V ictory is sweet for Melissa Zunich, the winner of Food Network Channel's Cake Wars.
Zunich, the owner of Sweet Cheeks Cakery in Delta, teamed up with a cousin to design an entry that won the judges over with its impressive details and "wonderful" hand painting.
Melissa has been in the cake business just a little over a year, so competing against culinary school graduates and bakers with much more experience was definitely daunting. "As a self-taught baker, I wanted to prove I have what it takes to win," she told the judges.
Melissa chose as her assistant her cousin, Sunny Hintze. Melissa called her a "cake genius" who has a business of her own in Salt Lake City called Sunny Day Cakes.
Melissa explains she earned a degree in criminal justice and psychology, and worked in Mesa County Community Corrections until she gave birth to her son Bryson three years ago. Two years later, she and her husband Cole had a daughter, Harper. "I decided to change course, and that's when I started making cakes," she explains.
The Cottage Food Act opened the door for Melissa to operate the business out of her home kitchen, as long as the finished product doesn't require refrigeration and goes directly to the customer.
Baking has been a hobby of Melissa's since she was a young girl. Her mother owned the only restaurant in her hometown of Nucla, and that's where she practiced. "My grandmother would say, 'Why do you always decide to make cakes right in the middle of my rush hour?' But I guess the practice helped."
Through trial and error, she developed a range of cake decorating techniques.
"Everyone I make cakes for would tell me, 'Oh my gosh you need to do something with this. This isn't just a hobby.'
"On a whim I submitted pictures of five of my cakes to Food Network. When they emailed me back, I said, 'Oh, crap. This is real now.' I definitely didn't know what I was getting myself into, but my cousin has quite a few years of experience and I felt confident going with her."
Without revealing any details to family members, in October Melissa and Sunny flew to Los Angeles.
Melissa is a fan of Cake Wars, and its predecessor Cupcake Wars, so she knew how the competition would unfold. She just didn't realize how daunting it would prove.
Four teams of bakers compete to make cakes for a panel of judges that critiques taste and presentation. One of the teams is eliminated after a preliminary round, and the other three move on to determine who will showcase their cake at a major party or special event and win the $10,000 prize.
The show's host is Jonathan Bennett, and the two regular judges are Ron Ben-Israel and Waylynn Lucas. The Season 2 episode in which Melissa competed also had a guest judge, Susan Brandt, president of Dr. Seuss Enterprises.
Each episode of Cake Wars is centered around a theme, and the episode in which Melissa competed was a celebration of Dr. Seuss' first book in 25 years, "What Pet Should I Get?"
The recently discovered book was published last summer. Melissa explains, "In the book, kids go to the pet shop to pick out their animal but they run out of time. When they leave the pet store, you see the animal peeping out of a basket, but you don't know what kind of animal they got. Our challenge was to create the pet the kids picked, an original character never seen before."
In the first round, a flavor challenge called Batter Up, the teams had 75 minutes to present a finished creation inspired by green eggs and ham. Melissa and Sunny put their heads together and came up with a very Dr. Seuss-like bird/kitten combination. The head was sculpted from Rice Krispies treats and covered with fondant. The creature's feathers were piped buttercream frosting. The judges complimented Melissa and Sunny on their range of techniques, as well as their whimsical design.
"Baking, cooling and decorating that cake in 75 minutes was pretty much the hardest thing I've ever done," Melissa says.
But as a young mother, she could embrace the theme. "I'm pretty sure we have every Dr. Seuss book at our house, so I'm familiar with all the stories."
Melissa and Sunny sailed through the first round of judging and embarked on the final round, the Cake Off, in which they had four hours to carry the Dr. Seuss theme to a new level. They decided to feature the two kids from "What Pet Should I Get?" on the top of the cake, positioned as if they had traveled through the world of Dr. Seuss. The colorful layers were tilted at crazy angles, requiring the duo to look at their creation from a structural aspect, while trying to create an entry that would impress the judges with its towering design, taste and presentation.
Melissa and Sunny came up with an original recipe for a vanilla bean buttermilk cake with a salted caramel filling that the judges said they loved.
Used to rolling out the fondant by hand, they had to quickly learn to operate big fondant sheeters and other pieces of "fancy equipment" they'd never seen before.
"It looks easy when you watch it on TV, but it was a lot of hard work," Melissa said. "It wasn't actually fun until it was over because it was so stressful."
After the competition, Melissa and Sunny served the cake to students at the University of California San Diego. The setting was the Geisel Library, named in honor of Audrey and Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss).
The show was taped in October and aired initially on the Food Network Channel on Monday, Jan. 18. Melissa says she didn't know until a week before it aired when the show would be on. She posted the date and time on her Sweet Cheeks Facebook page, and put together a watch party for her family -- without letting on that she'd won.
"My cousin is a lot like me," Melissa said. "We're super OCD. We do not like things to walk out the door if they're not perfect. But on the show, we were so rushed for time that it wasn't about getting it perfect, it was about getting it done. We felt we didn't do very well, because our cake wasn't perfect."
The judges disagreed, however, and awarded the $10,000 prize to Melissa, which she plans to split with her cousin.
"Although we only see each other a couple of times a year. we talk about cake all the time. Any time I have questions, I call her. This experience definitely helped us become a lot closer."
Melissa says the experience also gave her more confidence. "I was definitely scared, and thinking I was in over my head. I didn't believe I would come out on top."
It still doesn't seem possible, she says, that a young mother who bakes cakes out of her house in Delta, Colorado, could win Cake Wars.
Winning the $10,000 prize doesn't seem real quite yet, because Melissa hasn't actually seen the money. But when she does, she plans to invest in some new cake equipment. She'll need it, because her phone immediately started ringing after people saw the show and started spreading the word about her win.
"It's so cool to be able to represent our small town," she said.