When Petaluma pastry chef Ora Beth Mika headed to New York for the Food Network’s Easter Basket Challenge, there was one thing she knew had to be in her bag — a six-inch ruler she uses to ice all of her cakes.
“I call it my baby. It’s my security blanket and if it gets lost I have a moment,” said Mika, who owns Flour and Bloom Cakes in Napa.
It seems that little ruler worked like a charm because the 36-year-old ended up winning the competition and $25,000 with a monster-sized Faberge-style Easter Egg she built in just eight hours.
“Normally a project of that size would take several weeks to actualize and because I’ve done these large-scale projects for high-profile clients before, it would usually be a year-long project. It had a lot of components,” she said.
But the judges were wildly wowed by the three-foot sculpture that included a gum paste crown, a cake covered in green modeling chocolate, floating ribbon balloons and twinkle lights — you know just for that added wow factor. Nearly all of the project was edible.
The three-week competition included several rounds where bakers were asked to incorporate different ingredients, including the one sweet Mika can’t stand. Milkshakes.
“I’ve never had one. I think it’s because when I was a baby my family lived in England and I didn’t like the milk when we came back to the States. I just developed a phobia. It was the only thing I made that I handed to the judges without tasting. I just don’t like milkshakes,” said Mika.
Other projects included a multi-level cake, Whoopie pies, peanut butter eggs (using a 3-D printed mold Mika had made), an edible garden party hat, a giant green rabbit, and a Teddy Bear Float wearing Peeps.
Though she missed her family — especially her 3-year-old son, Mika said she bonded with the other contestants, especially Gene Shepherd of Gene’s Cakes in Washington, D.C. The two helped each other throughout the competition, she said, but ended up competing in the finale.
“We were still rooting each other on. It’s too bad you can’t see all the footage. Gene’s work was gorgeous, and (when I won), the look of shock on my face is definitely genuine,” she said, adding that she and Gene continue to talk frequently.
Mika hasn’t always been a pastry chef. In fact, she worked in the medical profession for years, but enjoyed baking and entered several local competitions. Seeing her passion and competitive spirit, her husband purchased a mixer for her. At that point cakes became her life’s goal. She quit her job to follow her passion.
“I was always bound for medicine, that was my journey,” she said. With her family’s support, she got a pastry degree, worked for top-notch bakers, and recently purchased Flour and Bloom with her business partner, Kurt Yamada.
As a contestant, Mika said she’s gained a lot of insight into the crazy world of cooking competitions.
“I’ll never look at those competitions the same again. I always knew it was difficult, and I’d yell at people on the screen, but now I’m yelling at myself. I’m cutting other competitors some slack now,” she said, ready for her next challenge.
“I’m hoping they’ll give me a callback. I’d love to be on any of the Food Network holiday challenges,” Mika said.
She plans to invest the $25,000 back into her business and maybe, at some point, take her family on a well-deserved vacation.