Sunday, 19 July 2009

How to make a leafy sea dragon cake

I lie. It's not really a cake. It's a bunch of cookies glued together. And a word of warning for anyone else insane enough to attempt a leafy sea dragon cake: this project is not for the faint hearted. Many times I stopped and said to myself "Why the hell are you doing this, woman?!" and walked away shaking my head. It took several hours, and I nearly cried at one point.

I am not a pro cake maker, I've never attended any cake lessons. It all started when my mum made cool animal cakes for me as a child and I've carried on the tradition. So if there are any people out there thinking "oh, why did she do that/use that, there's a much better way!" you're probably right, but I don't know about it! I had fun anyway. Eventually.

Some background on Leafy Sea Dragons

Phycodurus eques is related to the sea horse, and found in the southern and western oceans of Australia. We tend to get the Weedy Sea Dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus) on the east coast which are much less elaborate than the leafy. The appendages aren't actually used for swimming, which is what I first thought when I started investigating, but have little fins along their back and head that they use for that. The leafy appendages are just for camouflage. They grow up to 30-40 cm. I highly recommend watching this video of them. They are stunning to see in action. I've only ever seen them in an aquarium in Western Australia.

Some background on how I decided to make my Leafy Sea Dragons

I had quite a few ideas for how to make it, given the constraints of making a leafy sea dragon: the legs and leg joints would be fragile so the head and body either needed to be light or the joints made strong (or both!). I thought about using meringue because it is both strong and light, but my attempts at meringue failed horribly but I'd had in my mind "cookies!" the whole time so I decided to go with that. Meringues also take a long time to cook, and I am an instant gratification woman, so cookies it was. I think gingerbread would work too, but I know many of my friends hate gingerbread.

I experimented with the royal icing you use for gingerbread houses, which is very strong and sets like cement, but at the same time is exceptionally messy and there isn't much room for mistakes. If you muck up, it's set like that forever. However, if you'd prefer to use "gingerbread house glue" then my recipe is:

3 egg whites
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
3 - 3 1/2 cups icing sugar

Instead, for appendage glue, I decided to use white chocolate. It is strong but can be re-moulded. I used a good quality brand so it didn't go funny after heating and cooling.

I had made a small scale prototype the week before, using a variety of icings, cookie recipes and "glue". I went out for about half an hour, and Sylvester, our cat with strange food prefences, decided he wanted to have a taste. I came home to find the whole thing smashed on the floor and bits eaten. Another good lesson learned from my prototypes.

How to make a Leafy Sea Dragon


For the structure:

1 quantity of cookie dough
1 block of good quality white chocolate
Orchard ready-to-roll icing

For decoration:
Yellow food dye
Blue sour straps
1 block of good quality white chocolate
Cream (for the ganache)


I wanted to attempt to make my leafy 1:1 scale, so took this photo (inverted the colours to save on ink) and printed it A2 size (4 x A4 paper stuck together) and used it as a template for the cookies.

I cut out the head and body as one piece, and cut out each of the leafy appendages. I rolled out my cookie dough to 4mm thick, placed the template on the dough and traced around it with a knife. Most of the leafy appendages were baked for about 10-12 mins, but the body took 20 mins.

I rested the body in my potato masher, which placed on a small box to elevate it, because it was a convenient width to support the body vertically. I glued on the rear legs with a blob of white chocolate, then the middle legs.
I also stuck on some read to roll icing to fill out the cheeks, chest and body. The stark white is the icing, and the off-wihte stuff is the chocolate. You can see in the background the individual leafy cookies. I placed a shot glass under its body to help take some of the weight off the legs while it was drying. In the end I decided to keep the shot glass in there permanently because I didn't want the legs to break while I left him overnight. The glass under his nose is temporary.

The head actually snapped off at one point. One of those moments when you have a few heart palpitations. It actually worked out well because it meant I could attach the front legs more easily. The head I cemented back on with tooth picks, chocolate and icing.

I iced him all over with white chocolate ganache dyed yellow, starting from the rear and finishing with the head. I wanted to smooth him down more but I was terrified he would snap. I experimented with a few different icings in my prototype stages, but I love ganache so I rolled with that. I used blue sour straps for the details and his head piece nad whiskers. The eyes are just Orchard icing with a blue chocolate dot in the middle. I poke sour straps into the underneath of the body for the dangly, weedy bits.

I made sure to keep a washing basket over the top of the cake and to lock all doors to the kitchen to make sure Sylvester could not get his paws anywhere near the "cake". He's a rotter, that one. Every time he came into the kitchen while I was making the final version, he looked at me with adoring eyes, but I knew it was because he really wanted some chocolate covered cookies. He's cunning and mischeivous.

Then when Gib got home from work he told me that he was only joking when he said I should make him a leafy sea dragon cake. He said he didn't think I'd actually make it but thought it would be amusing to put the challenge to me. They do say pets take after their owners.

Here's the finished product:


Leah said...

You're a legend - what a wonderful cake!

Fibo said...

That is so freaking awesome, I bow down to your mad cake/cookie skillz

Anonymous said...

respect! I'm researching these wonderful creatures to create some art of my own.. but sister.. You take the CAKE

cool said...

I like it..!!!!!
Madrid Hotels