Dreams come true in bizarre ways sometimes. Five years ago, Erin Salerno was watching "Ace of Cakes" on television when she turned to her husband and said, "I want to do that!"
So, she went out and applied for an internship.
"I started out as an intern at Elizabeth's Cakes, and was hired two days later," Salerno tells me. "I didn't even know how to frost a cake at first, but always loved to bake and had passion for anything artistic. It's not until I tried 3D modeling that I truly found my niche."
And quite a niche it was. Salerno created a name for herself, first through her inventive designs at Iron Cupcake Milwaukee competitions, her elegant wedding cake designs and her whimsical cupcakes. She moved on from Elizabeth's Cakes and started working with other bakeries, honing her skills and perfecting her craft.
But, in 2010, tragedy struck. Salerno got her hand caught in an old industrial dough sheeter at work.
"The machine was leaving marks on the fondant, with gray streaks," Salerno recalls. "This was not the result I anticipated. I decided to grab some scrap fondant to use to run it through the machine. I didn't want to waste the piece I needed to for the cake. I also grabbed a towel. I was on the back half of the machine, when the rollers sucked in the loose towel and my hand with it. It took three men to disassemble it and free me. It crushed every cell and bone in my index, middle and ring fingers."
Three broken fingers, two shattered fingertips and a surgery later, Salerno wondered if she'd ever return to the world of decorating. She'd lost functionality in a portion of her index finger, and only retained limited use and movement of the others.
"Since my hand injury in 2010 that's left me with permanent damage and loss of function in my fingers, I've felt that I lost some of that magic. Right before the accident, I felt like I hit my stride. But, afterward, my confidence was shaken to the core."
Fortunately, Salerno's will to get back to the activity she loved most won over. In addition to undergoing extensive physical therapy, she never gave up on returning to the level of artistic skill she'd once mastered.
She took a job working for Paula Hienz, owner of Miss Julia's Bake Shop, 18900 W. Bluemound Rd. #124, making custom cupcake toppers and smaller cakes, and handling cake cutting for weddings. She also continued to freelance, borrowing a commercial kitchen at a catering company in Cedarburg to do her baking.
"I was extremely motivated to get back to making cake," Salerno says. "I couldn't be kept away from it, so I figured out how to work around the injury. After two years, I still struggle every day with aspects of the accident. I have a lot of burning and pain, especially in the index finger, where I have no movement in my first joint. But, I love what I do, it makes me work harder, and appreciate it that much more. It was a learning process, and I hope that I never stop learning."
One day, Hienz mentioned that there was a commercial kitchen space in her building that was rumored to become available. She mentioned it to Salerno, who waited patiently until the kitchen opened up and then happily signed the lease.
"I've struggled to prove to myself that I can do this, and am almost back to that place that I was," Salerno says. "Opening my own little space gives me that nudge. There is no looking back, or second guessing."
Salerno's impressive portfolio has won her countless customers. And her skill in 3D modeling has gained her national attention, as well as giving her a leg-up on most run-of-the-mill cake decorators.
"Although I really don't care for the texture of fondant while eating it, I love working with the medium. You can sculpt it, paint food color on it, pipe on it – the possibilities are endless," Salerno explains. "('Ace of Cakes' contestant) Duff Goldman described it as wrapping paper once. It's pretty on the outside, but the good stuff is on the inside, that you can't wait to discover. I couldn't think of a better analogy myself."
Since pretty is one thing, but delicious is another, Salerno prefers to use buttercream icing with fondant accents. That way the decorations can be easily peeled off for cutting, and when it comes to custom toppers, they can be saved.
"I love to get lost in the details," Salerno tells me. "When people come to me for a cake it's because they want something different. Everything is custom, and made to order to fit the need of each customer."
Customers who work with Salerno appreciate her attention to detail, as well as her insistence on quality. Customers won't find Salerno pumping out boring sheet cakes, or using artificial fillings from a bucket. She maintains an extensive flavor list for her cakes, and she is always willing to work with customers in terms of their palates.
"I take only a certain number of cakes per week so that I can really take my time with each one," Salerno explains. "I usually ask what they tend to like typically, and then I can suggest more appropriate flavors depending on their tastes or functions. If the event includes kids, I'll keep things simple and use flavors like cookies and cream, or strawberry mousse. For adults I can kick it up and have some fun, like soaking Bailey's and Kahlua in the cake, or doing something more sophisticated."
Salerno says she's still surprised by the level of success she's achieved. And she often takes pause when people recognize her work.
"A woman came into the cupcake shop and was inquiring about cakes. She was looking at the displays and said, 'I've only seen one other person make cakes like this before, and it was at a cupcake competition. They did an "Alice in Wonderland" display.' I laughed when I explained to her that it was my display she was talking about. It's pretty cool being compared to yourself."
To arrange for an appointment to discuss custom cake options, contact Erin Salerno at (414) 520-2219 or by email at email@example.com. Custom cakes begin at $40. Wedding cake prices range between $3.50 and $4.90 per serving. For samples of Salerno's work, visit her Facebook page.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.