Photo: © Abby Rose Photo

“You can be your own worst enemy,” Heather Anne Leavitt (U-M ’07) says of cake construction. “Maybe you design an overly complex structure, or one that doesn’t necessarily play to your strengths. Plus, there’s always one last thing you can do—one more tweak you can make—which isn’t always ideal under time constraints.”

Leavitt learned these lessons, among others, while serving as an assistant to Courtney Clark of Ann Arbor’s Cake Nouveau bakery on Food Network’s Last Cake Standing in 2009. The television series challenged six pastry chefs from across the country to perform tasks such as designing  a self-portrait cake, a surprise wedding cake, and an extreme superhero cake.

Leavitt and Clark were among three teams competing in the finale, which, at 24 hours, was the longest in Food Network history. The challenge: to create a cake for a “celebration” that they later learned was the Dilley sextuplets’ 16th birthday (the first set of surviving sextuplets in the United States). The bottom of the five-foot-tall cake resembled a bridge, suspending a personalized cake for each teenager on an arched structure. The pair finished in second place.

They also finished second in Food Network’s “Miley Cyrus’ Sweet 16 Cake” special, in which they built a four-foot-tall birthday cake with enough glitter and glam for a Disneyland celebration.

“We aimed to design a cake that would appeal to a 16-year-old’s interests. But it turned out that representatives from [Cyrus’] fan club, who were in middle school, judged the cakes instead. They selected one more appealing to their age group,” Leavitt says. “You’re provided limited information with limited time, so you just work with what you can.”

While time pressure is intense, Leavitt says reality television’s dramatic footage isn’t always authentic.

“You’re competing against your idols that represent bakeries across the country. So you wouldn’t necessarily say something bad about them,” she says. “What you say in an interview may be taken out of context.”

Since filming, Leavitt opened her own cake studio, Sweet Heather Anne in Ann Arbor. She says she continues to keep tips and tricks learned while competing in mind—from how to handle cakes in the heat to how to best construct complex internal structures.

“You’re at your creative best in these competitions, so you end up learning a lot from yourself, too.”