Camp and kitsch are always welcome in my kitchen, so long as flavor isn’t sacrificed (however, other sacrifices are fine… mwahaha), and this one takes the cake.
The colors of this Spooky Blackberry Cake just shriek “Halloween!” to me. Sure, it’s not orange and black, but purple and green are almost secondary colors to the holiday in my book—kind of like gold and silver are to the red and green of Christmas. Maybe it’s the green of the Wicked Witch’s skin and the purple of her brew; maybe it’s the color scheme of cartoon Frankenstein (or, more accurately, his monster); or maybe it’s the triad that orange, green and purple create on a color wheel that make these colors so striking for Halloween, but there’s something arguably creepy, and undeniably campy about colors so gauche. The color palette of Halloween is just as shockingly neon as it is darkly malevolent—it’s as much about the living as it is the dead.
Much as I love all things camp I can’t, as I’ve said, entirely forgo flavor for the sole sake of it. Even the great Edward D. Wood Jr. didn’t schlock up his films for the gratuitous sake of being gratuitous—although, that’s a whole different story. This cake has incredible flavor. The cake itself is flavored with blackberry, and boy is it ever, while the buttercream is a sharp shock of lime. You may not think of blackberry and lime as Halloween flavors, but think of it as a fresh version of sweet-and-sour candies in cake form.
It gets its blackberry flavor from a combination of heavily reduced blackberry puree, and a little bit of blackberry extract. Normally I’m not a fan of flavorings and extracts being used as an actual flavoring device—even the best of the best vanilla extract can be, if leaned on too much, off-putting—but this one is impressive. Minimal amounts of it actually taste like real, fresh blackberries; with actual blackberries the flavor is amplified tremendously. It can be tough adding fruit purees to cakes; it can throw off the pH causing it to not rise properly, or the flavor can get lost. The first bite of this cake and there’s no question—it’s blackberry. There’s nothing to stop you from making this cake in the summer when blackberries are more in season, but frozen work just as well (I actually rely heavily on a stash of bags of them I have in the freezer from when they were in season); you’re going to cook them down anyway.
The cake is frosted with an Italian buttercream that’s flavored with lime. This is not the typical American buttercream, which is nothing more than copious amounts of powdered sugar beaten into soft butter; Italian buttercream differs vastly. That’s not to say it’s complicated or difficult, it just a little time and comes with a bit of waiting around. You start by heating together corn syrup and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat until it melts, and reaches 240°. Use a saucepan that fits everything adequately because you cannot stir it to combine, so just swirl and shake the pan gently—as the corn syrup heats and loosens a bit it’ll moisten the sugar granules.
Meanwhile, you whip egg whites in a stand-up mixer until you have stiff peaks—don’t over whip them to the point where they get dry, though—at which point you add fresh lime zest to the readied and bubbly syrup, and very slowly, VERY carefully pour the whole thing into the egg whites, machine whipping all the while. They’ll thicken and go glossy, looking like the most flawless meringue you’ve ever seen, save for a few flecks of green of course. This has to beat for a long while on medium until it cools down to about 70° (or no more than 75°). I’ve read countless recipes that clock this in at around 10 minutes—out of all the times I’ve made Italian buttercreams, never has it cooled even remotely close to 70° within 10 minutes, so play on 15 – 20 minutes. It is crucial that that it cool down to this because you’re going to add a truly sinister and sinful amount of softened butter. If the egg whites are too hot, the butter will melt and the frosting will get oily and running, turning the frosting to a liquid vat of something similar to melted ice cream, and there’s no coming back from that. Once it has devoured all the butter, it gets a final spike of lime juice to help counter the sweet richness of the frosting.
The whole thing gets covered in blackberry drip. It’s basically a doctored up royal icing, but it really drives the point home… or you could say, it’s the final nail in the coffin. It’s best to chill the frosted cake a bit before cascading the drip; it helps the drip to solidify a little quicker and gives it something to cling to.
As you’ve probably noticed, there’s a fair amount of food dye here. Outside of red velvet or royal icings, I don’t normally go for dying and coloring—I’m perfectly happy with my Lemon Cheesecake being deceptively pail, or my Margarita Cheesecake lacking the certain electric shock to your retinas that you’d get from its namesake—but given that it’s Halloween, a time of year where, all serious traditions aside, we worship the Dayglo rainbow of sugar filling our little plastic Jack-O-Lantern buckets to the brim, I make an exception. It is important that you use gel paste or liquid gel dyes; the usual liquid dyes in those teardrop-shaped bottles that many of us grew up with are less intense in color so more is needed to get a good color and, because they’re water-based, it can water down your cake or frosting. The gel dyes, be it liquid gels (usually in little squeeze bottles) or gel pastes, are very concentrated in their color and contain little water so they alter the recipe much less if at all. Just mix the purple into the milk and the green into the lime juice until they dissolve completely (no little bits, flecks, chunks) for the cake and frosting respectively. It can be tricky to add the dye into the batter without dissolving it in a liquid first, as they are very thick and tend to not mix into things evenly, so you want to try to get the color as close to what you want initially.
One look at this cake and your eyeballs will pop right outta their sockets. Cut it open and the shock will make your head explode! Take a bit and whatever is left of your face will melt right off! It’s awesome—you’re going to love it. So give it a try this Halloween… or else!
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