In her quest to win a world championship title in cake decorating, Jean Schapowal studied her daughter’s saxophone.
The 58-year-old baker from Hicksville is representing the United States on Oct. 16 and 17 in what she calls the "Olympics of cake decorating," run by the Italy-based International Federation of Pastry, Gelato and Chocolate and dubbed the FIPGC Cake Designers World Championship. She is in Milan hoping to beat teams from 11 other countries, including Japan, Mexico, Italy, France and Poland.
“The theme is music of our nation. My cake is basically an homage to jazz,” Schapowal says. The contest requires bakers to create a display "cake" made of plastic foam and covered with edible décor. Schapowal’s 4-foot-tall display cake has a sculpted saxophone, trumpet and snare drum that she created from rice cereal treats and modeling chocolate in her Long Island kitchen and shipped with her to Italy to assemble there. She also created painted panels made from fondant that has hardened and is painted with edible art paints. During the competition, she will create a smaller, real cake version in real time.
The winner receives the FIPGC Cake Designer World Cup, a gold medal and about $2,500, says Valeria Brelicco, spokesperson for the Italian federation. The competition occurs every two years; the judges look for technique and creativity, she says. Parts of the competition will be livestreamed on the FIPGC's Facebook page.
“You’re not doing it for the money, you’re doing it for the prestige,” Schapowal says. “Here I am this little cake decorator from Hicksville, Long Island and I’m going on the world stage to compete with some amazing powerhouses. If you win the competition, obviously you get the honor of being the best of the best in the world.”
NO STRANGER TO COMPETITION
Schapowal has appeared on the Food Network's "Halloween Wars" and "Bake It 'Til You Make It," on Disney’s "Foodtastic," and on HBO Max’s "Queen of Cakes." She’s traveled the country to compete in cake show competitions.
“I’ve done a lot of sculpted busts of comic book characters and cartoon characters, a lot of animé, a lot of science fiction, robots. I have a kind of a cartoony pop kind of style. Bright colors, lots of black heavy lines, kind of like comic book artists,” she says of her cakes. “I’ve done the Joker, I’ve done The Batman Who Laughs, I’ve done Jocasta from 'The Avengers,' I’ve done the martian dog from 'Mars Attacks!' — that’s the head of Sarah Jessica Parker on the dog — I’ve done 'The Iron Giant.'”
For this competition, her style will be a different. She'll be baking a doberge cake, which is a New Orleans-style cake of nine or more thin layers. She'll use lemon curd and chocolate hazelnut feuilletine crunch with toasted chopped almonds for fillings and will cover the cake with white chocolate ganache.
UP TO 15 CAKES A WEEK
Schapowal was a graphic designer and illustrator who got into cake baking when her oldest daughter was a toddler — that daughter is now 26 years old. “I did her birthday cake when she was 3 because I was like, ‘I can make a cake, that’s not hard.’ It was very hard. But doing her birthday cakes kind of opened the doors cause people would see that cake at the party and say, ‘Well where did you get that cake from?’ ”
She learned techniques by watching videos and taking classes on how to build internal cake structures, how to support the cake and how to transport it. She learned to use rice cereal treats to mold items and cover them with chocolate because cakes won’t hold the shapes.
At the height of her business, Schapowal says she was making 12 to 15 cakes a week. “I can’t tell you how many sneaker cakes I have done for bar mitzvahs,” Schapowal says. A simple round cake costs $125; her sneaker cakes cost about $400, complex comic book busts like the Joker go for more than $1,000, she says.
When social media took off, Schapowal put together an Instagram page featuring her creations and created her website, Cakes With Character. That’s when casting producers started to see her work and approach her for television shows.
‘IT HAS TO BE PERFECT’
Schapowal had to qualify to represent the United States in the Italy competition by placing in an initial contest in the United States, she says. She has taken off from creating customer cakes since March to focus on raising money and sponsors for her trip, selling T-shirts and gift baskets and teaching online classes. She raised $13,000 to pay for airfare, housing, shipping and more.
She chose her longtime cake-baking friend Reva Alexander-Hawk of Georgia as her teammate. “Jean and I have always wanted to team up on something big and this is as big as it gets,” Alexander-Hawk says. “This is the perfect outlet for the two of us to be creative and show the world what we have.”
The two left for Italy on Oct. 5 to have time to prepare and repair items for their display cake that might have been damaged in shipment. Schapowal’s husband, Alex, 59, a retired New York City police captain, is traveling with them.
Schapowal packed lidocaine, Icy Hot patches and a brace for her knee. “It’s long, grueling days,” she says of competitions. Confectionary art is not for the weak. She says she cried several times when preparing on Long Island and had to toss multiple attempts that didn’t work to her satisfaction.
“This level of competition, it has to be perfect,” she says. “I love cake competition because I can do things people don’t ask for customer-wise. It’s a challenge for myself to kind of improve and see what else I can do.”