With Thanksgiving behind us and Chanukah quickly approaching, the season for dessert decorations is here.
In Pittsburgh, kosher cake offerings are rare to come by, but those who do offer them have an array of options, from cookies to cake pops, with endless designs on hand.
For these three kosher cake decorators in Pittsburgh, the skill was often self taught and derived from hours of practice, patience and precision. In addition to running their businesses, these ladies have bustling lives outside of the kitchen as they raise children, practice other artistic endeavors or pursue academic classes.
All three — Nechama Epstein Huber, 32, Yamit Presman, 38, and Ella Rittri, 26, all from Squirrel Hill — keep kosher and make sure their designs are up to kosher standards but are not under the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh because of time and money constraints.
To be under the Vaad, they would have to cook somewhere other than their home kitchen, which they say would make it nearly impossible to keep up with the flow of orders and odd hours they must use to finish their baking.
“It hasn’t stopped me from selling to the public. Most people who know me know I’m ultra-Orthodox and keep the highest standards,” said Huber, who specializes in cake pops. “I’ve lost a couple orders [but] for the most part it hasn’t made a difference.”
She began making cake pops three years ago when her friend asked her to design dessert for a Frozen-themed Shabbaton. She used two cake pops to form the body of the friendly snowman Olaf and decorated each one with a candy face and pretzels for the arms. When she dropped off the snowmen, she knew she was going to make this a business.
“I enjoy it so much, I get energy from it,” she said. “I think every time I produce, every time I’m done with my work for the night, I’m like this is my new favorite.
“Sometimes I look at my work and just think I cannot believe I put that together.”
Huber said she has done tons of parties, bar and bat mitzvahs and gifts for holidays such as Purim, but she also offers designs for other religious holidays that she does not celebrate.
For people who don’t keep kosher, it doesn’t seem to make a difference if the product is certified kosher or not, she said, and for those who do, it doesn’t deter them that she also caters to other religions.
It is necessary, she said, to expand beyond the kosher Jewish community in Pittsburgh to make the business sustainable.
Presman, who began decorating cakes in Seattle seven years ago before she moved to Pittsburgh, said it seems to her that “people who care about the cake being kosher may not be interested in paying that much for a professionally decorated cake.”
In Seattle, Presman had a connection with a local shul to use their kitchen when people held events there. Even with this, which provided her with gigs at least once or twice a month, she said the investment it would have cost to get kosher certified would not have paid off with the amount of money she was making.
Since moving back to Pittsburgh two years ago, Presman said she has only made one cake, partly because she spends more time focusing on another art form called quilling and partly because she thinks there was more interest in Seattle.
To keep kosher certified, Presman said she can’t use any gelatin ingredients, which are sometimes used inside the cake batter, for frosting or for homemade fondants, a type of icing. She also has to watch that the food coloring, frosting and butter is kosher.
To make her frosting, she uses a vegetarian shortening that is “a yucky substance but is good enough,” she said.
“I do not see it as a hindrance to my cake decorating,” Presman said of the ingredients she can’t use. “Rather, people are always looking for kosher cakes. If it’s certified, it’d give me a lot more value, but then again it has to be made and decorated in a certified kitchen which means it’s a shul kitchen.”
Although it adds time to the process — it takes her up to three days to complete an order — she said she feels making the product from scratch is important.
She said she doesn’t feel as if she is missing out on anything since “everything is pretty adaptable” but she would like to be able to use gelatin to make certain pastries and glazes for cookies.
Rittri started decorating about five years ago when she noticed a lack of kosher cookie options in the area. One of her biggest requests, she said, is for the celebration that accompanies a boy’s first haircut when he turns 3 years old, which marks the time he begins wearing a kippah and tzitzit.
For Chanukah last year, she offered a paint-your-own menorah kit, which included a cookie with a stenciled on menorah, four airbrush colors and a paintbrush. This year, she is offering a menorah cookie that comes with candles and edible glue.
“I feel like each set I make becomes my new favorite,” Rittri said of her cookies. “The more I do it, the more experienced I become so the more techniques I get to use and the better they look.”
The weather can become the biggest obstacle, said Rittri. She usually lets the icing on the cookies dry overnight but since the icing can be “finicky,” the weather can change how and if it dries properly.
The other hardest part: keeping her young daughters from getting into the cookie batch, something that Presman said she also struggles with.
“I had to have this block of time without anybody running into me or having anybody run into the cake with their fingers or [saying], ‘Mommy, mommy, can I do that too,’” Presman said. “With cakes you can’t stop in the middle.”
“It’s always a nice way to explore,” she said. “You don’t need much to start. You never know, maybe you have very good hand-eye coordination and an eye for color, and there you go.”
For all three leading ladies, the craft was something they learned as they went, usually through online tutorials and trial-and-error. The process made for countless stressful nights, but they all agreed that after decorating the desserts, the happy reactions they got from their customers is worth the stress.
“We had a lot of confidence,” Huber said of her and her husband as they started out on the cake pop endeavor. “We always believed we could do anything.
“Once we got it, once we learned, we got really good at it,” she said. “I never lose a cake pop now.” PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at