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Murtha Wins 2012 Hy-Vee Cake Decorator Challenge

Last updated on August 16th, 2012 at 12:06 pm

Amy Murtha of Belton, in her first Hy-Vee cake challenge finals, took home first place and $1,000 with a whimsical depiction of a garden that combined color and originality with oversized lady bugs, smiling snails and overturned clay pots.

“It was a real shocker because I really didn’t expect to win,” Murtha said.

“Amy’s Enchanted Garden” got the judges’ nod over the second-place, pirate-themed entry delivered by Heather Hansen of Omaha No. 8. Hansen, who finished third in last year’s finals, got off to a rocky start when she was told that it was against the rules to use extra layers of cake to create height. In the end, the rule was revised, and the augmentation was allowed.

“I would have tried to do something cool anyway,” she said.

A total of 155 Hy-Vee cake designers entered the 2012 challenge. They competed in a series of regional contests that produced the “Elite 18,” who did battle Wednesday at Jordan Creek Town Center in West Des Moines. They had four hours to decorate one dozen cookies, two sheet cakes, 24 cupcakes and a feature cake.

“Think about it: Hy-Vee has 451 designers in the company, and these are the absolute best 18,” Tony Byington, assistant vice president of bakery operations, said before the contest. “We have some real talent out there. And the thing is, every year it gets better.”

Murtha’s co-worker, Stephanie Dillon, who defeated her in the Kansas City regional, agreed.

“Everybody seems to step it up every year,” she said, glancing around the hall. “The backdrops, the props. Everyone is getting better.”

Two-time defending champ Katie O’Connor of Lincoln No. 2 won the Decorator’s Choice Award and $500 for her “Kate’s Krab Shack,” which captured the sights and sounds of a seafood feast. Third place and $250 went to Janine Schwendinger of Rochester No. 3 and her undersea world creation.

O’Connor was a model of cool efficiency as she launched into the design that won the Council Bluffs regional last month. To her right was Murtha, who will represent Hy-Vee this summer at the three-day International Dairy Deli Bakery Association designer contest in New Orleans.

When asked which decorator was the one to beat, Murtha glanced first at O’Connor, then to her right, where Dillon, last year’s IDBBA runner-up, patiently trimmed what would be the top tier of her main cake.

“I think that one right there,” Murtha whispered.

Dillon, with the quiet concentration worthy of a bomb squad technician, deliberately assembled an assortment of ice cream-inspired treats that had onlookers cooing. Other themes ranged from Lawrence No. 2’s Jill Blancho’s “1930s technology” to Sioux Falls No. 2’s Sheree George’s art gallery, complete with a frosted depiction of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”

Missing from the championship field was Amber Rahe of Mankato No. 2, who upset O’Connor in the 2010 finals. Rahe, who has a master’s degree in fine arts, finished first in the Sioux Falls regional to earn a trip to the finals but was unable to attend due to final exams. The same thing forced her from last year’s event, where O’Connor captured the crown for the second time in three years.

Rahe’s co-worker, Rhoda Schulz, took her place at the finals table thanks to a fourth-place finish at the Sioux Falls regional. She admitted her nervousness at being thrust upon the big stage but responded with an elaborate dragon-themed entry.

“I tried to not think about it the night before; I second-guess myself enough as it is,” she said. Asked if she felt pressure, Schulz rolled her eyes and feigned rubbery legs: “No, not at all.”

Judge Elizabeth Riggs of Bakery Crafts Inc., a Cincinnati supply company, said the task was every bit as hard as it looked. Four judges rated the designs in seven categories that covered everything from smoothness and penmanship to symmetry and color correctness.

“It all comes down to technique, because the creativity here is out of this world,” she said, adding that judges would each select six finalists, “and none of or lists will match, so we have to slice and dice.”

When the slicing and dicing were done, it was Murtha whose entry was deemed sweetest.

She thanked Dillon, her co-worker, for helping her prepare.

“We bounce ideas off each other all the time, and we practice together,” Murtha said. “But I really thought she’d win it.”

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