We were blown away by the creativity and skills of our participants in our first cake decorating contest, Cake Madness. Thank you for all your wonderful submissions!
Ultimately, we chose the amazing creation seen above designed by Carly Leonardi of Carlys Cakery in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. (Yes, the tray is actually cake, too!)
We recently had an opportunity to chat with Carly and learned more about her background, inspiration - and tips for improving your cake decorating skills:
Hi, Carly. So good to meet you. Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you get into baking and cake decorating?
When I was getting ready to graduate high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Then I saw an advertisement for Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh. After touring the school and meeting the faculty, I knew that was where I needed to be. Growing up, my mom loved to cook and my my dad's side of the family opened the first candy business in Pittsburgh [that has since closed], so I guess you could say sweets are in my blood. You know that "how-to" speech you have to do every year in high school? I always showed how to make chocolate chip cookies. Studying pastry in culinary school was the next step.
After I earned my degree, I gained more experience working in bakeries in Florida. When my dad got sick, I wanted to be closer to my family and returned to Ligonier. It's also when I began baking cakes for friends and family. My business was born from there.
How would you describe yourself?
A mom and a custom cake designer. During the week, I try to spend as much time as possible with my two daughters (ages 2 and 4). For the weekends, designing, baking and decorating custom cakes for clients.
Is your business strictly online or do you have a full bakery?
(Carly laughs) My clients ask if I've got a bakery location, but you have to be up at 3am to be open and ready. This is way more flexible with two small kids. I create cakes for customers in the Ligonier area. It works out much better.
What are your favorite cakes to make?
Doing things that are "out-of-the-box" and require creative ideas. My clients ask me to do a lot of "naughty cakes". The most challenging cake I've made so far is a birdbath! Getting it to be structurally sound enough to support a cake where the heaviest piece is on top was difficult. I love designing nature-inspired cakes, especially floral and feminine designs.
What would you like to make that you haven't done recently (or yet)?
More elaborate and grander cakes, especially wedding cakes. With the pandemic, most cakes have only been two or three tiers - want to get back into those that are 4, 5, 6 tiers or more.
How did you adapt during the pandemic?
It's been a challenge. With weddings and other large events cancelled or postponed, had to be creative. I began making decorated cookies (typically sugar cookies) for holidays (you can see two examples on the winning cake). Looking forward to things getting back to normal.
Are there any particular types of cake or frosting you tend to use in your designs?
For frosting, I began using an American Buttercream, but can be too sweet. Then I found Swiss Merengue - and have never looked back. It is light and airy. (Need help understanding the difference/how to make each? Check out America's Test Kitchen article here.)
For the cake, I use traditional recipes that tend to produce cakes with tighter crumb. This is especially important for a carved cake to help hold it together when they travel. Wish I'd known about Stupid Car Tray years ago - it makes all the difference!
How do you continue to grow/learn new skills?
A variety of ways. I'm a visual learner and luckily have some artistic ability. I've always been able to draw or create something I've seen, so I've learned some things by just trial and error after seeing a picture. And YouTube! There are some great videos demonstrating a variety of techniques from some great cake designers. I continue to learn and add to my skills whenever I can.
Are there specific videos you'd recommend others check out to learn more about cake decorating?
Is there someone in particular who inspires you or who you'd like to be more like as you grow as a designer?
Natalie Sideserf. Her cakes are incredibly realistic!
Do you have any tips that could help cake decorators, regardless of skill set?
It is pretty basic, but makes a huge difference: all your liquid ingredients - eggs, milk, sour cream, butter, etc. - should ALL be at room temperature when you use them. Otherwise, they won't blend properly.
Be patient. Take your time while decorating or when learning a new skill.
So what do you do in your spare time?
When not covered in flour, I'm spending time with my girls. I especially love spending time with my Mom and seeing she has plenty of time with her grandbabies. Family is important.
Thanks for the tips, Carly - and the fabulous cake design submission!