Monday, November 3, 2014

How to Make a Dragon Cake without a Special Pan (or Any Artistic Talent Whatsoever)

Last August, I made my daughter an Elsa cake for her third birthday, and posted a blog about how to do it. It was so well-received that I figured I’d post another one on making a dragon cake, which I just did for my son’s fifth birthday. This is the cake I was aiming for:

When I first saw the photo, I figured that it must call for a couple of round cake layers plus a square layer, or even a specially-shaped cake pan. But believe it or not, all the pieces are cut from a single cake mix baked in two round cake pans (8” or 9”). And instead of intricate details hand-drawn in icing, the dragon’s features (even his wings and fiery breath!) are made from cookies, candies, and fruit roll-ups. The most artistic thing you have to do for this cake is to cut out the dragon’s wings. Here’s what I used for the features – but I’m sure you can substitute lots of other kinds of cookies and candies for the various bits, depending on what you like and what you have on hand.
  • Scales: chocolate-covered graham crackers
  • Eyebrows and toes: orange slice gumdrops
  • Eyes: marshmallows and chocolate chips
  • Nostrils: Hershey’s kisses
  • Wings: Fruit roll-ups on a wooden skewer
  • Fiery breath: Fruit roll-ups
The first thing I do any time I make a fancy decorated cake like this is to lay out everything I need – there’s nothing worse than being halfway done and suddenly realizing that you’re out of licorice whips or red hots or that your cake stand is in the dishwasher or that some other item that you need is not close at hand. Doing this reminded me that this is not a cake that can be put together on my usual pedestal cake stand. You need a rectangular base roughly two feet by one and a half feet. I happen to have a large wooden cutting board that makes a nice, solid cake plate, so I covered that with heavy-duty foil (for width) and anchored it to the back of the board with a few pieces of Scotch tape. I leave the dull side of the foil out to avoid reflecting the camera flash too much in the inevitable photos.

 (Be sure the side with the drainage ditch is on the bottom!)

Once you have all the necessary ingredients and tools assembled, it’s time to get baking! Bake one standard cake mix (any flavor; I like golden yellow) in two 8” or 9” round cake pans. My mix called for greasing and flouring the pan, so I used the old trick of using a little of the cake mix instead of flour to coat the pan. Let the excess fall back into the batter before you mix it up. Don’t worry too much about getting exactly the same amount of batter in each pan – the two halves of one layer will be upright, back to back, and all the other pieces that do have to match in width come from the second layer. 

While the cake is baking, I clean up the mixing bowls so there’s room on the counter to cool the cakes. The rule in our house is that the birthday boy or girl gets first dibs on the beaters, but the baker gets to lick the bowl. Siblings have to make do with the spatula, or if the birthday kid is feeling exceptionally generous, they get to lick the second beater.

My mom could tell if a cake was done by how it sprung back when you touched it, but I always use the toothpick test. If the toothpick comes out with a trace of batter (or even some sticky crumbs) on it, give it 2 more minutes! Once it’s done, let the layers cool in the pans on a cooling rack for 15 minutes, then carefully flip them over and let them cool completely. Never try to frost a warm cake! The frosting will slide all over and make a big mess, and if you’re cutting the cake into pieces, it’s much easier once the cake is cool and firm.

While my cake was cooling, I traced one of the cake pans onto a piece of paper and made a template for cutting the pieces of one of the cakes. The second layer is simply cut in half to make the dragon’s body. Even I, with my lack of artistic skill, can do that without a template!

I cut the paper pattern pieces apart to make it easier to cut the cake pieces, and when the cake was thoroughly cooled, I trimmed off a bit of the rounded top of the cake so it laid nice and flat when I flipped it over (I’ve never mastered the art of baking layer cakes so they don’t crown), and carefully cut my rounds into their various dragon bits.

I laid two more pieces of regular foil on my cake base and put the cake rounds onto them, so I could slide them around as I worked. A serrated bread knife works best for the long, straight cuts – don’t saw back and forth, simply press straight down (this minimizes crumbs). For the curved cuts, I scored the cake with a paring knife first, then cut through with a serrated butter knife. I left the paper patterns on top of the pieces so I wouldn’t get confused about which piece was which.

Now comes the fun part: assembly! Before I laid out the pieces, I colored two tubs of store-bought white frosting to be sure they’d match (16 drops per tub gave a good, dragon-y shade of green). Then I stuck the two halves of the first layer together back to back (i.e., messy side to messy side!) to make the dragon’s body and stuck it to the board with a good blob of frosting. It turned out that I stuck it too close to the back edge of the board – I’d recommend starting with the tail instead. It’s much easier to center it on your board that way.

Then you just continue laying out the pieces, sticking them to the board and/or the adjacent piece(s) with frosting.

You can trim the pieces to fit if you like; the only piece I trimmed was the head, to make it a perfect rectangle. Don’t worry if there are gaps between the pieces. Those are easy enough to fill with frosting.

Speaking of frosting, time to frost your dragon! The best part about frosting a dragon is that dragon hide is kind of lumpy and wrinkly and anything but smooth. So don’t worry about gloppiness or swirls. It isn’t messy, it’s texture! If you want to get fancy, you can make it smooth and then use the tip of a spoon to form scales, or even use a star tip on a frosting bag. But I think the natural swirls of the frosting look very dragonish.

Next come the face, toes, and scales. For the face, turn two Hershey’s Kisses upside-down and push them into the cake to form the nostrils. For the eyes, get a nice fat marshmallow that hasn’t gotten squished out of shape in the bag, dip your kitchen shears in confectioner’s sugar (to minimize stickiness), and cut it in half. Push the half-mallows into the frosting right at the seam between the head and the neck pieces. Then push a chocolate chip into each marshmallow. I had a hard time getting the chips not to bounce back out from the springy marshmallows, so I used the tip of my shears to poke a little hole in the marshmallow so the chips would stay. The orange slices I had were disproportionately fat to make eyebrows, so I used my kitchen shears again to cut them in half, then I dipped the sticky side in granulated sugar.

Once my face was in place, I was ready to run a row of triangular scales the length of my dragon. Cutting the chocolate-covered graham crackers without shattering took a bit of finesse. I found that the most successful method was using a serrated knife and pressing or even rocking instead of sawing, much like cutting the cake. The pieces that broke off at the corner worked well at the base of the tail, or I cut them again, a bit smaller, to use toward the tip of the tail. Since the crackers are rectangles rather than squares, you have to cut each cracker twice, resulting in two triangular scales but also a long, skinny rhombus from which all the calories have leaked out. (In other words, go ahead and eat a few! You’ve earned them!)

Then I cut a few more orange slices for the toes: first, cut the slices in half (dipping in sugar as before), then cut the edges off at an angle to make claws. I used the sticky side to hold the toes in place instead of dipping them in sugar after these cuts. It’s up to you whether you make a three-toed dragon or a four-toed dragon. I kind of got sick of cutting up orange slices after three toes per foot, so voila! Three-toed dragon.

The penultimate step is making fiery dragon breath from fruit roll-ups. I found a package that had mixed colors in it, including “cherry orange wildfire,” which happens to be perfect for dragon breath. I snipped out some long tongues of fire and stuck them to the dragon’s snout, leaving a few of the top layers rippled for a 3-D effect.

I made the cake the day before my son’s birthday, so I decided to wait until right before the party to add the wings, in case they sank a bit overnight. So an hour or so before the party, I grabbed a couple of bamboo skewers and two packs of fruit roll-ups labeled “tropical tie-dye,” unrolled them, wrapped them around the skewers (trimming off one corner) and stuck them to themselves to hold them in place (they’re pretty much edible saran wrap), scalloped the edges with my trusty kitchen shears, then impaled my dragon (who, fortunately, didn’t seem to mind in the slightest). The dragon, the birthday boy, and I were all quite pleased with the results.

See? Totally do-able, even for a non-artist!

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