Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Halloween Food Tests: Liver Cake

Before everyone starts thinking I've really lost my mind (I have, but not for this reason), I should probably clarify that by 'liver cake' I mean a cake shaped like a liver not a cake made out of liver.  As much as I love liver I also like my guests to actually eat the food I serve, which tends to be challenging enough with the way it looks.  Making it out of weird things is probably pushing it a bit too far.  It's a shame, really.  I'm a big fan of offal (it's really good if it's prepared correctly) and I wouldn't mind having a table full of real organs for nibblies but there's that whole not everyone is as adventurous as I am thing and I despise wasting food.  So, for Halloween fare purposes I have to meet a different challenge; making food that looks like something it isn't.  Sure, I could just make normal hors d'eouvres and standard party food but where's the fun in that?

There are a ton of cutesy recipes out there for monster toes/fingers and the like, but cutesy isn't my style.  I do make some easier recipes, like soft pretzel 'bones', but I prefer the challenge of creativity.  This means figuring out the types of food I want to serve and then figuring out what horrific things I can do to them.  Making normal food weird is actually a lot harder than you might think.

My kitty poo cookies are a great example.  I had tried adapting various recipes but making kitty poo out of tootsie rolls just looks fake (seriously, they're all shiny and you can never really get them to look like anything besides shaped tootsie rolls) and trying to make a cookie that stays shaped like poo and tastes good is virtually impossible.   It wasn't until one of my bff's tried out a home-made truffle recipe that I got the eureka! I needed.  The (many) failed attempts at decent kitty poo cookies are the reason that I do a lot of recipe testing now.  You never really know how something is going to turn out until you try it.

That said, this year's theme means themed food and what better for a mad scientist's lab than to have a body, or rather parts of a body, on the table?  I almost went the failed lab experiments direction but I figured a body feast would be more fun (and recognizable).  Hence the liver cake.  You would not believe how hard it is to shape food like organs.  There are jello-type molds that will let you make hands, feet, hearts, and brains but that's about as far as it goes and there is only so much you can do with a mold that can't be stuck in an oven.  It took me a really long time to come up with how to make organs out of non-organ materials but I'm quite happy with this particular concept.

I was looking at different ways to shape cakes and I stumbled across a site that mentioned using cake pop filling to sculpt arms and legs for a dragon cake.  Having never made cake pops before the idea was far beneath my radar.  The concept is pretty simple (crumble a cake, mix with a binding agent like frosting and/or cream cheese, roll into balls, and dip) so it seemed like a great way to make something gruesome and delicious. 

Not being one to take the easy road I picked a cake that got rave reviews from everyone when I made it and decided to adulterate it until it looked the way I wanted.  No, it isn't my cake recipe; I'm a better microbiologist than chemist and baking takes a lot of chemistry to make it work properly.  All that remained was to turn it into something that looked like a liver.

Fresh out of the oven!
I used the Almost Tortuga Rum Cake recipe I found (and loved) for my luau.  It really is an amazing cake, I highly recommend it.  I didn't make the rum glaze because of what I was going to do to the thing but the cake recipe I followed exactly with one addition, food coloring.  The cake comes out this gorgeous yellow color and liver is a reddish brown so I started trying to get a better color.  I added red and green Wilton food dye gel (not normal watery food color, I knew it was going to take a lot and not adding extra water would likely be important) and mixed it in as best I could.  Of course, I ran into problems almost immediately.  My green gel had dried out enough that it refused to mix in well so I did have to use some regular green food coloring.

See that black spot?  It isn't black, it's green. 
That's where the glob of green dye landed. This is why fresh dye is important.

Even with being a weird color the cake came out looking gorgeous.  After it cooled I set to breaking the cake up.  I had to peel off the edge that ran around the cake because it was too stiff.  After I had gotten it crumbled I realized I probably should have peeled the lovely brown skin off the cake first.  The trouble with the way the cake browns is that the layer is thick enough and firm enough that it doesn't crumble well and it adds a really odd textural element to the cake.

Next I had to get some frosting prepared.  I couldn't find the shortening that it was suggested I use so I had grabbed a can of cream cheese frosting to use instead.  I mixed green and red dye in until the frosting was about the same color as the cake and then mixed it in with the cake crumbs.  It probably could have used a bit more frosting, the cake is quite large.

I did take a quick taste before shaping the cake to see how it was going.  Sadly, the cream cheese frosting did nothing positive to the overall flavor.  Now don't get me wrong, the frosting/cake mixture did not taste bad, but the "holy crap this cake is good" element was gone.  I wanted to retain that impact because, as I've said several times so far and will probably say a few more before I'm done, this cake is freaking awesome.  For frosting attempt number 2 used the family butter cream recipe with some slight alterations for flavor purposes.

Not the prettiest cake ever, but this is why we test things.  The next weekend I did it again and with much better results.  It came out very pretty.


The color turned out a lot better with fresher dye.  It's amazing how big a difference that makes.   I peeled the outer crust off the cake this time, which was odd.  It left me a hollow shell of a cake.  I'll have to come up with something fun to do with that at some point.  Once I had the cake all nice and crumbly, which it did much better this time hence the importance of skinning the thing, I whipped up some home made butter cream icing which I dyed to match.  Mixing the two together provided a delightful mixture that looked rather like dirt.  It's a little softer than the kitty poo cookie consistency but I bet it could work for that or for any other gross food shaping thing.  The new trouble was that there was way too much butter/grease in the cake.  The rum cake is a super moist cake even if you don't do the rum glaze and the butter from the icing was just too much.  For the final cake I'm just going to use icing sugar, food dye, and water (or maybe rum!) until it's the paste-like texture I need.  Happily the more frosting, less cake skin, better dye thing worked out really well for this try!

I think with a little more red in the cake and some bile sauce this may just be the most revoltingly delicious cake ever!

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