If you’re looking for a frightfully good chocolate cake for your Halloween party, then look no further! Layers of chocolate cake are filled and frosted with Death Wish Coffee ganache, which will keep specters dancing until dawn. Botanical icing sheets and a gold-covered chocolate skull make this cake hauntingly beautiful.
Halloween is next week (!!!) and I’ve been eager to make something special for the occasion. I’m not sure why, but this year I’ve been really keen on pairing skeletons and botanicals for spooky seasonal decor (see my DIY Skeleton Botanical Art here!). It stems from my love for vanitas, which is a type of symbolic still life art. It incorporates reminders of the brevity of life, and ephemeral items like the ones shown in the above photo: bones, fruit, flowers, smoke.
Earlier this year I’d tucked away a cache of printed icing sheets for just the right inspired moment, and after digging them out, a dramatic floral caught my eye. It was perfect for this vanitas-inspired confection.
The first order of business is to create the chocolate skull topper. I used this mold which also makes excellent sugar skulls for Day of the Dead. You’ll need about 20 ounces of chocolate candy coating to fill the mold cavities. Freeze the molds, uncovered, until solid. They should turn out quickly and cleanly in their frozen state. Bring the two pieces to room temperature before joining them.
To join the skulls, use a chef’s torch or a heated nonstick pan to melt the flat side of the larger skull piece. Join the two pieces together and hold until set, about 2 minutes. Cover the assembled skull with corn syrup or piping gel (I used FondX) and sprinkle with nontoxic gold disco dust.
The sticky piping gel separated and veined a little after being brushed on, but I really like the creepy end result! The skull will need 24 hours to dry before being handled.
Last month Fair Trade sent me a box of coffees including a bag of Death Wish whole beans. This coffee is touted as ‘World’s Strongest Coffee” and I believe it! It has a rich aroma and the beans are pitch black. I decided to make an infused ganache with the beans and also added a brewed cup to the chocolate cake batter. This gave the cake deep, dark roasted coffee flavor, not to mention a super jolt of caffeine!
The cake batter is portioned into six 6-inch pans, which made the cake tall enough to display most of the beautiful frosting sheet. It appears that the one I used for this cake is temporarily sold out, but there are many other beautiful sheets to choose from.
One of the most important things to do when applying an icing sheet to a cake is to make sure the cake’s edges are completely straight. Otherwise, the frosting sheet will be wavy and wrinkle. Luckily, we’re using ganache to frost the cake, which is one of best mediums to achieve straight cake sides. Having said that, it helps to begin with straight-sided baking pans, and a good cake leveler. A cake scraper is essential to this task as well. I always use a cake turntable for even frosting, but a less expensive lazy susan will work with a cake placed on a cake stand and positioned in the center of it.
Evenly brush piping gel on the set ganache, and place a single 8×10 icing sheet upright around one side of the cake. An Xacto knife with a new blade will be your BFF here, because you’ll need to trim the extra frosting sheet away from the top of the cake.
Measure the remaining uncovered portion of the cake and cut a rectangular template about 3 inches longer than your measurement using scissors and a sheet of parchment.
Roll black fondant to 1/4-inch thickness and use the template and an Xacto knife to cut out the shape. Prep uncovered ganache on the cake with a light brushing of piping gel and then wrap the fondant around the cake.
Use your hands or a fondant smootherto make the surface even. Use your fingers to pinch the edges of the fondant and roll them back slightly to make ruffled edges on either side of the icing sheet. Use a small art brush to dry brush gold luster dust to the edges of the ruffles.
Final flourishes include blackberries brushed with a kiss of gold dust, a small branch of food-safe greenery, and gold coffee beans (achieved by shaking them in a small cup with luster dust). I’d molded a chocolate skeleton key, but it broke in half when I turned it out. I still really loved the broken ornate key, so I stuck half of it upright next to the skull.
This cake is richly infused with strong coffee and its flavor is unmistakable. It is a treat for true coffee lovers. It’s a bit contradictory to the cake’s theme, because this is something to eat when you want to feel alive, thanks to the 54.2 mg of caffeine per fluid oz.!
A small slice of this cake definitely put pep in my step, and was delicious with a tall glass of ice cold milk. If you’re not up for a super caffeinated version of this cake, then you could opt for a milder Fair Trade Certified Coffee.
Vanitas Chocolate Cake with Death Wish Coffee Ganache
- 3 ounces fine-quality semisweet chocolate
- 1 1/2 cups hot brewed Death Wish Coffee or hot water
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 cups sugar
- 1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder not Dutch process
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
- 3 large eggs
- 3/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 cups full fat sour cream
- 3/4 teaspoon vanilla
- 2 1/2 cups heavy cream
- 1 cup Death Wish whole bean coffee
- 2 cups 24 oz. chopped chocolate
Skull Topper and Décors
- Skull candy mold see post for source
- 20 oz. chocolate candy coating melted
- Piping gel or corn syrup
- Gold disco dust
- 8 ×10 floral frosting sheet see post for sources
- 1/2 lb. ready-made black fondant
- Gold luster dust
- 8-10 fresh blackberries
- Food safe greenery
- 8-10 whole coffee beans
- For the cakes: preheat oven to 300°F. Grease six 6-inch round pans with shortening. Line bottoms with rounds of parchment paper and grease the paper.
- Finely chop chocolate and combine it in a bowl with hot coffee or hot water. Let mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.
- Sift together flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. In another large bowl with an electric mixer, beat eggs until thickened slightly and lemon colored (about 3 minutes with a standing mixer or 5 minutes with a hand-held mixer). Add oil, sour cream, vanilla, and melted chocolate mixture to eggs, beating until combined well. Add flour mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined. Divide batter between the pans and bake in the middle of the oven until the cake springs back when pressed in the center, approximately 40 minutes.
- Cool layers in pans for 15 minutes on racks. Run a thin knife around edges of pans and invert layers onto wire racks. Carefully remove parchment paper and cool layers completely. Level evenly with a serrated knife or cake leveler. Cake layers may be made 1 day ahead and kept wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator.
- For the ganache: heat the heavy cream in a saucepan until hot but not boiling. Add the coffee beans and remove from the heat. Let steep until the cream turns light brown. Re-heat the cream and strain into a 4 cup glass measure. You should have about 1 cup of coffee-infused heavy cream. If you have more, measure out 1 cup. If you have less, add a little heavy cream until you have one cup. Add the chocolate to the hot infused cream and let stand 1 minute. Whisk slowly until a shiny ganache forms. Refrigerate, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is of spreading consistency (about 30 minutes). Fill the cake layers with thin layers of the ganache and frost the outside of the cake evenly. Refrigerate until firm.
- For the skull topper: crumple two sheets of aluminum foil and place them on a baking pan. Balance a 3D skull mold (see post for sources) on top of the foil so that they stand evenly. Fill with the melted chocolate. Freeze the molds, uncovered, until solid. Bring the two pieces to room temperature before joining them. To join the skulls, use a chef’s torch or a heated nonstick pan to melt the flat side of the larger skull piece. Join the two pieces together and hold until set, about 2 minutes. Cover the assembled skull with corn syrup or piping gel and sprinkle with nontoxic gold disco dust. Let stand at room temperature overnight to set.
- For the frosting sheet and fondant: Evenly brush piping gel on the set ganache, and place a single 8×10 icing sheet upright around one side of the cake. Use an X-acto knife with a new blade to trim the extra frosting sheet away from the top of the cake if necessary. Smooth the frosting sheet with your hands to achieve a wrinkle-free surface.
- Measure the remaining uncovered portion of the cake and cut a rectangular template about 3 inches longer than your measurement using scissors and a sheet of parchment. Roll black fondant to 1/4-inch thickness and use the template and an X-acto knife to cut out the shape. Prep uncovered ganache on the cake with a light brushing of piping gel and then wrap the fondant around the cake. Use your hands or a fondant smoother to make the surface even. Use your fingers to pinch the edges of the fondant and roll them back slightly to make ruffled edges on either side of the icing sheet. Use a small art brush to dry brush gold luster dust to the edges of the ruffles.
- Finish the cake: Position the skull on the top center of the cake. Wrap the stems of the food-safe greenery with plastic wrap and insert the stems into the cake behind the skull. Garnish with blackberries and lightly brush them with gold luster dust. Place coffee beans in a small cup with 1/4 teaspoon gold luster dust: shake to coat. Garnish the top of the cake with gold coffee beans. Refrigerate until 1 hour before serving.