Jean Schapowal Represented Team USA at the Music-themed World Cake Designers Championship in Milan, Italy. This is Her Story.

On October 16th and 17th 2023, Reva Alexander-Hawk and I represented Team USA at the FIPGC (The International Federation of Pastry, Gelato and Chocolate) at the World Cake Designers Championship event in Milan, Italy. The tenth-anniversary event was part of the industry event HostMilano (see page TK) that takes place very two years.

Twelve teams of two competed over the course of two days in an eight-hour international competition, which required us to construct a large display cake (completed and assembled before the competition) and three tasting cakes (one used for photos, one that is cut and served to the judges for tasting and a third to be incorporated into the live competition cake). This year’s theme was “Music of our Nation.”

It was an honor to participate, and the detailed qualification process to represent the country included both in-person events and online competitions. I qualified for the domestic finals by finishing first at the Ultimate Sugar Show in Atlanta in September, 2019. We were supposed to compete at a live final the next year, before the pandemic changed everyone’s plans. Instead we held a final event online, submitting a sketch, a video of our creations and an introduction about why each of us would be the best person. Then we waited. In Oct. 2022, organizers contacted a winner, who declined to compete. As the U.S. first runner-up, I was next in line and accepted with 11 months’ notice, less than other competitors. I chose Reva, a seven-time Food Network champ who is based in Atlanta, as my partner for the event in Milan.

Over the next 11 months, Reva, my family and I did whatever we could to finance our trip and prep, including materials, airfare, housing and careful transportation to venues that would protect our work. We sold t-shirts, held demos, found sponsors and sold gift baskets and raffle tickets. Reva and I held frequent Zoom calls, and I flew her in from Atlanta three times to work together. We attended shows. A friend donated cakes that we sold, and I stopped taking customer orders for my own business. This became my full-time job.

With our limited time frame, we worked feverishly. The theme for the competition in Italy was music, and my design was an untraditional gravity-defying piece with a saxophone at the center of the design. I made a sketch, but I’m a very visual person and I need to see something to see if it works. I put together a mock/dummy display cake at home. Reva and I have complementary skills. She’s great at putting flowers together. I’m more of a sculptor and painter. We divided responsibilities and made frequent changes to our original plan.

I experimented with different techniques such as block printing and hand-cut fondant work for our piece. At the time, we didn’t have a color board to use and we didn’t have framings around our paintings that we added later. The top tier of our piece originally had wafer paper for the sheets of music instead of fondant and we were trying out rice paper sails around the pieces to add another element to the design. All these changes were necessary to work out to improve the overall look of our work. We also wound up adding a step onto our cake base. It added a bit more dimension to the overall look. 

Reva was a great teammate before and during the competition.

On the one hand, the more techniques you show the judges, the higher your score should be. But when you participate in a competition of that caliber, it isn’t not always about how many techniques you can include, but how well you can actually do them.  Do not add a technique you’re not proficient in as you will be penalized by the judges.

As an example, we were originally doing pastillage frames around the paintings on our hexagon tier. I had never worked with the medium before, but we all felt it would be a good addition to the piece. Unfortunately, our dummy was off a fraction of an inch on some sides and after covering it with fondant, we set it off even more and the frames were not joining up cleanly. Because it was a hexagon, the sides of all the frames needed to be at an angle or a miter cut. I made about 60 frames, trying to find the cleanest ones to use, but no matter how many times I tried, they weren’t lining up. My husband first noticed that the sides were off, so instead of using a one size fits all template, I had to make an individual frame for each side. Because I felt it wasn’t a clean look we scrapped that. I purchased a mat cutter from a framing shop and then used gum paste that worked out so much better.

We originally planned to construct our saxophone and trumpet in modeling chocolate. I couldn’t get the clean look I wanted and I didn’t want to use fondant for those elements. On a tip, I tried a new sugar paste that afforded me the ability to really work the material, smooth it, layer and get a very clean look. 

I also wanted all materials for our dimply cake and sculpted elements to be covered with fondant months in advance so they would be nice and hard/form and travel better. We needed to prepare for the possibility of breakage.

Even though we were packing for a competition and had most of our equipment and materials I still made extra parts just to be safe. (Eventually everything arrived in Milan in one piece, except for a few pieces of the saxophone. I had spares of those.)

For the tasting element, we worked on our recipe for months, trying to have a cake that tasted good and worked well with our theme and story. We constantly experimented with new flavors, sponges and techniques. We thought about doing a roulade, but we were told we’d have eight hours to bake a cake on site, so we wanted something that wouldn’t take long. Our neighbors generously donated their kitchens, their stomachs and their opinions. We considered lemon curd and an orange-chocolate that was very traditional in the Milan area. Finally, we opted for hazelnut sponge, using a toasted hazelnut powder one colleague suggested.

As our trip approached, we anticipated everything we could. We didn’t want any security agent at the airport ruining our piece because they needed to open the box that carried it. We contacted TSA, Homeland Security, customs and our airline ahead of time. We took photos of everything inside the box and affixed it to the outside of the box. We also included a flier that explained the event and a photo of our ourselves in our chef attire. We took a direct flight from New York to Milan, so we wouldn’t need to transfer anything during a layover. (The Mexican team had their boxes delayed during a stopover and didn’t receive them until four days later.) We made sure to rent an apartment with a kitchen and arranged transportation that could accommodate our cakes. The European teams could drive after throwing items into their vans.

We were prepared, but not completely. The whipping cream that Reva used to make a chocolate ganache for our tasting cakes was extremely thick. It looked like cottage cheese, and it seized on her, until she tossed it. We guessed wrongly that organizers would provide a knife to cut cake. They got us one with minutes to spare that cut poorly.

We ran into another glitch. Because Covid had knocked out a few years of live competitions, the federation instituted some rules changes that they didn’t communicate very well. We found out that we could have done everything back at home on our larger cake and brought it in to use for our entry. We didn’t know that. The way the rules were written, you had eight hours to replicate the techniques used to make the larger cake on your smaller cake. We took that to mean that we had to do those techniques live on the larger cake for the judges to see. In reality, you could switch the cakes as long as you could show them, oh, this is how I made a face – and then bring out the finished figure. We didn’t do that. We did everything live the way the rules were explained. We didn’t complain about that, but other teams did, and that’s why the rules are being re-written again for the next competition.

I also found that the fondant I was going to use for our live competition cake was not handling well, so I switched to the modeling chocolate which I love using. But it was very warm there and the chocolate melted so quickly that I constantly had to move it into and out of the chiller. The chocolate was getting tacky and I was losing time putting it into the chiller. It was certainly not my best work. (The Polish team of Angelika Chwyc and Renata Martyna took home the gold medal with a design that highlighted four types of music: classical, pop, rock and folk.) One of the judges later told us we should have brought all materials we planned to use or at least buy them locally with enough time to practice with them.

Overall it was an amazing experience to compete on the world stage with so many other talented artists all sharing the same passion as us!!  I was very proud of our large display cake and I walked away from this experience feeling as though I’m a more well-rounded cake artist and baker. I look forward to implementing what I learned from this experience into my future projects!

Jean A. Schapowal is the award-winning chef and owner of Cakes with Character, located in Hicksville, NY., where she brings her cartoony, pop, comic-book style to her cake creations. A Cartooning and Illustration major in art school, Schapowal has been designing cakes for 15 years. She competes regularly in cake shows across the country and contributes to many online cake collaborations. She was also a finalist for a Cake Masters award for best collaboration and has appeared on numerous TV cake challenges. She says she loves to create fun and engaging pieces, cakes that have a distinctive “pop,” so that when people see one of her creations, they can say, “Oh that’s a Jean cake.” As the holidays approached this year, she said the inside of her house was surrounded by gingerbread. Learn more at

(This article appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

Pastry Arts Magazine is the new resource for pastry & baking professionals designed to inspire, educate and connect the pastry community as an informational conduit spotlighting the trade.