In early October, Florida cake decorator Mercedes Strachwsky, two sons, one son’s girlfriend and a six-tier cake crammed into a Ford Expedition and started out a 22-hour drive to the Oklahoma Sugar Art Show in Tulsa, OK. First-time entrant Strachwsky had no idea that her car would be even more cramped on the way home—filled to the brim with the spoils of a grand prize win.
Most of the contestants in the 16th annual Oklahoma Sugar Art Show’s Grand National Wedding Cake Competition drove their masterpieces to the event to limit damage. Strachwsky’s winning cake arrived without a scratch. Strachwsky, a former cake-decorating teacher who does all the decorating at her family’s Orlando shop Bake Me a Cake Pastry Shop & Bakery, entered the contest due to the persistent nudging of her sons.
“My problem is time,” she says. “How can I say to a bride, ‘No, I am not going to do your cake, I am going to a show’?”
Time, however, was on Strachwsky’s side. She created her cake in just seven days—and still found the time to decorate 10 wedding cakes. “I work really fast because we have so many cakes, and I have to do it fast,” she says. “When you have a business, you have so many interruptions.”
Strachwsky also credits her speedy decorating with the fact that she has created many ocean scenes, is a self-admitted nature-lover and knew ahead of starting how the cake would look. She creates a sketch of every cake she decorates—even wedding cakes.
This year’s competition theme was “Of Sea and Shore.” Entrants had to showcase ocean-elements while retaining a romantic over-all feel. Strachwsky used a water-color technique to create depth in her cake. The color palette was inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s famous painting The Birth of Venus—a work that the cake decorator greatly admires. The mermaids, she says, were inspired by a children’s book.
Every decorative addition on the cake was created from Satin Ice fondant—a medium she works in almost exclusively. Strachwsky saves molds for “an emergency,” preferring to shape her decorations by hand to give them movement. Only two or three of Strachwasky’s coral pieces were formed from molds and then refined by hand. A light was added to the inside of the second tier to highlight the colors in the coral.
Individual coral pieces were texturized with toothbrushes, toothpicks and embroidery tools. In a time crunch, Strachwsky says she doesn’t worry if her fondant additions aren’t completely dry. She simply uses a small dab of water and adheres the addition to a fondant-covered cake by holding it with a tissue until it sticks. She has used this method for bows and roses—and her grand-prize winning cake.
“I wasn’t expecting anything,” she says of her win, adding that because she was a teacher for 20-plus years, “I always love all the cakes. I always see the good parts; I never see the bad parts.”
Despite saying that she isn’t competitive, Baking Buyer doubts that the competitive cake world has seen the last of this talented “newbie.”
“I’m hoping to go next year, too,” she says.
Kerry Vincent on Mercedes Strachwsky
“Mercedes was the dark horse, most of the contestants were not familiar with her work. I have known Mercedes for 17 years or so, and when I saw her registration come in I thought, ‘Hmm, could be a bit of a shake up here.’
Mercedes has created some fabulous underwater tableaus in the past, one of which is in the Orlando Science Museum—has been there for 12 years. I knew the theme was right up her alley! No one begrudged her the win. It was one of the most stunning cakes I have ever seen, and contestants and visitors alike were blown away by the sheer beauty of it all. Scrupulous attention to detail, excellent technique and to top it off, Mercedes has a sweet self effacing personality and had no expectations. Her sons however truly love their mother and were quite certain she would win.” —Kerry Vincent director and co-founder of the Oklahoma Sugar Art Show