Designing the undead with Zilly Rosen
Before starting work on her new cookbook, Zombie Cupcakes, cake artist Zilly Rosen had never seen a zombie flick—and she still hasn’t. For the project, Rosen and fellow bakers Shannon Pilarski and Hannah Russell designed, baked, and sculpted the creepy treats, providing readers with step-by-step instructions to constructing every creature, weapon, and detached limb.
In May 2009, Rosen opened Zillycakes, a specialty bakery on Elmwood Avenue. At the shop, customers can sit at the cupcake bar and select a cake flavor and toppings to suit any taste bud. Rosen also designs tiered wedding cakes, as well as sculpted cakes, the market for which is quickly growing thanks to television shows like Ace of Cakes. Among other crazy cake creations, team Zillycakes has constructed spaceships, a roasted turkey for Thanksgiving, and the planet Saturn, complete with cupcake rings.
Rosen made national news in 2008 for her giant all-cupcake depiction of President Obama, where each cupcake acted as a pixel in a photo. The Associated Press and NBC picked up images of the cupcake portrait, attracting the attention of an England-based publisher that approached Rosen about the book. Already out overseas, the zombie book will be released here this month. As Rosen prepares for the book’s release and the start of wedding season, she chats about this book, her future plans, and how she got started.
What inspired you to open your own shop?
I’ve worked at different bakeries ever since I was fifteen. When I started down the street at Dolci, they asked what I wanted to do. I said, “Well, I’ve been the cookie girl for twenty-five years; it’s time to be the cake lady.” When I started doing cakes, the way I went about it was different than anybody else in town. I came at it as an artist collaborating with a client. If I were an artist designing a room for you, I’d want the room to reflect you, be a room you’d want to live in. This is the same sort of thing. I got such a big response from that. The wedding business was growing huge and there was no space for me to do it down there. By then I was forty-something and ready to really dig in—I had figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Why are your sculpted cakes so popular now?
I had one family of ten children who all paid a certain amount towards this sculpted cake of the house where they grew up for their mother’s eightieth birthday. It’s really important events in people’s lives and they want these special, remarkable cakes. It’s exciting because you can really show something about yourself or the person you’re having the cake made for. It’s so much more personal.
Was writing a book ever part of your plan, too?
Writing is one of those love-hate things. My mom was an English teacher and I’m a decent writer, but it’s like pulling teeth because I always procrastinate. It’s also one of the hardest art forms, I think. ... I have a couple other ideas [for future books]. We did this during our slow season, but it was difficult to get that done and run the shop. It put me a little bit behind for the whole year because of the book’s deadlines, but I’d do it again.
What did customers think of your zombie creations?
We were working on the book and had our zombie cupcakes in the case waiting for a photo shoot, and people were going crazy over them. Even kids who could be grossed out really responded to them because they’re so original and slightly off-beat. The book is a really good—although slightly more gory—example of the type of work we do here on our regular cakes. We really try to put in the extra detail where people go, “Whoa.” We have fun.