Last October, I competed in my second ever cake competition, the Contra Costa Cake Show in Concord, CA. I was just as ambitious as the previous year, where I decide to create a cake I’ve never made before, using skills I’ve never learned until a week prior to competition. But I love the challenge. While I’m sure most of the competitors start their cakes at least a month in advance, the idea of a cake competition still makes me think of one of those competitive decorating shows on Food Network (Cake Wars, Baking Championship, etc.) where they have less than 6 hours to create a showstopping cake. Except, most of them are professional cake decorators and have been working on these techniques every single day for years. So with that in mind, I started planning out my cake at the end of August, but in reality, didn’t start until the Wednesday before the show.
Last year’s theme was “Enchanted Friends and Foes”. My cake design for this competition was a dragon cake, where a dragon breathes fire and sets fire to a campfire, and there’s a bunch of kids sitting around the campfire telling stories about the dragon. It would’ve been neat have the story come to life and have a whole posse of forest superheroes fight the dragon… time, am I right?
Join me as I share my process for making this cake, along with lessons learned, random musings in cake form, and a bit of insight into how I (chaotically yet somehow successfully) run my cake business, It’s Jo Cake.
Step 1: Create a plan.
Always, always, always start with a plan! And most importantly, follow through your plan (improvements for next year)! I honed in some of my newfound project management skills from the last startup I worked with and created a plan for how to go about making this cake.
I split my project plan into 4 main sections:
- Plan: Mostly logistical things. Registering for the cake show to fully commit myself to this ambitious endeavour, and sketch the cake I’ve been envisioning in my head onto paper.
- Prototype & Test: There were a lot of components and techniques involved in this year’s cake that were very new to me: sugar work, incorporating electronics, and modelling chocolate. The dragon is meant to breathe FIRE, but how to create that fire in the form of cake decoration was my biggest hurdle. It didn’t exactly say so in the rules, but I’m pretty sure real fire was a big no-no, so the only other route was to use electronics. I could wire my own set of LED lights and program them with an Arduino. I could also buy a set of pre-programmed LED lights that already have a battery pack. I needed to test out my options. In addition to the dragon’s fire, I’d also have to find a way to light the campfire.
- Implement: Implementing my electronics setup into creating my awesome fire-breathing dragon cake, and creating the remaining components (trees, campfire, campers, etc.) out of fondant and modelling chocolate.
- Showtime!: This is pretty self-explanatory.
Step 2: Buy your ingredients and supplies, in as few trips as possible!
I don’t drive and it’s a hassle to ask my roommate to drive me around, so I have to be strategic about my supply runs. Before heading out to shop, I make my shopping list as comprehensive as possible. It’s helpful to do an inventory check to be sure I don’t buy things that I already have. I count Ingredients as anything edible that goes into the cake and Supplies as any sort of tools needed to create the cake.
- Boxed cake mix (it’s a cake decorating contest, so the cake will not be tasted… but plenty of cake for you and your friends to eat afterwards!)
- Rice Krispies + Mini marshmallows (to sculpt the head and tail)
- Fondant (to cover the body)
- Modelling chocolate (to cover the head and tail)
- Wooden dowels
- Aluminum floral wire (for the wings)
- Modelling chocolate
- Pretzel rods
- Modelling chocolate
- Pretzel rods (stumps that campers will be sitting on)
- Yellow (butterscotch) and red (cinnamon) hard candies
- Dark grey modelling chocolate or fondant (rocks)
- Pirouette cookies (logs)
- Flickering tea light
Homemade Modelling Chocolate
I made my own modelling chocolate using some recipes I found online.
- Wilton candy melts
- Corn syrup
- Saran wrap
- Melt candy melts in the microwave at 30 second bursts.
- Warm up corn syrup slightly by putting it in the microwave for 5–7 seconds.
- Stir in corn syrup. When it has the consistency of ricotta cheese, STOP.
- Put in plastic wrap, and spread it thin on a flat surface and let set.
- When it becomes pliable, knead until it becomes doughlike.
- Serrated knife (to carve cake)
- X-ACTO knife (to cut fondant precisely)
- Fondant smoother
- Icing color gels (to color fondant, gum paste and modelling chocolate)
- Crisco shortening (prevents mediums from sticking to your hands)
I got most of my supplies at my local handy-dandy cake decorating store, Spun Sugar in Berkeley. As for the ingredients, I started at Grocery Outlet and Dollar Tree (really trying not to spend too much money here) and got remaining supplies at Safeway and Trader Joe’s.
Step 3: Prep the cake board.
There were a couple things I had to prep for this board:
- Add feet to the board. Can be push pins, styrofoam, etc. I decided to use some balsa wood that I had sitting around.
- Figure out where the LEDs go. I started to layout the cake on the board to create a rough idea of where to place the tealight. After I carve the cake and get a better idea of the shape of the dragon, I can place the string lights.
Step 4: Prototype!
One of the things I needed to prototype was how to go about creating the fire. I found some articles online on campfire cakes, where red and yellow hard candies can be melted down in the oven, then broken to create “flames”. Plus, it’s a great way to smash out some anger!
Step 5: Make lots and lots of cake.
I wasn’t sure how much cake I might use for my cake, so it’s better to have more cake than not enough. For a sculpture cake, you want to use a cake that is a little sturdier. Because it’s a cake decorating competition and not a cake tasting competition, it’s best to buy a boxed mix to save yourself plenty of time. I first baked a layer of brownie, but the cake was too dense to work with. In retrospect, I would use a pound cake for next time, as the chocolate cake was a bit too soft to use in a sculpture cake.
Step 6: Start creating the cake!
Create the Dragon Body
15 hours later…
The judges gave very helpful feedback and pointers so that I can improve. The most important piece of advice was to cover the Rice Krispies structures with white chocolate to help let it set and reduce the chances of the neck snapping in half.
All the Achievement Badges!
- First time working with modelling chocolate, sugar, and incorporating electronics into a cake!
- Made an overall badass cake
- Got the dragon breathing fire!
- Don’t wait until the last minute! (Hah, like that’s going to change…)
- Use a sturdier cake so that the cake itself will hold, and so that the wooden dowels will stay in place.
- It’s great to be able to apply some of the skills in Product Design, Project Management, Prototyping and Engineering to create this cake. I really enjoy creating these structure cakes because they really cause me to think out-of-the-box.
Overall, last year I’ve learned to work with a few new mediums (modelling chocolate and pulled sugar) and learned some new techniques. Given how I only gave myself the week of, I can only get better from here! With more practice, of course.
Thank you Contra Costa Cake Club for being ever so welcoming this year. I look forward to being a new member of the club, and to this year’s themed competition, Cakes By The Bay!
Find me on Instagram (@slothberr) and www.joanna-ma.com.
Find It’s Jo Cake! on Facebook and Instagram @itsjocake and www.itsjocake.com.