Dressed in crisp chef coats and armed with a cake decorator’s tool box that would make any novice baker mint green with envy, Julie Ehrentraut and Linda Milea get busy rolling out fondant and putting the finishing touches on a pair of sugar poodles for a 1950s-inspired hat box cake. But the two, who share a bond as tight as TV Land’s most beloved duo, Lucy and Ethel, quickly turn the demonstration into loads of laughter. With a costume change to oversized hats and a sequined crown, confectioners sugar is soon flying in the air and being smudged on each other’s face. While these two ladies know how to let loose in and outside of the kitchen, the good that their annual CNY Cake Decorating Competition is doing for the community is no joking matter.
What began in 2009 as a marketing effort for Ehrentraut’s Wilton cake decorating class at A.C. Moore in Ithaca, has grown from 68 local participants to hundreds of competitors hailing from Maine to Indiana. This homegrown event has attracted big names in the pastry industry like Norman Davis, Zane Beg and Betty Van Norstrand to the area. With this year’s edible fashion show fundraiser for two local women’s shelters, Brian O’Malley (CEO of Domino Sugar), Victoria MacKenzie-Childs, Anna Hovet (Chicago fashion designer) and Dryden native Jamie Otis (from The Bachelor) will also be in attendance. “I realized really quickly that there’s a lot of skill in our area, and they’re mainly home bakers who don’t have a commercial bakery and aren’t doing it for a living. This is the kind of stuff you see them do,” Ehrentraut said, pointing to Milea’s detailed 45 turntable cake that features a moving arm and a ponytailed cheerleader outfitted in a “CNY” sweater, poodle skirt, saddle oxfords and pom poms.
Milea, of Homer, is one of these talents who was discovered at the inaugural cake competition. “She was our first grand-prize winner. She was a beginner and swept the competition,” said Ehrentraut, a sales director for Le Garden Bakery in Lansing. The winning carved cake: a 1957 red convertible, dog in passenger seat, woman driving with scarf blowing in the wind, trunk stuffed with bales of straw, cornstalks and bushels of apples.
Milea began mixing up sugar and spice in some of the most creative ways after watching just one episode of “Ace of Cakes” three years ago. Twenty first-place ribbons and a master cake carver title later, Milea is now a full time cake artist with aspirations to open her own bakery and Ehrentraut’s right hand woman, creating showpieces for the event and teaching classes. The one thing Milea won’t share? Her buttercream pound cake recipe that took her years to perfect.
“I just see something and think, ‘that would look great in cake!’ It’s a real happy medium to work in; it’s all that sugar. Smells good, too. It’s fun to see people’s faces when you cut into one of the cakes. Sometimes they gasp because they can’t believe it’s a cake,” Milea said, referring to the time she crafted a potato salad cake that partygoers tried to scoop.
Frosting fancy works of art is more Milea’s forte, but for Ehrentraut the teacher within always makes it a point to bring education to the table, hence why she decided to incorporate a fashion show that paired area college students with top pastry chefs. “It’s the first real business experience for the students, dealing with potential clients, knowing how to work with different personalities, discovering their weaknesses and how to combat those, and finding creative ways to communicate and get ideas across to each other,” Ehrentraut said. The teams will be judged on their ability to communicate as well as create together. The winning student gets $2,500 and an archived tour of Tommy USA in New York City and the cake artist wins $5,000.
This ideal goes hand in hand with the charity focus of the event — domestic violence, a subject that hits close to home for Ehrentraut. Her sister Tammy Geis-Vellake fell victim to domestic violence at the young age of 30. “A lot of people see domestic violence as affecting one group of people or one type of person. I’m hoping to educate that it affects a wide group of people from all walks of life, and to know why shelters are important,” Ehrentraut said, noting that the most enjoyable component she’s witnessed throughout the past three events is the increasing number of returning families. “Once you lose somebody, you realize how important it is to make as many memories as you can together,” she added.
If this year’s fundraising efforts are successful, the two plan to support different organizations each year and have high hopes that their show will become a national stop on the cake competition circuit. “It makes people happy to look at, to eat it and to make it. It brings out people’s creativity,” Ehrentraut said. “I love to make people smile. That’s the excitement for a cake decorator.”