Dan Langan’s work has included a bucket of apples, a giant bacon-egg-cheese sandwich, an abstract vertical sculpture, a bloody eyeball, and a sizzling pan of chicken — all made from layers of cake and frosting hidden beneath smooth, colorful fondant.
Those masterpieces never made their way to bakeries, or even to birthday parties. But they’ve been admired by hundreds of thousands of Food Network viewers who know Havertown’s Langan as the guy who can make anything out of cake.
Working out of his modest home kitchen, Langan has since 2012 been fashioning increasingly far-fetched cakes out of melted marshmallows and food dye. His skills have landed him on the Food Network as a competitor; as the host of his own online show, Dan Can Bake It; and, this year, as a judge on the show Winner Cake All.
Langan, 29, is a self-taught baker who started making cakes for a blog. Less than four years later, he was showing them off to a national audience.
“My dream was always to open a bakery,” he said. “Now I say it’s definitely still on my list of things I want to do, but I’m doing so much other fun stuff that it’s taken a backseat.”
Langan is part of a rotating panel of judges on Winner Cake All, which debuted in January and is hosted by Giada De Laurentiis. He is about to begin filming a second season of his online-only Food Network show, Dan Can Bake It, in which viewers submit cake challenges for him to take on.
“I’m careful not to call myself a pastry chef,” he said. “But I think that if you can excel on a cooking competition show, that says something about what you can do.”
Langan grew up baking with his grandmother and said he was drawn to desserts when he saw the joy they can bring to others. In high school,he was a cake decorator at Havertown’s now-closed La Dolce Bakery, and he also had a job at Williams-Sonoma, using his employee discount to buy expensive cookware.
He studied painting, sculpting, and ceramics as a teenager, and later earned a business degree at Marymount Manhattan College. After graduating, he worked as a Realtor and as a personal trainer, then got a job at a friend’s catering business making desserts — a side hustle that came at a time when shows like Cake Boss and Ace of Cakes were showing what was possible when it came to baked goods.
Inspired, Langan looked up the course requirements for pastry chefs and used those textbooks to learn technique. In 2012, he started his blog, Baked by Dan, where he uploaded photos of confections and shared tips gleaned through trial and error. From the start, he focused on refining recipes along with the aesthetics, so that the cakes weren’t just science experiments.
“I love all aspects of baking, but the goal is for them to taste good," he said.
The Food Network was holding open castings, and after applying a few times, he made the cut in 2016 when he was selected to compete on Spring Baking Championship. He didn’t win, but not long afterward he was selected for Cake Wars, and that time he did — with a Garfield-inspired cake that involved the cat climbing a stack of presents to reach a teetering pan of lasagna.
In late 2016, he inked a deal with the Food Network for a regular Facebook Live. For more than a year, he spent every Friday night in his home kitchen, making cakes for a live audience that sometimes reached a million people. His friend and roommate Michelle Cain filmed as he worked, relaying questions to him as viewers typed them in.
Those videos led to Dan Can Bake It, which is filmed in New York, and which solicits creative cake ideas from viewers: a bouquet of flowers in a watering can, a circus tent, a pan of fried chicken. Last summer, for the first episode, he built a gravity-defying optical illusion cake. He drew from his ceramics experience and baked square and triangular cakes in molds, then gently positioned them around a rod that held them up and made it appear they were floating.
“A lot of these techniques are just crazy ideas until you try them out," he said.
That year, the Food Network offered him a job on the other side of the table as a judge on Christmas Cookie Challenge. Then came Winner Cake All, where he’s worked with De Laurentiis and chef Michael Symon.
But Dan Can Bake It led to most of the fantastical creations for which he’s now known. One cake can take six to eight hours, he said, or it could take days. Sometimes they require test runs. Langan said it’s important to have a plan before he starts: what type of filling to use, how thick the cakes should be. He uses a scalpel for trimming fondant, sculpting tools to smooth out rough spots, wire to prop up gravity-defying pieces such as handles, and an airbrush to get the colors right.
“I really think of myself as an artist,” he said. “This is my studio. My medium just happens to be cake."
It can be like solving a puzzle. For a giant soft pretzel, he used a sequence of small cakes that he “fastened” together like building blocks with frosting. For the pan of chicken, he covered small cakes in crushed-up cereal flakes to give them a fried texture and covered a skillet-shaped cake with fondant to create the “pan.” To create the look of frying oil, he used a glaze made from gelatin, which stiffens when it’s cold, and poured some glaze into the pan-shaped cake. Then he whipped air into the glaze and poured it around the “chicken" so it formed tiny bubbles. He froze them in place by hitting them with coconut spray.
He makes fondant out of marshmallows to make it extra-stretchy, and after carefully covering a cake, he uses an airbrush to tone the color. He uses vodka for mixing colors, because it dries fast and helps the color stick to the fondant (and, yes, he said, the alcohol evaporates). He hand-paints if he’s looking to create a more rustic appearance, like a plank of wood.
And he tries not to let the final product go to waste. Whenever the filming of an episode of Dan Can Bake It is completed, the cakes are boxed up and divided among the 15-member crew to take home.
Langan is working on a proposal for a book to help home chefs make “Instagram-ready” desserts. He also hopes to parlay his Food Network connections into his own prime-time show one day. And he recently bought a house in nearby Springfield, he said — “with a beautiful kitchen.”