Melissa Alt has both a lion head and a gorilla head on display in her family’s dining room. No, she’s not an avid hunter, but a budding cake decorator displaying the remnants of her most prized works of art.
“I specialize in really high-detailed, elaborate, artistic cakes,” said the 22-year-old native of Teaneck, N.J., who is studying painting at the Pratt Institute. “I always say it’s more of an art for me than cake decorating.”
Alt has shown an interest in cakes since a young age. “Ever since elementary school I’d make Duncan Hines cakes and decorate them as Elmo or Sponge Bob for my friends,” she told The Jewish Week in a phone interview.
But at 18, right after she graduated from high school, Alt decided to give cake decorating a serious shot, landing a summer internship at the famed Hoboken bakery Carlo’s Bake Shop, best known from the TLC TV show “Cake Boss.”
“I learned how to properly ice a cake, properly roll out fondant, a few tips here and there,” she said. But Alt was yearning to experiment on her own, with more creative freedom. “I feel like I learned what I needed to learn there and I didn’t go back because I wasn’t doing what I wanted, which is art.”
After spending a year at seminary in Israel, Alt returned to the U.S. determined to jumpstart her cake-decorating career, and devoted the summer to the craft.
“I didn’t realize this was something I really wanted to do until I was in Israel and I kept thinking about cakes; I just wanted to do cakes,” she said. So she started creating confections for friends’ birthdays and weddings, “still really just learning the basics,” and studying online videos for tips.
By the next summer, Alt was ready to tackle what she’d been dreaming of: large, sculpted cakes that need a wooden frame for support.
With help from her dad in his workshop, Alt set out to create cake “sculptures” even though “I had no idea what I was doing,” she said. First she made an Iron Man cake for a neighbor’s birthday, then was commissioned to create a life-like lion cake for her friend’s mom’s surprise party. What followed was more than 10 days of work — and several all-nighters — to create a three-foot-tall, 150-plus-pound lion, covered in fondant and airbrushed to look life-like. The rest of the summer Alt churned out cakes of all shapes and sizes: delicate tiered cakes with stained-glass patterns or covered in flowers, cakes shaped like sandwiches, pickle barrels and more.
Her parents’ home in New Jersey turned into cake central:
“I definitely get in people’s way all the time in the kitchen,” said Alt. Her four siblings and her grandmother also live with her parents. She has drawers in the living room filled with supplies and strict instructions on cleanup from her mom: “I’ve gotten a lot better at cleaning up as I go!”
Though she’s had many successes — from a detailed drum set for a bar mitzvah to a helicopter and a life-like suitcase adorned with postcards — she’s had a few setbacks too. From cakes that fell apart to those that got damaged in transport, Alt has learned that the world of cake decorating is not without its challenges.
In fact, transporting the finished cake is often one of the toughest tasks. Though she is majoring in painting at Pratt, Alt took a sculpture class and made cakes for two of her final projects — a 3D standing gorilla and a tall man made of chocolate. Getting them to Brooklyn was a challenge.
“I had to hire three guys to come to my house and lift it,” she recalls. “I built a box to go around it and then I bungee corded it to the car so it wouldn’t move.”
Her favorite subjects are always animal sculptures — this past summer she made a turtle and she’s currently working on a hippo cake.
But when it’s all said and done, can Alt tolerate people cutting into — and eating! — her beloved art?
“This is what I made it for — it’s meant to be cut!” she says. “People always say, how can you cut that, but I’m happy when they do. I’m usually the one who does the cutting; other people can’t bear to.” ✦