting and being made of molten lava, melt your red and yellow candy melts until liquid smooth and then, using a thin paintbrush or toothpick, dribble the two colors over the top of your skull down where natural cracks appear and out of the eye and nasal cavity areas. Again, the placement of your lava is totally up to you. Do what makes you happy!
Set your skull aside and let’s work on the rest of this massive bastard, starting with the cake.
Step 3: Bake Me a Cake As Fast As You Can...
To make your own Inferno cake, you will need:
- 3 Cups flour
- 3 Cups sugar
- 1 1/2 Cup dark cocoa powder
- 1 Tablespoon baking soda
- 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 4 eggs
- 1 Cup buttermilk
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 1 cup brewed espresso (can be substituted with 1 cup warm water and 2 Tablespoons espresso powder)
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
- Black chocolate skull
Start by preheating your oven to 350F/170C.
Mix together your dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, mix together your wet ingredients.
Drizzle your wet ingredients over your dry and mix to combine.
Place into 2 greased and floured circular cake pans (I used 2 8" pans) and bake for between 45-50 minutes.
Step 4: Sugar Sugar
While your cakes are cooking, it's time to make your sugar flames.
For these you will need:
- 2 cups sugar
- 3/4 cup white corn syrup
- 1 1/4 cup warm water
- Cinnamon oil
- Red food coloring
- Yellow food coloring
In a large pot, combine together your sugar, corn syrup and warm water. Simmer on medium and stir until all your sugar is dissolved. Once all the sugar is dissolved, turn your heat up to medium-high and allow to reach 300F/148C. DO NOT STIR YOUR SUGAR AT ALL WHILE THIS IS HAPPENING. Just ignore it. I mean, don't totally ignore it...you don't want it to boil over or anything...but just don't touch it. Leave it alone.
Once it reaches 300F/148C (the hard crack stage) turn off the heat and stir in your cinnamon oil and your yellow food coloring. Be careful, it will bubble and steam as the cool oil hits the hot sugar. Do not breathe in the steam...it will burn!
Using a ladle, spoon a small amount of liquid sugar onto a Silpat (silicone baking sheet) and drag out into a flame like shape. Add a drop of red food coloring to the base of your flame shape and use a toothpick to swirl the color into the still liquid sugar. Allow to cool for about 2 minutes. By then the sugar should be just cool enough to touch. Carefully peel off of your Silpat and twist into flame shapes. Set aside to fully cool and firm up.
Do this with the rest of your sugar.
Step 5: Slather on That Frosting
By now your cakes should be done. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a rack.
Once they’re completely cool, we’re going to level them off and then start icing them.
To make the buttercream icing you will need:
- 2 sticks (1 cup) room temp salted butter
- 5 cups powdered sugar
- ½ cup whole milk (or cream if you really want to make it rich and thick)
- 2-3 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Red food coloring
- Yellow food coloring
Sift your powdered sugar into the bowl of your mixer and then add in your softened butter and vanilla. Whisk on high until fully incorporated. Slowly add the milk one tablespoon at a time until you achieve a thick, heavy frosting.
Divide your frosting into two bowls and color one bowl red and one bowl yellow. Slather on a thick layer on top of one cake and gently set the second on top of that.
Next, layer scoops of your red and your yellow on both cakes, using your spreader to blend the colors along the edges like flames.
Now we’ll be creating the cracked lava surface of the cake.
To make this, you will need:
- 1/2 cup Black candy melts
- 1/4 cup Red candy melts
- 1/4 cup Yellow candy melts
Melt all three of your candy melts down until they’re smooth and liquid. Pour your black candy melts out onto a parchment paper lined cookie sheet in a thin, flat layer and allow to cool.
When it’s cooled, crack the black candy melt sheet into smaller shards.
Gently press these shards all around the surface of your cake, using the buttercream frosting as your glue. Try to fit the pieces together in such a way that they look almost as though they were once a solid piece. Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be perfect.
Take a toothpick or small paintbrush and drizzle your red and yellow candy melts along the edges of your black shards just like you did with the black skull in the steps above. This will give them the appearance of being molten. If you’re planning on using a light beneath your skull to give the appearance of fire, I suggest hollowing out a small depression in the center of your cake and dropping the light in there.
Step 6: Damned Good!
Now let’s start assembling the whole cake!
Place your black chocolate skull on the top of your cake. If you’re planning on using a light beneath it, I suggest hollowing out a small depression beneath your skull and dropping the light in there.
Once you get your skull positioned, start pressing your sugar flames into the surface of your cake.
This part is completely open to your own interpretation of inferno. Use as many or as few flames as you like.
Here is a short time-lapse video of me adding on my sugar flames.
Once you’re done with the placement of your skull and your sugar flames, step back and bask in the glow of your damn(ed) good Inferno cake!