Local pastry chef Ashlee Roderick has created several themed cakes for large competitions. The awards they've won prove her career also has a theme: excellence.
Roderick, 37, has competed in three competitions and is planning to enter another cake this fall in the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show. She's a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and has owned and operated The Cake Artist's Studio in Champaign since 2001.
The Savoy native, who graduated from Judah Christian High School, has competed with professional pastry chefs from around the world and has twice placed in the top 15 of 70 competitors at the National Wedding Cake Competition, a division of the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show in Tulsa. She earned silver medals both times she competed, in 2007 and 2009. Judges award five golds and 10 silvers by points but do not rank winners of the same medals.
Kerry Vincent, whom you might recognize as the headband-wearing judge on cake-decorating challenges on the Food Network, coordinates the competition.
Roderick also won silver in April 2008 at the Mid-Atlantic Cake Show in Baltimore, which is the largest wedding cake competition in the nation.
These competitions focused on decorating, so the cakes are made of foam rounds covered with intricate designs of fondant, piping and countless other edible accoutrements. Because they're not made of real cake, they're still on display at Roderick's shop on Bloomington Road in Champaign.
The sun has faded Roderick's 2007 "We're Not in Kansas Anymore" cake, but you can still see the intricate details Roderick incorporated based on "The Wizard of Oz."
The bottom layer looks like a yellow-brick road, with glittery ruby slippers leaning against it. Roderick made the mold for the shoes herself to earn more points.
The next layer is covered with silver fondant, ringed with a lion's tail and with patches of straw, to represent the scarecrow. After that is a blue gingham pattern, accented with sparkling buttons that look real, followed by a layer made to look like the mayor of Munchkinland's home. The cake features curled-up striped legs, like those of the Wicked Witch of the East when Dorothy's house lands on her. It's topped with a pink, sparkling crown exploding with stars, like that of Glinda the Good Witch.
Everything on the cake is edible, and Roderick made all of it by hand.
Another competition cake, "Flowers with Character," earned silver in 2008 at the Mid-Atlantic Cake Show. It's covered with varying shades of pink flowers and characters to match fabric decorating the cake's table.
"I just thought it was a really modern cake design," Roderick said. "It's modern and girly at the same time."
Roderick tries to use innovative approaches in competitions. That she's mastered the classic techniques is a given, so judges are always looking for something new.
"To really blow them away is to do something they haven't seen before, which is harder and harder," she said.
She delivered that with her "Sea of Love" cake, which won silver in 2009 at the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show. She originally thought she wanted to include a jellyfish, and she thought gelatin might be a key ingredient. It didn't work as she expected, but she tried making coral by blowing up tiny balloons and dipping them in orange gelatin. The result is a vibrant, hollow tube that looks just like the real thing.
"I knew what I wanted to create and had to figure out how to do it," Roderick said.
At the shows Roderick has competed in, artists start and sometimes complete their cakes before bringing them to the competition. She puts everything on the cake she thinks will survive the trip, makes extra icing and fondant (because it's color matched) and packs anything she'd need to re-create if something goes wrong.
"You know the thing you don't take, you're going to need," Roderick said. She drives to competitions the same way she makes local deliveries – in her Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Designers get about five hours the Friday night before the show and a few hours Saturday morning to decorate their tables and assemble their cakes.
The Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show is part of the state fair each year, so as many as 50,000 people walk through it. Not much separates the crowds from the cakes, Roderick said, so this year, she plans to set out the cake Saturday morning to minimize the chance someone might touch it.
She's assembled parts in her hotel room before, including a delicate sugar sea anemone that topped her "Sea of Love" cake. The piece, which made it home from Oklahoma in one piece and now rests in a plastic case in Roderick's office, set her cake apart.
"It really stood out," Roderick said. "People rarely do sugar work" at such competitions. She studied sugar with Ewald Notter, a pastry chef so good he's no longer allowed to compete.
Roderick enjoys making competition cakes enough to sacrifice her time to make them and close her shop while she competes.
She does the competition cakes for herself – she doesn't have anyone else to please, and the inspiration is all her own. She compares the difference between her cakes for competitions and weddings to making couture garments rather than a ready-to-wear line.
"That would be a $20,000 cake if I had to sell it," Roderick said about the "Wizard of Oz" cake, because she put so many hours into it.
Competitions give her a chance to meet other cake artists and see how they interpreted the theme. Many are open to sharing.
She sees cakes and thinks, "I never would have thought to go in that direction and it works," she said. The competitions also have training sessions. Because of one, she now knows how to make those enormous cakes supported by PVC pipe, like you see on the Food Network.
These competitions could be a way to get on those shows, she said, as well as get other national recognition for her craft.
National bridal magazines send scouts.
"That's a way to get noticed, especially if you're not in a major metropolitan area," Roderick said.
She's already thinking of what she'll do for this year's competition in Oklahoma, which will have a "Mansions and Monasteries" theme. She's not saying much about what it will look like, but she has plans.
"I can see it in my head," Roderick said.