Where Sugarcoating Is Welcome
Cake Decorating Competition Puts 'Fairy Dreams and Castles' on a Pedestal
By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 22, 2009; C04
In the live cake decorating challenge, amateur Dianna Lopez was the definite underdog. Lopez, a UPS manager, was competing yesterday at the National Capital Area Cake Show in Burke -- against three professional bakers who have appeared on the Food Network.
As the 11 a.m. start neared, contestants and their assistants worked furiously to set up in the auditorium at Lake Braddock Secondary School. They would have six hours to turn three round cakes into a culinary masterpiece with the theme of "fairy dreams and castles."
Lopez, 44, unpacked boxes, pulling out a bottle of vodka.
"It's not for drinking," she said. "At least not yet."
The cake show -- the live challenge was one part -- was an extravaganza of sugar, flour and chocolate. Creativity was limited only by the imagination and gravity. Cake took many forms: a bouquet of flowers, a worn baseball mitt, plenty of fairies, a few hats and one elf.
More than 1,000 people were expected this weekend to view the nearly 300 cakes entered in several decorating contest divisions.
In the school's gym, a camera-clicking crowd gathered around a life-size "stone" birdbath: the sparking water made from gelatin, the fluffy birds from gum paste and the "dirt" beneath the bath from cookie crumbs.
Nearby, Denise Watkins used a knife to push up a sagging line of icing on her five-tier wedding cake of shell-pink ruffles. "I call it my pink beauty," said Watkins, a Virginia Beach teacher who has been decorating cakes since 1984.
The event was sponsored by the Virginia chapter of the International Cake Exploration Societé.
Lopez, who lives in Kearny, N.J., began decorating cakes a few years ago. Her cakes won their division in the Mid-Atlantic Cake show in 2007 and again in 2008. But mostly she decorates for family and friends. The contest in Burke is the biggest she has entered.
She was up against Michigan bakery owner Courtney Clark, New Jersey cake store owner Anne Heap and Charmaine Jones, owner of Cakediva Custom Cakes in New York. All three have competed in cake decorating contests on the Food Network.
As the start neared, Lopez and assistant Vanessa Greeley, a bank systems analyst, readied their equipment: bowls and spatulas, wire cutters, pliers, scissors and a pizza slicer. The alcohol, it turned out, was to be mixed with colored powders to create an edible paint.
A remark by contest emcee Norman Davis, co-owner of the Sweet Life, an Annandale bakery, made clear that competitive cake decorating is not for the faint of heart.
"If anyone cuts off their finger, I have bandages," he said.
By 11 a.m., supplies were neatly stacked on tables, airbrushes were plugged in and contestants had received their three cakes. Soon enough, the cakes would weigh 150 pounds each and be barely recognizable under layers of sugar, gum paste, chocolate and icing.
The contest began. Note-taking judges wandered among the contestants. Lopez laid strips of striped chocolate resembling bark over a piece of PVC pipe next to the cake.
Together, she and Greeley draped green fondant -- a gelatin and sugar substance rolled out like pizza dough -- over the cake and smoothed it down. Greeley cut out tiny doors while Lopez created a fairy.
At 5 p.m., contestants high-fived as their creations were moved to display tables. The packed auditorium erupted in applause.
Lopez's cake drew gasps. It was a three-tier green mountain with stone steps, trees, moss and a fairy with spun-sugar wings that rotated around the adjacent tree.
Alas, no cake lasts forever. The four decorated yesterday are to be sliced up and sold today at the cake show. Proceeds will go to charity.
At stake for the competitors is $1,000 and bragging rights. The winner will be announced today.