Winning by design

Monica Iverson, owner of Cakes by Monica, stands with a display cake at her home bakery in Vermillion. Iverson took the top prizes at the Ultimate Cake Decorating Competition, which was held at the Mall of America on Nov. 14. (Photo by Travis Gulbrandson)

Last year, when Monica Iverson – Vermillion resident and owner of Cakes by Monica – competed in the Upper Midwest Bakery Association's Ultimate Cake Decorating Competition, she walked away with the second-place prize in one category.

When she competed this year, she stole the show, winning first place in both categories, for birthday and wedding cakes.

Although she won $1,000 for her winning wedding cake and $500 for her birthday cake, that wasn't the most important part.

"For me, it was about the competition – being able to compete," Iverson said. "It helps me know where I'm at as far as skill level goes."

The competition took place Nov. 14 at the Mall of America, with each competition category attracting a total of nine teams or competitors.

Iverson brought along one assistant to help her during the event.

The birthday cakes were completed first.

"They do a theme every year, and the theme was 'Animals Gone Wild,'" Iverson said. "You were given an hour and a half to do a design of your choice and 24 coordinating cupcakes. It's actually a really short amount of time to create something spectacular."

Iverson sculpted an alligator for the main body of the cake, surrounding it with cupcakes covered in blue frosting, with lily pads and alligator eyes on top.

The cake was completed in one hour, a contrast from her entry last year, which was a three-dimensional standing "wild thing" from the book and film, "Where the Wild Things Are."

"That cake was really ambitious, because I did a stand-up, and I almost didn't complete it on time," Iverson said. "I decided I wasn't going to do that this year, because it was extremely stressful."

In the birthday cake category, each decorator uses the same set of materials.

"The cakes are pre-baked. Everybody gets the same size and shape of cake and a bucket of frosting," Iverson said. "You have to bring your own food coloring and airbrush equipment, whatever you want to use."

Competitors are allowed to use Rice Krispy treats or dowels to construct parts of the body of the cake, if necessary, but a certain percentage of the cake has to be edible.

"The non-edible things (are used mainly) for stability and construction, which is a huge part of cake decorating," Iverson said.

She added that it's "definitely not a taste competition."

"Artwork is really what is comes down to," she said. "What can you design? What can you create?"

For the wedding cake category, competitors were given three hours to complete a cake with a minimum of five tiers. As with the birthday cakes, the materials were provided.

"We were able to tell them the week before what size and shape of cake we wanted baked, so they baked them and provided the icing," Iverson said. "We brought what we needed to do the silhouette stencils and the flowers and anything else that we wanted to add."

The contestants also had to follow a three-page list of regulations as to what they could and could not do.

"You couldn't add plastic decorations. You couldn't use pre-made gum paste or fondant types of decorations," Iverson said. "You had to make everything on-site, which is also very difficult when you only have three hours."

The theme for the wedding cakes was, "Your Destination Wedding."

We were under the impression that a lot of people would choose a tropical theme – do Hawaii or the Bahamas. So we didn't do that," Iverson said. "But it was interesting, because when we got there, three other teams had chosen Paris, like we had."

For those teams, the competition became a matter of "Who chose the best Paris theme?" Iverson said.

The cake she created was multi-tiered, with intricate stenciled silhouette designs on the sides, with a miniature Eiffel Tower on top.

"This cake would generally take me two days instead of three hours, because the brides will generally get different flavors for each tier, so I have to mix up a bunch of different cake flavors," Iverson said. "Then they have to cool before you can put any frosting on them. So it's a lot more time-consuming of a process."

Iverson said she was faced with some stiff competition.

"Some of the other designers who were there came up with amazing cakes," she said. "But some of them started leaning. They couldn't finish some of the work they wanted to do. The judges said they were 'a little over-ambitious' in their design."

Iverson has had plenty of practice in the art of cake design since she opened her business approximately 17 years ago, making hundreds of wedding and birthday cakes each year.

"I generally do three to five weddings each weekend, up until November," she said.

She estimates that she also bakes up to 40 anniversary and birthday cakes each week, with the help of a full-time baker and some art students from the University of South Dakota.

Iverson said she's loved baking since she received an Easy-Bake Oven when she was 8 or 9. Her mother was also an important mentor.

"She was always known as the cake lady at church or at work," Iverson said.

Although she began her professional life as a teacher, Iverson also worked part time as a baker and decorator. Eventually, the baking took over.

"It just boomed," she said. "Word of mouth was the best advertising for me. Someone would show up (at a party) and there would be a 3-D Barbie cake, and everybody would say, 'Where did you get that?' The next year I was busier, and it just grew from there. I ended up not teaching anymore, and just taking this on full-time."

Iverson said she enjoyed her experience at this year's competition.

"It's rewarding, I think, when you have a design and you sketch it out and you've got this idea in your head, and you want to make it into art. Then to turn it into something really cool that people appreciate," Iverson said. "It's a feeling of succeeding at creating your design and doing it in a short amount of time, and doing it better than anyone else."

She said she's planning on competing next year, too, although she's trying to remain realistic.

"I'm not expecting to take first again," she said.

Pictures of Iverson's winning designs – as well as those of the second- and third-place winners – are available online at

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