Chocolate Rattlesnake Dragon

dragon


This was made as a Christmas present for Barbara May and her husband, Large Bear. The body is made of forty-seven chocolate cups with eleven different fillings, arranged randomly, so biting into each segment is an adventure, since there’s no way of knowing what flavor it will be.

This was made as a Christmas present for Barbara May and her husband,
Large Bear. The body is made of forty-seven chocolate cups with eleven
different fillings, arranged randomly, so biting into each segment is an
adventure, since there’s no way of knowing what flavor it will be. Maybe
there’s some sort of gambling to be done here. Someone call Vegas.
Speaking of which, I have a great idea for a restaurant in Vegas in which,
for a fixed price, you get a pull on a slot machine to determine what
you’re going to get for dinner. The first reel could be the drink, then
the appetizer, the side dish, the main course, and dessert. You might end
up with lobster; you might end up with a BLT. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Getting back to the dragon, the eleven filling flavors were golden sesame,
ginger, citrus zest, green tea, red wine, wasabi, peanut butter,
peppermint, coffee, orange, and cherry.

Why a dragon, you ask? Well, I reply, because that’s what occurred to me.
I had another idea first, involving a demonic Santa Claus playing God,
holding up a DNA strand covered with the screaming heads of tormented
elves, but I didn’t think I’d have the time to do it right. It’s too bad,
because that would have been more Christmas themed. Maybe next year.

Initially, I was planning to make the body out of candies made in several
sizes of peanut butter cup molds. This fell through because the peanut
butter cup molds I ordered over the internet didn’t arrive at my apartment
in New York until after I left to spend Christmas at Barbara May’s house
in California. I therefore had to run around to candy supply stores
looking for usable molds. What I found (at Michael’s) were molds for those
little chocolate cups that you’re supposed to fill with mousse or
raspberries. It was actually a blessing in disguise, as these worked
better than the peanut butter cup molds ever would have. They’re big
enough to fit a good amount of filling and they’re proportioned really
well for snake segments. Peanut butter cup molds would have resulted in
much squatter, less graceful snake. Of course, I now have a bunch of
peanut butter cup molds and nothing to do with them.

filled cups

The first step was to make all the fillings, except peanut butter, which
comes ready made in a convenient jar. I recommend using some kind of
natural peanut butter. I used Trader Joe’s.

The peppermint, coffee, orange and cherry centers were made of center
fondant, which I’ve made many times before. My recipe comes from The
Practical Candymaking Cookbook, which I highly recommend, though I believe
it is now out of print. The fondant is basically sugar, milk, and butter,
cooked, then worked on a marble slab to get the right texture. I then
flavored it with candy oils (except for the coffee, for which I used
instant coffee as flavoring) and colored it with paste food colors.

The golden sesame, ginger, red wine, wasabi, citrus zest, and green tea
were much more of an adventure, because instead of a recipe, all I had was
a brochure from a high end New York candy store, which I got at the New
York Chocolate Show. It had descriptions of the candies, but it wasn’t
like a real recipe. For instance, all the instruction I had for the ginger
candy was, “Milk chocolate blended with gin-flavored ganache and ginger.”

The golden sesame and ginger have a milk chocolate ganache base, which is
made by boiling cream, pouring it over chopped milk chocolate, and
whisking them together. For the golden sesame I added finely ground golden
sesame seeds and a splash of brandy and for the ginger, finely chopped
ginger root and a little gin. I determined the proportions by taste and
then wasn’t smart enough to write them down, so I won’t know any more the
next time I make them than I did this time.

The red wine and wasabi start with a dark chocolate ganache base, made the
same way as the ganache with milk chocolate. I then added red wine and
wasabi powder (because I couldn’t find fresh wasabi root) to taste.

Finally, the citrus zest and green tea are based on white chocolate
ganache, flavored with orange zest (from Barbara May’s own orange tree)
and gin and with ground up green tea.

They all wound up tasting very good. I was particularly pleased with the
ginger, red wine, and citrus zest. The only major problem I had was that
the white chocolate-based flavors and, to a lesser extent, the milk
chocolate-based flavors, were more liquid than is ideal for rolling
truffle centers. This actually was no problem at all for this project, as
I could just pour the liquid into the mold, but I was also using these
ganaches to make rolled truffle centers, both for standard truffles and
for the shrunken head truffles that I made Mom and Dad for Christmas. I
think I could solve this problem next time by using less cream to make the
initial ganache out of milk chocolate and white chocolate. See, I did
learn something by making these, even if I didn’t have the sense to write
down my recipes.

With the fillings done, I was ready to make the chocolate cups themselves.
The first step was to fill the mold with dark chocolate, and then set it
in the fridge for one minute, so a thin, hard shell formed. Then I poured
out the excess chocolate and set the molds back in the fridge to harden.

Once the chocolate shells had solidified, it was a simple matter to pour
the fillings in and then pour another thin layer of chocolate on to seal
off the top of the cup. Shaking the mold a bit helps to settle the
chocolate on top into a flat surface. Then, back in the fridge they went
to harden.

Now the fun part begins! It was time to begin adding the artistic details.
For this, I found it best to use melted dark chocolate mixed with just a
smidge of corn syrup. This gives the chocolate just a little more solidity
so it holds its shape better. It also imparts to the chocolate a lovely
dark sheen. The only drawback is that too much corn syrup will cause the
whole batch of chocolate to seize up and become totally useless. I’ll only
admit to that happing to me twice.

I put a batch of this dark chocolate / corn syrup combo into a pastry bag
with a #4 round tip and piped little dots of chocolate around the top and
bottom of each cup. These made a nice visual division between the segments
of the snake and also kept the cups from touching each other except around
the perimeter, making it possible to break off a cup to eat without
extensive damage to the neighboring cup.

Once those dots were dry (Another advantage to the corn syrup addition is
that it makes the chocolate set up much more quickly.) I joined forty-six
of the cups into twenty-three pairs, by sticking the wide ends of the two
cups together. The remaining single cup was for the back of the head.

I was finally ready to arrange the snake on the gold foil covered
cardboard cake circle I had designated as the snake’s home. I chose to
arrange the snake in a spiral, with the tail to be placed on the outside
of the spiral and the head rising up from the center. This part went
quickly, as it was a simple matter to stick the segments to each other and
to the base with a little chocolate. I had to prop the head up on a few
containers of luster dust until the chocolate that was holding it in place
dried.

closeup

Next, the hard parts – the face and the tail. Actually, the tail wasn’t
all that hard. I made all of components of the head and tail on a piece of
parchment paper, and then stuck them to the snake with a little more
chocolate / corn syrup. The tail consisted simply of a series of rings of
decreasing size. I believe I piped them with a #6 round tip. Once these
dried, I stuck them together to form the rattle, and then stuck the whole
thing onto the last segment of the body.

The head was more complicated. The basis was the same as the tail – a
series of consecutively smaller rings, though these shrank in diameter
more rapidly than those that formed the tail, resulting in a squat, round
head. The holes in the center of the rings formed a mouth. I also made
many whiskers of various sizes and shapes – some s-shapes, some curlicues,
some simple swooshes.

Once all the components dried, I was ready to decorate the head. I started
with the larger whiskers and worked my way down to the smaller details,
basically making it up as I went. I was very happy with the result. While
I was at it, I also reinforced many of the connections between the
segments to make sure nothing came apart.

I applied the finishing touches with white chocolate – teeth, eyeballs,
accents on the tips of the hair and beard, and little spikes on the
rattle.

full view

Once it was wrapped I was a little nervous about the head collapsing, but
there was nothing I could do at that point (except unwrap it to double
check, then rewrap it, which I only did once) but I was worried for
nothing. In fact, it was quite sturdy. Unfortunately, Barbara May and
Large Bear were leaving for Hawaii in two days, so they couldn’t eat the
dragon right away. We stuck him in fridge to await their return.

Shrunken Head Truffles


These candies were made as a Christmas present for Mom and Dad. They’re more just really small heads than actual shrunken heads. The original idea was to see whether the facial expression had a noticeable impact on the eater’s enjoyment of the candy. Is it more pleasant to eat a happy face or an angry face?

OK, so I wasn’t really going for the wild native tribe punishes the
self-righteous white man type of shrunken head, but that would be cool,
too, wouldn’t it? These were more just really small heads than actual
shrunken heads. My original idea was to see whether the facial expression
had a noticeable impact on the eater’s enjoyment of the candy. Is it more
pleasant to eat a happy face or an angry face? Does an excited face taste
better than a sad face? In other words, does the emotion evinced by the
candy translate into an equivalent emotion felt by the consumer? I still
think this is a interesting idea to explore, but I don’t think this
project furthered my research much, mostly because creating a specific,
distinct expression on each face turned out to be much more difficult than
I had imagined it would be. I basically wound up just gong with whatever
face emerged of its own volition. One of the truffles wound up looking
like a retarded vampire.

My plan was to make two truffle heads of each of six flavors – two based
on dark chocolate (red wine and wasabi), two based on milk chocolate
(ginger and golden sesame), and two based on white chocolate (citrus zest
and green tea). I got these flavors from a brochure for an upscale New
York chocolate shop, which I got at the New York Chocolate Show. I didn’t
really have recipes, just descriptions, so I had to guess at all the
proportions. For instance, all the instruction I had for the ginger candy
was, “Milk chocolate blended with gin-flavored ganache and ginger.”

All the truffles start with a ganache base, which is basically just
chocolate (dark, milk, or white) mixed with hot cream and whisked until
smooth. To these ganaches I added red wine, wasabi powder (I couldn’t find
any fresh wasabi root.), finely chopped ginger root with a little bit of
gin, ground golden sesame seeds and a splash of brandy, orange zest (from
an orange from Barbara May’s own orange tree) and gin, or finely ground
green tea.

They all wound up tasting very good, particularly the red wine, ginger,
and citrus zest. I did, however, have a problem with the consistency of
the white chocolate-based flavors and, to a lesser extent, the milk
chocolate-based flavors. They were much thinner than the ideal for rolling
truffle centers. I think I could solve this problem next time by using
less cream.

The white chocolate-based flavors were so thin that I couldn’t make them
into hand-rolled truffles and would up using some nice molds I had lying
around. I poured melted white chocolate into the mold, then set it in the
fridge for one minute so the outer edge would set a bit. I then poured out
the excess chocolate and set the mold back in the fridge to set. After a
few hours the white chocolate shells were hard enough to pour in the
citrus zest and green tea fillings. I then piped a layer of white
chocolate on top of the filling with a #6 tip to seal off the tops. I put
them back in the fridge and, once the white chocolate was set, those
candies were done.

The milk chocolate-based and the dark chocolate-based ganaches were thick
enough that I could roll them into centers, about 3/4″ in diameter. I
dipped these into tempered chocolate, corresponding to the chocolate used
for the ganache centers. I then chose the nicest, roundest ones to draw
faces onto.

At first I tried piping features on with straight chocolate. This proved
problematic because the chocolate was too thin, making it difficult to
create any detail. So I tried an experiment. Modeling chocolate is a
putty-like compound made by mixing chocolate with corn syrup. It can be
sculpted like clay or rolled out like dough. I thought that if I added
just a smidge of corn syrup to my chocolate, I could make something in
between modeling chocolate and regular chocolate, which would be thin
enough that I could still pipe it with a pastry bag, but thick enough that
it would hold its shape. The results of the experiment were as good as I
could have hoped for! The chocolate / corn syrup combo not only held its
shape better than the regular chocolate, it also set up faster and had a
lovely sheen to it. The only drawback is that this can only be done in
small batches because eventually it will harden inside the pastry bag and
become unusable. There’s also a danger of adding too much corn syrup to
the chocolate, which results in the whole batch seizing up into a useless
lump.

With my new discovery in hand, I piped facial features onto two of each
dark chocolate flavor and two of each milk chocolate flavor. Naturally, I
used milk chocolate for the milk chocolate truffles and dark chocolate for
the dark chocolate truffles. At this point I did try to shoot for specific
facial expressions, but to a large extent the chocolate simply did what it
would. I think I could do better in controlling the chocolate with a
little more practice.

With the major facial shapes done, I added hair, facial hair, and eyebrows
using dark chocolate on the milk chocolate truffles and milk chocolate on
the dark chocolate truffles. I then used white chocolate for details like
eyes and teeth. It was at this point that one of them emerged as a vampire
because the perimeter teeth came out longer than center teeth.

For some reason, one and only one of them developed blooms, a surface
discoloration to which poorly tempered chocolate is prone, so he appeared
to have some sort of skin condition on his forehead.

Gingerbread Swamp House

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This house was inspired by the beautiful ironwork on houses in New Orleans. Barbara Jo made it during her Christmas week visit to Barbara May’s house.

This gingerbread house was inspired by my recent trip to New Orleans. I
took a walking tour of the Garden District, which, by the way, I recommend
to any of you should you happen to find yourselves with a free day in New
Orleans. The stunning ironwork was what first caught my attention.
Fortunately, my parents had just given me a digital camera for my
birthday, so I spent the rest of the afternoon happily snapping close-up
of delicate architectural details.

I’m not very good at making nice, normal, friendly gingerbread houses, so,
naturally, I decided that this should be a dilapidated bayou house,
complete with alligator, rowboat, and swamp water.

The basic pattern of the house was remarkably easy (Though not so easy
that I didn’t manage to cut the roof pieces too short, but that’s a story
for later on in my gingerbread saga.), consisting simply of four sides,
two rectangular balconies, and four long roof pieces. It took me almost no
time to draft the patterns for those, which was good because it took me
hours to draft the patterns for the intricate railing and decorative
grillwork I had planned for the balconies.

neworleans.jpg

That was all the prep work I could do until the week before Christmas, as
I was planning to spend Christmas in California with Barbara May and royal
icing balcony rails can hardly be expected to survive a trip across a
room, let alone a trip across the country.

Finally, my big travel day arrived and, gingerbread plans carefully
packing in my carry-on bag (so I wouldn’t have to do without them for even
a day in the event that there was a problem with my checked luggage) I
hied myself to LaGuardia and boarded my plane.

Within but a few hours of my arrival in San Francisco (where I
rendezvoused with our parents, who had flown in from Michigan for the
occasion) I was hard at work rolling and cutting gingerbread pieces. You
see, I had to have them baked and ready, as Gingerbreadfest was the next
day! Gingerbreadfest is the biggest of our annual craft parties. We have
to provide all of our friends with pre-made gingerbread house pieces, all
manner of candy decorations, and approximately twenty gallons of royal
icing with which to stick everything together.

balcony_close.jpg

Actually, it turned out that it really didn’t matter that I had the
gingerbread pieces baked in time for Gingerbreadfest, as it took me all
day just to pipe the tiny royal icing grillwork, using a #1 tip. Frankly,
Gingerbreadfest isn’t a great time for either Barbara May or I to get much
work done on our own gingerbread houses, as we have to spend most of the
time replenishing candy bowls, mixing batches of icing, and assembling
everyone’s houses. It’s all worth it though, just to see what everyone
comes up with. The undisputed triumph of Gingerbreadfest this year was the
gingerbread rebel stronghold, complete with guard tower and bomb shelter
entrance, which our youngest guest (age five) made out of the little
leftover pieces (doors, chimneys, etc.) of other houses. I helped.

Even the day after Gingerbreadfest, the only thing I had a chance to do to
the gingerbread pieces themselves was to glue the balconies to the front
of the house with some thick royal icing. I then spent most of the day
running Christmas related errands, so all I had time to do that evening
was cut fifty sticks of peppermint chewing gum into tiny bricks, then
paint them various shades of brown and red.

Once I finally started decorating the actual house, things went quite
smoothly. The balconies were the first pieces I tackled. I frosted both
sides of these with slightly thin, brown royal icing, and then scored the
icing with a toothpick to create planking. For maximum verisimilitude, I
tinted some of the boards with various shades of red and yellow food
coloring.

drying_balcony.jpg

I glued the chewing gum bricks to the side and back pieces with a thin
layer of grey royal icing and covered the front of the house with slats
made of thinly rolled fondant. I also made shutters for all the windows
out of rolled fondant, scored with a toothpick. I then piped royal icing
frames around all the windows, doors, and shutters using a wide, flat
decorating tip while watching the thematically appropriate, yet woefully
incomprehensible movie Eaten Alive.

Finally, the exciting moment of assembly arrived! I had cut a one-foot
square base out of 3/8″ foamcore, to which I glued first the back, then
the sides and front of the house. It went together pretty well. I always
get a certain amount of warping and curvature in the gingerbread pieces as
they bake, which results in some gaps in the assembled structure. I
understand that some people recut each piece after baking before the
pieces is cooled for greater accuracy. I should try that next year. In
this case, however, the gaps were minimal and easily covered with the
careful application of a few more chewing gum bricks.

Now we come to my greatest error in judgment – the roof pieces. I’m not
quite sure whether the house was more out of whack than it looked or
whether I just cut the roof pieces too small, but when I went to attach
the roof pieces, they were too short to sit on top of the sides of the
house as they were intended to. If I had been clever I could have built up
the sides with some royal icing and allowed that to dry prior to attaching
the roof pieces. I’m not that clever, so I just glooped on a whole mess of
royal icing to fill the gaps and held my breath until it dried, hoping
that the entire roof wouldn’t just sink into the body of the house. In the
end, the problems with the roof turned out to be rather fortuitous, as one
end of the roof sagged threateningly and greatly enhanced the dilapidated
look of the house, which was, of course, what I was going for in the first
place.

drying_house.jpg

With roof pieces safely in place, I set about tiling the roof using little
squares of fondant, about 1/2″ on each side. I made two colors of tile,
one a deep purple marbled with some black, the other a deep green, also
marbled with black. Then I applied the two colors at random, to nice
effect. I also attached the shutters at this point, some open, some
closed, some on the verge of falling off entirely.

With the structure of the house in place, it was time to paint! I
distressed everything, using mostly green, red, black, yellow, and brown
food coloring. Prior to this point, the siding on the front of the house,
the window trim, and the shutters were pristine white. By the time I was
done, they looked like they had been sitting in the swamp for a century. I
also ran a coat of water across the roof to give a damp sheen to the
fondant tiles.

Now it was time to make the finishing touches – a little rowboat and oars,
the pier for it to dock at, and the giant alligator to menace anyone who
might be foolish enough to venture forth into the ominous swamp around the
house. All these I sculpted from fondant, white for the alligator,
marbleized brown for the rowboat and pier.

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The pier was easily made by rolling out a strip of fondant and scoring it
with a toothpick to make individual boards. I also distressed the ends of
the boards for that all-important aged look. The legs of the pier are
simply little rolled cylinders of fondant. The boat was also quite simple
to make, but took a little longer, mostly because the first one I made was
ridiculously out of scale so I had to make another one.

The alligator was, of course, my biggest sculptural challenge of this
project, but fortunately I made gum paste frogs a few months ago for a
friend’s wedding cake, and the skills are quite similar. I pulled a good
research picture off the internet and set to work. Once I had the basic
shape of the body and head, I added textural detail to the hide with a
toothpick and with a star decorating tip. I made eyeballs by gently
pressing in a #8 decorating tip and nostrils with, I believe, a #3. I then
propped the mouth open with a folded bit of was paper and left it to dry.

The first step in landscaping around the house was to build up a hill in
back of it with a wad of fondant, so it appeared to be fronting on the
swamp, while the land rose behind the house. Then I attached the pier
leading to the front door. In retrospect, it might have been easier to
pipe the grass under the pier before I attached the pier, but it’s too
late for that now.

grass_start.jpg

I used a grass tip to cover the entire area around the house with two
shades of slightly unhealthy green icing and one of sickly yellow icing.
While I was doing this, I also attached the delicate grilles to the front
of the house. To say that it was nerve wracking working with those tiny,
fragile pieces would be a tremendous understatement, particularly as I had
neglected to make any extras of one section of the grille. To be more
accurate, I made two sets of everything, thinking I would then have extras
in case anything broke, forgetting that I needed two sets of some pieces
anyway. Astonishingly, nothing broke except one tiny edge, which was
easily repaired. Once I was breathing normally again, I finished piping
all of the grass, then added and painted a little royal icing trim around
the tops of the decorative grilles.

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My plan for the swamp was to use Jell-O. In order to prevent the hot,
liquid Jell-O from simply pouring over the side of the house’s base and
onto Barbara May’s new table I had to made a dam around the edge of the
base. I first tried to do this with royal icing, but I didn’t like the
results, so I scraped it off and made a new dam out of thick fondant, cut
into strips and painted deep blues, greens, and blacks.

I decided to experiment with the Jell-O before pouring it onto the front
of the actual house. I’m extremely glad I did, because it turns out that
Jell-O is totally incompatible both with royal icing and with fondant. My
experimental bowls wound up looking like hideous biological specimens in
Petri dishes. The Jell-O dissolved both the royal icing and the fondant,
then failed to set up properly, resulting in a gooey, bubbling mess, made
all the grosser by the fact that I had added altogether too much blue food
coloring to the Jell-O.

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Scrapping the Jell-O, I turned to Plan B – piping gel. I had no idea that
piping gel could be made at home, having always purchased it ready made
from a cake decorating store, but Mom suggested that I look for a recipe
online. She was right. I found a recipe in no time, which is a very good
thing, because by this time it was Christmas, so it wasn’t as if I could
just run out and buy piping gel. My first batch of piping gel turned out
too thin. I wanted it to be thin enough to flow under the pier and around
the grillwork posts, but not thin enough that it would never set up. I
tried again and the second batch seemed more promising.

After the Jell-O fiasco, I was careful to experiment with the piping gel
before applying it to the house. This time, all went well. The royal icing
and fondant samples seemed to suffer no ill effects from the piping gel,
so I called it a go. This time I only added a smidgen of blue coloring to
the gel.

I wanted to place the alligator before piping the gel onto the actual
house. That way it could appear to be partially submerged, as if it were
in the process of emerging from the swamp. In the end, I think I chickened
out a little because I was afraid the detail of the alligator would be
obscured by the piping gel, so it only ended up with one foot in the
swamp.

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Before I could place the alligator I had to paint it. I used shades of
yellow, red, brown, and green food coloring, then added tiny royal icing
ridges to his back and royal icing teeth to his mouth with a #1 decorator
tip. He was then ready to effectively menace the inhabitants of the swamp
house! I set him in place on the edge of the swamp.

The big swamp water moment had arrived! I dumped the whole sticky mess of
piping gel into a piping bag with a #8 tip, and started slowly piping the
gel in front of the house. Everything was going well until I hit one of
the grillwork columns with my decorating tip and smashed it! There ensued
an extremely tense period in which I performed some emergency surgery to
replace the broken piece with a spare column, a process which involved
very carefully trimming the new piece down to size with a pair of
tweezers. I’m proud to report that the operation was a complete success!

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With infinitely more care, I continued piping in the gel until the entire
swamp in front of the house was full, as well as little sinkhole in the
back of the house. It looked great, if I do say so myself. The royal icing
grass was visible beneath the surface, and I could even see reflections of
the house in the surface of the piping gel! Now, two weeks later, the gel
still has yet to set up completely, but I don’t think that’s really a big
deal.

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The house was almost done, but something was still missing. I thought
about putting some sort of decoration along the ridge of the roof, but
then Barbara May and I hit on the answer – a weather vane! After settling
on the traditional rooster design, I piped a weather vane in royal icing
onto some wax paper. Once dry, and painted green and black, the weather
vane proved exceedingly fragile and difficult to attach to the roof, but,
six or seven repairs later, I finally had it in place.

I was finished at last! And it was still Christmas day! Between the
success of my gingerbread house, the awesome quilt Barbara May made for
me, and my parents’ gift of another trip to the fabulous Wilton School of
Cake Decorating, I think it was my best Christmas yet!

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