A Little Night Circus Cake

November 21st, 2011

Darkness to Light Cake inspired by The Night Circus on dessertfirstgirl.com

I rarely mention my non-food-related reading here (and judging from the pile of new cookbooks on my kitchen table, leisure reading time is at a premium these days), but I thought I’d have to mention The Night Circus as I haven’t made any literature-inspired recipes recently . (By the way, for all you Song of Ice and Fire fans, this is the most amazing fansite out there.)

The Night Circus is a novel about magic, but a kind of magic far removed from the carefully delineated, all-encompassing sorcery of the Harry Potter world. Magic in this world is a mysterious, shadowy phenomenon practiced by a rare few. Although at least one character has certain “systems” for wielding magic, no elaboration follows. I found this nebulousness frustrating, but in the end I realized that the author wasn’t really interested in exploring the hows and whys of the feats of fancy in her book. Magic is a conduit to create some fantastical and evocative imagery, and lead the reader into a world where everything is deliberately, delightfully, extraordinary.

In that sense, if you accept that the Night Circus isn’t story-driven, but a series of gorgeously imagined set pieces (much like a circus, really), I find it very successful at capturing an otherworldly feast for the senses. The book gets surprisingly meta about it: the creator of the night circus is intent on creating the perfect, immersive experience for the audience that will dazzle them through beauty and elegance, not gaudiness. Later, a sort of fan club of the circus springs up, devoted to obsessively cataloging and analyzing the wonders of the circus. All this provides plenty of opportunity for the author to spin some truly lovely imagery: a maze made of clouds, a ship made of books sailing a sea of ink, a wishing tree covered in white candles. The circus itself is appropriately elegant and exciting; seemingly endless walls of black-and-white-striped tents hide surprises around every corner, and air always smells of chocolate and caramel.

Maybe I have a weakness for turn of the century illusionry; regardless, The Night Circus is an easy read and leaves you feeling like you’ve stepped out of the concerns of day-to-day and you’ve been allowed to indulge in the pleasure of wonder – certainly something I found very enjoyable.

Darkness to Light Cake inspired by The Night Circus on dessertfirstgirl.com

Since there were numerous mentions of carnival-themed food in the novel, it inspired me to make my own circus-y cake. I wanted to capture the black and white theme of the circus, so I came up with a dark chocolate glaze set with white chocolate plaques. But since there’s whimsy and surprise in the circus, instead of making the inside of the cake all black and white as well, I decided to do a gradient of colors.

Darkness to Light Cake inspired by The Night Circus on dessertfirstgirl.com

There’s no food coloring, just different flavors. The bottom cake layer is devil’s food, the middle layer caramel cake, and the top layer white cake. The filling is caramel buttercream – I struggled the most with the caramel cake because I didn’t feel like it had enough caramel flavor, so having caramel buttercream definitely helped. I really liked how the different color layers worked out – maybe it looks like something you might find at a circus that mysteriously appears in your town, is only open after sunset, and is filled with marvels you thought only existed in your imagination?

So the recipe looks really long, but it’s really nothing trickier than baking three different cake flavors and assembling them. I didn’t add in the part about the white chocolate plaques, but if you want to add them, you just have to temper some white chocolate, pour it out on some food-grade acetate, and score it into thin strips as it’s setting. Maybe if I made this cake again I’d string some lights around it as well for that extra magical glow.

Well, with Thanksgiving this week, the holidays are just about upon us, so it’s about time to start feeling magical. Hopefully the cake (or the book) will help you make a start!

Darkness to Light Cake inspired by The Night Circus on dessertfirstgirl.com

Darkness to Light Cake

makes about 8 servings

White Cake

  • 7/8 cup (97 g) cake flour
  • 1 teaspoon (5 g) baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 4 tablespoons (56 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 5/8 cup (125 g) sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 g) vanilla extract
  • 3/8 cup (87 g) whole milk
  • 1 1/2 (45 g) large egg whites

Caramel Cake

  • 1/2 cup (100 g) + 5/8 cup (125 g) sugar
  • 1 cup (140 g) all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon (5 g) baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 g) salt
  • 5 tablespoons (71 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 large egg, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup (115 ) whole milk

Chocolate Cake

  • 2/3 cup (94 g) all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup (23 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3/8 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon (1 g) baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 5 tablespoons (71 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup (50 g) light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup (56 grams) sugar
  • 1 1/2 (75 g) large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 g) vanilla extract
  • 2 ounces semisweet (61%) chocolate, melted
  • 1 ounce bittersweet (72%) chocolate, melted
  • 1/4 cup (58 g) whole milk

Caramel Buttercream

  • 8 tablespoons (113 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 cups (220 g) confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 tablespoons caramel syrup from caramel cake recipe

Chocolate Ganache

  • 2 1/2 ounces semisweet (61%) chocolate, finely chopped
  • 2 1/2 ounces bittersweet (72%)chocolate, finely chopped
  • 6 fl oz heavy cream
  • 1 ounce trimoline or corn syrup

For the white cake:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8" round pan, line with parchment paper, and grease the parchment paper (you can also use a 6" round pan for a higher cake).
  • Sift cake flour, baking powder, and salt together in a small bowl and set aside.
  • Combine butter and sugar in bowl of stand mixer and beat until light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes.
  • Combine the milk and vanilla extract together in a measuring cup. Add the flour mixture and the milk mixture to the stand mixer in 5 alternating additions, beginning and ending with the flour. Let each addition incorporate fully, scraping down the sides, before adding the next addition.
  • Scrape batter out into a clean bowl. Place egg whites in a clean stand mixer bowl. Whip until soft peaks form.
  • Fold the egg whites carefully into the batter. Pour the batter into prepared pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until a cake tester comes out with just a few crumbs on it. Remove from oven and let cool.

For the caramel cake:

  • Make the caramel syrup first. Place the 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup of water in a saucepan. Cook on medium heat until sugar melts and comes to boil. When the syrup becomes dark golden, remove from heat and add in another 1/2 cup boiling water. Let syrup cool to room temperature before using.
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8" round pan, line with parchment paper, and grease the parchment paper (you can also use a 6" round pan for a higher cake). Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl and set aside.
  • Combine remaining 5/8 cup sugar and butter in bowl of stand mixer and beat until light and fluffy, about 3-5 minutes.
  • Slowly pour in about 3 tablespoons of caramel syrup, letting each one incorporate fully before adding the next.
  • Add in the egg and beat until combined.
  • Add the flour mixture and milk in five alternating additions, beginning and ending with the flour. Let each addition incorporate fully, scraping down the sides, before adding the next addition.
  • Scrape batter into prepared pan. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until a cake tester comes out with just a few crumbs on it. Remove from oven and let cool.

For the chocolate cake:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8" round pan, line with parchment paper, and grease the parchment paper (you can also use a 6" round pan for a higher cake).
  • Combine flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl and set aside.
  • Combine sugars and butter in bowl of stand mixer and beat until light and fluffy, about 3-5 minutes.
  • Add in the eggs and beat until combined. Add in the vanilla and beat until combined.
  • Pour in both melted chocolates and beat until combined.
  • Add the flour mixture and milk in five alternating additions, beginning and ending with the flour. Let each addition incorporate fully, scraping down the sides, before adding the next addition.
  • Add in a 1/4 cup boiling water and beat until combined.
  • Scrape batter into prepared pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until a cake tester comes out with just a few crumbs on it. Remove from oven and let cool.

For the caramel buttercream:

  • Place butter in bowl of stand mixer and beat until soft and creamy.
  • Add confectioners' sugar, a 1/2 cup at a time, until fully incorporated and buttercream and is smooth.
  • Add in vanilla extract and caramel syrup and beat until fully combined.

To assemble the cake:

  • Level off the cake layers so they are flat on top and equal in height. Place chocolate cake layer on a cake round and spread a layer of caramel buttercream on top.
  • Place caramel cake layer on buttercream and spread another layer of caramel buttercream on top.
  • Place the white cake layer on top. At this point you can frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining caramel buttercream as either a crumb coat or final coat, or you can glaze with chocolate ganache.

For the ganache:

  • Place chocolates in a large metal bowl.
  • Combine cream and trimoline in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Pour over the chocolates, let sit for a minute, and stir to combine into a smooth glaze.
  • Let glaze cool slightly before pouring over the top of the cake. Use an offset spatula to help guide the glaze but don't spread it too much or it will ruin the finish - just a few strokes to direct glaze to any bare spots. Let glaze set at room temperature before serving cake.

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29 Comments so far ↓

  • Jim T #1

    Really lovely cake! I read this book just a few weeks ago and actually drafted up an entire dessert party themed around it. Nice to see I wasn’t the only one so inspired.

  • gloria #2

    Look perfect and georgeous! amazing:)

  • Lisa #3

    I’m reading that book right now, and the cake is PERFECT! Sounds yummy and looks amazing.

  • Choc Chip Uru #4

    This is truly delicious looking! Something different and with so many flavours – it seems fantastic! Great presentation as well :)

  • Jodie #5

    Love this idea! Gorgeous cake!

  • sue #6

    This looks amazing I wish I could make it right now.

  • Jesica @ Pencil Kitchen #7

    I literally went O_O – when i saw the ingredients…. Then I thought… “eh, worth it” :p

    • Anita #8

      I know, I’m trying to figure out how to format recipes so they look nicer! For this recipe, yeah, there’s no way not to make the ingredient list look intimidating…but it’s really a lot of the same ingredients over and over again! It’s not that different from making a layer cake, I promise you!

  • jess☆ @ Multicultural Melbourne #9

    That looks absolutely incredible… loving the different cake combos!

  • anneliesz #10

    I love that the book inspired the flavors and execution of this cake. Fantastic and magical in its own right.

  • frchgrl #11

    Hi, you say to “add boiling water” for choc cake but you don’t say how much? Not in ingredient list. help! thanks!

  • Amy @ Eggies Canada #13

    This looks like a delicious and elegant cake perfect for a romantic dinner.

  • Karen | Divine Dinner Party #14

    Magical… that’s how I would describe this gorgeous looking cake!

  • Cristina #15

    It’s amazing recipe, the flavors and the aspect are perfect. Yestarday I prepared my version and it’s definitive delicious.
    I follow you :)

  • Lucie #17

    I tried this recipe…
    My caramel cake did not come out with caramel color- It look like the whitecake.. How did you get it to this color?

    Chocolate Cake recipe.. In your instruction it advises to Add in a 1/4 cup boiling water and beat until combined … Is this correct? I didn’t do this because it wasn’t part of your ingredient list
    Everyone Liked the cake- I thought it was a bit too sweet…
    PS- I enjoy your Blog very much- Thanks for all your hard work…

    Rgds
    Lucie

    • Anita #18

      Hi Lucie,

      The color of the caramel cake depends on how dark you made the caramel syrup. If it isn’t dark enough for you, you can always add a little food coloring to the batter. I wouldn’t add more caramel syrup because it will mess up the consistency of the cake.

      Also, yes, the water is part of the chocolate cake recipe. If you don’t add it, I imagine it would be a little denser, but I haven’t tried it. Thanks for making the recipe!

  • Anita #19

    Thanks all for the kind comments! It was a fun (labor-intensive) project but I hope you enjoyed the results!

  • Maria #20

    Hi, this is such a cool idea! Something that both kids and grown-ups are sure to get a kick out of! I share Mexican recipes with my readers and so I added a Mexican touch to this and posted it on my blog: http://www.mexfoodrecipes.com. Check it out! Have a great day, Maria

  • Fullest of Life #21

    This cake looks amazing! I love the idea of making a vanilla, chocolate and caramel layer cake. It inspired me to make my own version: link to fullestpartoflife.blogspot.com

    Keep up the great work :-)

  • Roxanne #22

    Hi
    your cake looks so delish!
    I plan to make it this weekend. I have a question, does the corn syrup help to set the ganache? or can I do without it?
    thanks for the help!

    • Anita #23

      Hi Roxanne,
      The corn syrup helps give the ganache more shine and makes it more pourable, but you can leave it out and it will still work. Thanks and happy baking!
      Anita

  • Dada #24

    Hi Anita

    This is so an amazing recipe! I wonder, if I could make this cake two days before the event? Do you have any ideas about the longliving of this cake?

    Thank you for the help and the inspiration!

    • Anita #25

      Hello Dada,

      You can probably make the cake and keep it refrigerated for a couple days, but the longer you keep it the more it might dry out. Also, it could pick up smells from the refrigerator unless you have a separate refrigerator. I might make the cakes, wrap them tightly in plastic, store for no more than two days, and assemble the day of. Good luck!

  • Shantha #26

    Thank you for this awesome recipe. I just can’t figure out how you one and a half an egg. Could you please explim? Thank you.

    • Anita #27

      Hi Shantha,
      I think I give the weight of the eggs in grams, so if you beat the eggs together and just weigh out what you need, that would work. If you don’t have a scale, you can estimate – it should be fine. Good luck!

  • Brandais #28

    So the cake was really good, I made it for one of my co-worker’s birthday, but my middle layer did not turn out a caramel color it was almost white. Did I just not cook my caramel long enough to make it darker?

    • Anita #29

      Hello Brandais,

      Thanks for writing in! You may not have cooked the caramel long enough. The trick is to cook it until it’s quite dark amber, but not to let it burn and turn black. I’m glad it still tasted good though. Thanks for trying it!

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