Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Corpse Cake

Recently inspired by the Thorax Cake made by the cunningly creative and talented Barbara Jo at theyrecoming.com, a friend of mine insisted she wanted one for her upcoming birthday (themed as a wake for her passing youth). It's weird, disgusting and just too much fun so I agreed to make some kind of corpse cake. Just one problem.

I've never baked a cake in my life.

It's not as though I've never baked, but living off of Jiffy Mix Muffins in college doesn't quite cut it as experience. And I have never made frostings, glazes or worked with chocolate.

First, I gathered my resources for inspiration. I was worried that if I couldn't pull off delicious from-scratch cakes, I could at least work on accuracy and hope people would be either so put off by the organs or so drunk by the time the cake was cut, no one would care.

Not your usual cookbooks

About two weeks before the party, I baked a series of cakes. I needed the practice and I needed to make sure my oven would heat properly and evenly. It also gave me an opportunity to experiment with colors. This worked out great even though I used boxed cake mixes. After baking for a day and shaping the organs, I placed them in a tray to get a feel for how it would all come together.

A heartless display

I was really happy with the way it looked and now I could think hard about trying to get the tastes right. The list of cake flavors changed as I thought about them, but ultimately, this was the plan.

Heart - chocolate with seedless raspberry jam filling
Lungs - dyed white cake with pureed and rinsed blueberries swirled with plain white cake
Stomach - orange cake with lime custard filling
Liver - whiskey soaked "pound" cake (dyed a pale post-mortum orange)
Intestines - red velvet cake with lemon filling for the upper intestine and chocolate pudding for the lower intestine.
Ribs and Sternum - dark chocolate with white chocolate coating. I have to thank Barbara Jo for pointing out the troubles she had with solid white chocolate ribs/

Originally, I was going to make additional shoulder, abdominal and hip muscles and place a layer of marzipan skin over the whole thing, but this idea kept getting pushed aside as my energy and patience got sucked up in dealing with the ribs.

My friend, Holly, helped out with the shaping of the ribs. I bought 25 pounds of modelers clay and she suggested casting the whole front as one piece. At this point, I should point out that other than a horribly misshapen ashtray in 5th grade and an odd looking frog in 9th grade, I have never sculpted before. So, Holly sculpted the sternum and ribs and later I covered it in plastic wrap and cast the ribs in dark chocolate. I failed to take pictures of this process because I was hoping it would turn out perfect and all we needed were photos of the finished ribs.

Three days before the party, it was time to get the ribs out of the mold. I had all kinds of ideas ranging from flipping the mold over and pulling the clay away to magically lifting the ribs out. In the end, I decided to dig the clay out from under the ribs. This quickly went all wrong. Every time my hand went in to dig into the clay, it push about 25, then 20, then 15 pounds of clay against the ribs. By the end of the process, all but three ribs had snapped from the sternum.

How am I going to get this back together?

It was more than I could think about. I stuck it all in the freezer and worried about setting up the kitchen for what was about to happen. At this point, I have thank Tonda who made the Lime and Lemon custards, Jessica who shopped for the food colors and powdered meringue and Amie who lent me her Kitchen Aid and lots of cake pans. I popped up an extra table in the kitchen and started baking the cakes. While the cakes cooled, I went to work on the ribs.

I'll make this fairly short. Just imagine a some cursing, a little whining and many heavy sighs. I trimmed extra chocolate off each of the ribs using clay sculpting tools and did a quick test to see if the white chocolate would destroy the ribs. It didn't, but I found that once I got the white chocolate melted, it didn't need to stay at 200 degrees to still be workable. This prevented the dark chocolate from melting too much as I applied the white chocolate. To keep the rib cage supported during the rebuilding, I used some soda cans and aluminum foil. I was able to dip the broken ends of the ribs and literally glue them to the sternum. This took several hours of working with the chocolate for 10 minutes then putting it back in the freezer for 10 minutes.

Great! But can I get them off the foil without losing them?

In between dealing with the ribs, I succeeded in making a royal icing for the whiskey-soaked liver. The liver was baked with about a 1/2C of whiskey. I didn't realize that would make the cake collapse, but having it be very dense was okay. For the soaking, I wrapped the cake in a clean cloth and dribbled a little whiskey over it. Then the whole thing was wrapped in plastic wrap. I added a little more whiskey each day. When it came time to frost the liver, it had turned into a brick. A whiskey soaked, pale orange brick. It was perfect.

That's one pickled liver! (Pre-cirrhosis glaze)

The lungs came out so good, it seemed a shame to cover them in frosting, so attempted to make a simple sugar glaze. Unfortunately, I had no idea what I was doing and made a messy not-so-simple syrup. Despite the problems, it turned out alright. A friend who is a former EMT said, "the lungs are actually disturbing because they are glistening." Yay!

While I wanted to shape the cakes, Holly has experience at frosting so she came over and made the buttercreme frosting. Holly is an actual Artist so she turned the pink stomach into this horrifically distended organ and rolls of cake into the most amazing intestines. Then she frosted the heart and piped some veins on it. I know if I had attempted it, it would be all crumbled and possibly destroyed.

For the display, we used a 13" x 17" artists butcher tray. First the stomach went in, then the heart, Then the liver and the lungs. Then Holly worked some magic on the intestines. While I was working on the ribs. By this point, I was obsessing on the ribs, but prepared to just snap them all and shove them into some cake.

What was the cause of death? Smoker's lung? Cirrhosis of the liver? Enlarged heart?

Amazingly enough, the ribs didn't break at all as we got them off the mold and onto the cake. They were hanging a bit off the sides, but I had baked an extra red sponge cake for random meaty bits and so I simply stuffed it under and around the bottom layer.

The cake went back into the refrigerator and we got dressed. On the way over to the party, only one rib crack cracked and I ignored it. I had made up some simple syrup using corn syrup, red food dye and molasses and gave it an extra drizzle once we got to the party.

Cake delivered. Happy Birthday. Now it's time to soak my liver in whiskey.

Unfortunately, nobody got ill looking at the cake, but there were a couple of wrinkled noses. The most important part was that the Birthday Girl loved it. At one point she said, "The heart is black--like mine!" The liver, the lungs and the heart turned out the best in my opinion, but someone made off with portions of the ribs so I guess that was popular too.

It definitely looks more cake-like. I'm not sure if it looks more appetizing.

That's it. I'm done with this whole cake business. Well, until my birthday. I want a whole leg I can amputate....


  1. As the "Birthday Girl" I can say that this was the best friggin' cake I have ever seen!!! And for someone that doesn't bake it tasted awesome! When you find someone that loves you enough to make this cake then you know that you have found a true friend. Rock on!!!

  2. DieterDerBlau7/26/2005 1:35 PM

    Now THAT was a work of Art!!! WELL DONE, Scott!!!

  3. I know I'm late to this discussion..but Well Done Scott! I have a suggestion for you though, next time (if there is a next time!) try making the rib cage out of meringue. I made bones for a Halloween party last year and it was fun and easy. The cool thing is, that you could pipe the meringue over a glass bowl and get the curved effet, Then just pop it in the oven.
    Here's a link to a meringue "bone" recipe.

  4. Love your cake such a brilliant idea!