Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Baby Dragon Cake

We made this dragon cake for a young friend's first birthday. It was one of our more difficult collaborations. Matt wanted a flying, twisted, fire-breathing serpent. I wanted something that I felt confident we could achieve in cake. We produced a vast number of sketches, and very nearly ended up making the cake into a representation of . . . a nicely frosted 13x9 rectangle.

We finally settled on a fat baby dragon without too many protruding edges or inside corners. My inspiration for the design came from the book Artie and the Princessby Marjorie Torrey. (This is a wonderful old children's book, and it's a pity that it's out of print.) Our dragon didn't actually end up looking much like him, but Artie got us pointed in the right direction.

Despite the struggle and fuss, I think our dragon turned out pretty well. I am particularly proud of the decorations. Some day, though, we'll probably try the flying, twisted, fire-breathing serpent.


Here's a look at how we start translating the design into the actual pattern. A lot of trace paper is involved.


We made the double chocolate sheet cake from Cooks Illustrated (Issue 48, Jan 2001). I wouldn't be surprised if the recipe is also available in one of their The Best Recipecookbooks. As with all the recipes in Cooks Illustrated, this one is tasty and reliable. After cooking, we froze the cake to make it easier to cut.


We used a double batch of the Quick Icing recipe from the 1997 Joy of Cooking. I wanted a very dark brown icing, almost black, so I thought I would add cocoa and blueberry puree. (At least, I think that's why I did it. The problem with posting months after the fact is that I just don't remember any more.) Unfortunately, I couldn't add enough puree to get the color I wanted before the frosting got way too thin. Tasted good, though.

Another time, I would use the fruit puree to replace the liquid in the recipe, rather than in addition to it. Also, the puree made the frosting look grainy. I think the puree probably would have worked better in a cooked frosting (for example, Quick Icing 2 from Joy).

Blueberry Puree

I started from a fruit puree recipe in The Cake Bible. Thaw 14 ounces of frozen blueberries in a colander over a bowl. Smush the thawed berries so more juice goes into the bowl. Microwave the juice on high for eight minutes until it dries up and smells burned - discard. (Another painful reminder that all microwaves are different. Four to six minutes might have produced the desired reduction.) Puree berries in the blender (with reduced juice, if you manage it without incident). Add 2 teaspoons lemon juice. Makes 1 1/4 cups.

I now have a cup of puree lurking in my freezer just waiting for me to need purple frosting. It may be a while.


Outlines - licorice whip
Horns - dried papaya and cantaloupe spears
Nostrils - dried cranberries
Eyes - dried bananas with chocolate-covered coffee beans for pupils
Belly - slivered almonds
Toenails - cashews
Tail - sprinkled with extra coarse sugar

Chocolate Glaze for the Wings

Melt 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate and about 2 teaspoons of butter together in the microwave. Pour over wings (place licorice whip first as a sort of dam). Reheat the glaze as necessary to facilitate pouring.


Figuring out how to transport these large cakes is often a problem. For this one, we tried using a flat Rubbermaid box, with a bit of non-slip shelf lining to rest the cake board on. It actually worked quite well, although we didn't end up keeping the box because it was too big to have hanging around the house, and isn't wide enough for all of our cakes.

Other Ideas

In the course of brainstorming, we came up with lots of ideas that might be good for other dragons. Keep in mind that we decided against some of these because we were skeptical they would succeed.

  • add a treasure hoard made of mixed dried fruit

  • make a cloud of smoke out of meringue, with dried papaya for tongues of flame

  • use cake to make a gout of flame and cover with apricot puree and papaya spears

  • use cacao nibs or finely chopped candied ginger for texture on part of the body (like the belly)

  • make frill and wings out of fruit leather - cut large pieces into a the shape of a wing and fold it up (I haven't found any commercial fruit leather without artificial color, so you might want to make your own -- per Article 5 of the manifesto)

  • make frill and wings out of crepes

  • drizzle a fruit glaze on the wings instead of the unsweetened chocolate

  • use a pale green frosting (with matcha green tea powder) for the body

  • make teeth out of flat pieces of dried fruit cut into interlocking triangles

Labels: , , , , , ,

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Cake in a Mug

Given our enthusiasm for cake in a bag, and our recent foray into making teacup cakes, it should come as no surprise that we glommed on to the idea of cake in a mug as soon as we heard of it.  Warm chocolate cake for two in under fifteen minutes?  What's not to love?

Unfortunately, the original recipe is not very good.  It places a high priority on convenience, so it uses a full egg, which is far too much for such a small cake, making it tough and, well, eggy.  Still warm and chocolate, of course, and remarkably simple to prepare.

We admire the Cooks Illustrated method of perfecting recipes, so we determined to follow their process to optimize cake in a mug (though our prose cannot compete with theirs in purpleness).  Nine or ten versions later (such dedication!), we've come up with a recipe that, while it might sacrifice a little in convenience, tastes more than good enough to be worth the calories.  As usual, you can skip the blab and drop straight to the recipe at the end of the post.

We started by adding more sugar and cocoa to boost the flavor.  We use Dutch process cocoa because it has a stronger chocolate flavor than regular cocoa, and less harshness.  Cooks Illustrated recommends Callebaut (spendy) or Hershey.  Unfortunately, Hershey has changed their Dutched cocoa to be "Special Dark" and it doesn't look like it's getting very good reviews.  Regular cocoa is an acceptable substitute.

Adding hot liquid to the cocoa gives it slightly more oomph.  Unfortunately, if you do that you can't start by mixing the dry ingredients in the mug.  I suggest mixing the dry ingredients separately, to make sure they get thoroughly blended.  If you do mix the dry ingredients directly into the mug (as Matt prefers), stir well with a fork to avoid ending up with big clumps of flour or baking powder in the final product.

We tried using melted unsweetened chocolate instead of cocoa, but it didn't pack as strong a chocolate punch and was considerably more work.  Using a combination of cocoa and unsweetened chocolate provided the richest chocolate taste, but we didn't find it worth the extra effort.  If you're a chocolate chip cake kind of person (neither of us is), you could add some chocolate chips to round out the chocolate palette.

The three tablespoons of oil in the original recipe seemed like a whopping amount, so we reduced the oil and added some fruit puree to compensate.  The fruit puree also adds interest and complexity to the all-cocoa flavor profile.  If you're using applesauce or canned pears for the fruit puree, try serving some along with the finished cake.

You can use lemon juice to "sour" the milk if you prefer sour milk chocolate cake.  Lemon juice also highlights the fruit flavor and helps balance the richness of the fat (particularly if you're using butter).  We like the recipe well enough both ways that we listed the lemon juice as optional.

Inspired by recipes for chocolate spice cake, we tried adding various spices.  Cinnamon and cloves smell wonderful, complement the fruit puree, and make the cake seem special and sophisticated.  Other spices we tried, like ginger and black pepper, didn't harmonize with the fruit and cocoa flavors as well.  Of course, if what you want is pure chocolate comfort food, you can leave out the spices -- the cake will still be very good (Sharon actually prefers it without the spices).

We tried both cake flour and all purpose flour, and found that it doesn't make an appreciable difference in this recipe.  Use whichever one you have on hand.

We reduced the egg to improve the texture.  We tried beating a whole egg and using only part of it, but that was considerably more fuss than just using an egg white, with no improvement in outcome.  Powdered egg whites are particularly convenient for this recipe.  If you can't find them at your local grocery store, you can try Amazon (expensive) or Honeyville (big, but cheap).  Since we eliminated the egg yolk, we added a bit of baking powder for leavening.

We rarely drink milk, so we almost always use dry milk when we cook.  Most dry milk in grocery stores is non-fat, which is often too lean for baking.  We recently came across a dry whole milk product called Nido.  I hate to recommend it, because it is a Nestle product, and their infant formula marketing practices remain suspect, but I haven't found anything comparable from another brand.  In addition to baking, Nido is also useful for backpacking, when getting enough calories is more important than limiting fat calories.  You can mix it with non-fat dry milk to make whatever octane you prefer.

Since this is such a small cake, it requires less than 1/4 teaspoon of some ingredients.  You can eyeball it, or you can invest in some tiny measuring spoons.  Ours come in handy surprisingly often.

This cake is still not as lovely as one you could make in the oven, but it is very tasty, ready in a flash, and a great party trick.

After the main recipe, we've provided several options using slightly different ingredients.

Chocolate Cake in a Mug

Serves 2-3

In a microwave-safe mug, mix:

3 tablespoons cocoa (Dutch process preferred)
3 tablespoons hot water

Mix in:

1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon sugar (decrease a bit if using sweetened pureed fruit)
1 tablespoon pureed fruit (e.g. applesauce, mashed banana, mashed pear)
2 tablespoons oil
1 egg white
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon lemon juice (optional)

Mix the following dry ingredients directly into the mug, or mix them in a separate bowl and then stir into the mug:

1/4 cup flour (all purpose or cake flour)
1 tablespoon dry whole milk (non-fat will also work, but whole is better)
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt (or less)
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
1/16 teaspoon cloves (optional)

Microwave on high for about 2 minutes, depending on your microwave.  Start with less time to avoid overcooking.  (Our microwave oven draws 1100 watts, and the cake cooks perfectly in 1 minute 50 seconds.)  The cake will rise an inch or more above the top of a typical 12 ounce coffee mug.  Test the cake for doneness by inserting a long pointy thing and checking to see if it comes out clean.

Turn the cake out immediately.  Run a knife around the edge of the cake to release it.  We occasionally succeed in getting the cake out in one piece.

If desired, serve with more of the fruit you used in the cake.  Garnish with topaz (preferred) or rhinestones (acceptable) and sugared ostrich.

Fresh Milk Option

Substitute fresh whole milk for water and omit dry milk.
Microwave milk and cocoa briefly to heat.

Dried Egg White Option

Increase hot water or milk to 1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon.
Add 1 1/2 teaspoon dried egg white to dry ingredients.

Butter Option

Instead of using oil, melt 2 tablespoons butter in mug first, then add cocoa and water.
Omit salt if using salted butter.

Mocha Option

Add 1/4 teaspoon instant espresso powder to cocoa.
Omit lemon juice, cinnamon and cloves.

Labels: ,