Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How to make a dinosaur cake

I got the idea to make Nico's dinosaur birthday cake from a neat vintage book my mom found and bought for me. The directions called for a rectangular cake cut into about 9 pieces and then assembled into a dinosaur shape. I figured it was do-able but decided to check online in case someone had come up with a simpler method. Voila:

With only three pieces, this one was a clear winner. I briefly contemplated making the cake from scratch, but then came to my senses and decided that attempting my first-ever scratch cake plus my first-ever custom shaped cake the night before my kid's first birthday was probably not a great plan. I grabbed a chocolate cake mix from the grocery, borrowed a friend's 9" round cake pans, and figured I was good to go.

The first attempt was pretty much a disaster. I don't know if it was the cake, the pans, my method, or a combination of the three, but despite my liberal pre-cake application of cooking spray the rounds tore into pieces when I tried to remove them from the pans. I drove to the grocery at 11:30 PM and bought a second cake mix, and this time I greased the pans with butter and dusted them with flour AND cut circles of parchment paper for the bottoms. The first mix was the standard kind I remember using in high school and college, requiring vegetable oil, but for the second mix I bought the "butter recipe" version that used a stick of butter instead of a cup of oil. I tasted both cakes, and the butter recipe one was much, much tastier. The butter recipe rounds also dropped perfectly from the pans after cooling. Hallelujah!

At this point I covered the cakes with wax paper and left them to cool overnight. I got the trays on clearance at Michael's to use for veggies and fruit at the party, but they were also perfect for popping the cakes into the freezer the next morning, as the video recommends. While the cakes were freezing, I prepared a cake board. The directions for the cake note that it requires a 9 x 14" tray to assemble, so I bought a 10 x 19" cake box at Michael's. I didn't think to buy a cake board, so I made one by cutting the sides off an office paper box lid and wrapping it in foil. Easy peasy, cheap, and it took about five minutes. Also pictured, the dinosaur pattern pieces, printed on cardstock. I cut the dinosaur's head a little larger because I thought it looked a little bit stubby on the original pattern. If you do this, test the pattern pieces on your cake board before cutting the cake, for obvious reasons.

I also prepared the icing while the cake was freezing. I used this Paula Deen recipe for cream cheese icing, but unless you're an extravagant icer or are making a second cake, I would recommend halving the recipe, possibly even quartering it. I had a painfully ridiculous quantity of leftover icing. Once the (easy) icing was mixed up, I set aside a small amount of plain white icing to use for decorating purposes and then added food coloring to the rest until it was an acceptable shade of green. It took a lot of food coloring. Like, a LOT. Probably half of the small bottle I had. I was really happy with the results, though. Okay, so the cake board was ready, the icing was ready, time to cut the cake! I won't lie, I was kind of terrified.

Freezing the cakes made them easy to cut and much less crumbly around the raw edge, just as promised. I was shocked at how well this step went, considering it was my first try.

The video recommended briefly re-freezing the cake, applying a thin layer of icing to "crumb coat" it, and then freezing once more. I almost skipped this step to save time, but decided not to risk it. Heed my experience: DO NOT SKIP THE CRUMB COAT! It was magical how well it worked. Putting the crumb coat on was probably the second-most-frustrating / time-consuming part of the process, but it was well worth it in the end. The pre-freezing did keep most of the crumbs from the raw edges from mixing into the icing, and the post-freezing made the final icing coat look fabulous and completely crumb-free.

The final and probably most important step was to decorate the cake. In the past I've constructed my own icing bags from zipper bags and icing tips, so I was confident that I could do it again this time. I don't know if I used better bags in the past or if I lost my mojo somehow, but unless you have done this and are 100% confident in your bag selection, don't follow my example. Just buy some damn icing bags. I wasted a lot of time and icing trying to make an icing bag that would work. The seams on the zipper bags I had were too weak and would split as soon as I applied pressure to squeeze out the icing. I finally ended up using Lansinoh breastmilk bags, and they worked pretty well, though there was some trial and error with where to cut the slot for the tip. I ended up getting icing all over me and literally taking it down to the wire as far as time, finishing the cake at 1:30 with the party scheduled to start at 2:00 (and I still had to take a shower).

In the video they used Hershey's kisses to make spikes and spots. I knew I didn't want spikes and debated getting kisses for the spots but decided against it. Initially I had planned to leave the dinosaur plain, but then I started to think it looked too plain, so I added chocolate spots. I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. I used the set-aside white icing to make his eye. I had planned to write on the cake in white as well, but decided that first, the contrast wasn't high enough, and second, I was not going to risk screwing up the lettering with my ghetto-fabulous homemade icing bags and having to scrape the cake and start over. I wrote on the cake board instead and it worked out great, even though my icing penmanship was pretty bad. I was thrilled with the end result -- especially considering it was my first cake construction project -- and it got lots of compliments. And it was delicious.

And there you have it...dinosaur cake! Quite a bit of cake is wasted, so depending on how many guests you're expecting, you may want to make a second sheet cake or some cupcakes. We had about 20 adults and 6 kids, so I made a batch of cupcakes to go along with the cake. We had the dinosaur's neck / head and about five cupcakes left at the end of party, which is a nice amount...enough to enjoy but not enough to overdo it. If I ever do this again, I'm buying icing bags and leaving a little more time to work. From first freezing to finish, the assembly took about three hours. Overall, though, I give the whole project a big gold star!


  1. Anonymous7:28 AM

    Love love LOVE this!!!

    I sort of want one for my birthday now.

    I am truly impressed with your birthday skills. Except now that you've done so well for Birthday #1, the pressure is on for Birthday #2!

  2. Yay! So cute! Way better than baking a cake in a dino-shaped pan.

  3. When I wrote: "I finally ended up using Lansinoh breastmilk bags"

    I laughed so hard-diet coke came out of my nose!

    Because it's so funny! The things moms do!!

  4. Oh, I'm SO GLAD you posted this!! I too would have been tempted to skip the crumb coat, but now I will not!