WESLEY CHAPEL — Danielle "Dani" Schwartzman's mom wasn't the baking type, unless you count slice-and-bake cookies.
As a child Schwartzman found them just as delightful as any. But it's a wonder the now 23-year-old woman has an affinity — and talent — for baking. The proof is in the pudding, or rather, the cake batter.
Schwartzman has her own baking business, danikara Creations, which she runs from the kitchen of her Wesley Chapel home. She started the company in March in a small New Port Richey apartment, and her cake decorating skills have already caught the attention of casting directors for TLC's second season of Cake Boss spin-off Next Great Baker.
Schwartzman found out Monday evening she is a finalist for the "baker's dozen" contest where the public gets to select the show's 13th and final contestant for the season that premieres Nov. 28 by going to the show's website at tlc.discovery.com/tv/next-great-baker/view-and-vote/next-great-baker-contest.html.
Voting is open for at least a week.
She was stunned since it was only weeks ago that friends and fiancé Mike Conklin pushed her into applying right before the deadline. She thought it was a long shot.
"I have no words," she said to describe the overwhelming feeling of becoming a finalist.
The baker's dozen winner, along with the other already chosen contestants, will fly to New Jersey for the 10-week competition. Some will have a short stay but whoever prevails will win thousands in prize money and, perhaps more important, an apprenticeship at host Buddy Valastro's bakery known as Carlo's Bake Shop in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Of the five finalists, Schwartzman seems to have the least experience, as most are formally trained and have been in the business for years. It was pictures of her cakes that first got her in the running and then she had to submit a video audition, so she knows it wasn't all about personality.
"I'm spunky. I mean like jazz hands," she said in her video, demonstrating the flailing hands.
But she's not completely new to the bakery world, either. By the age of 12 she began whipping up sweet treats and even creating recipes for goodies such as fat-free cheesecake. She says it was her insatiable sweet tooth that got her started, but then it became the simple enjoyment of baking for others. In college, among her friends and sorority sisters, she was considered the baking queen. But it wasn't until November 2010 that she really met her biggest challenge: making Thanksgiving desserts for 50 friends and relatives. She had just received her first Kitchenaid mixer for her birthday a couple of weeks before and decided to take it for a serious spin, making eight pies, a bunch of cupcakes and dozens of cookies.
"I had never decorated before November," she said Wednesday inside the sparsely furnished home she and Conklin, 28, moved into just weeks ago. She wanted to do Thanksgiving big. The show stoppers were her pumpkin spice cupcakes with brown sugar buttercream. She topped them with decorative brown sugar cookies and turkeys made, in part, out of candy corn.
"After that,'' she said, "everyone at Thanksgiving was like, "Can you do a cake?' "
She has never taken a baking or cake-decorating lesson.
"I used box mixes until about year ago because I didn't have a mixer," she said.
She Googled. She read books and recipes. She spent countless hours in front of her computer watching YouTube. She used trial and error.
"I wanted to learn by messing up in the kitchen," she said.
She had never even tried fondant, a cream confection used for decorating pastries. Then she attempted a graduation cake, and created the University of South Florida bull logo freehand from icing.
"It was perfect," she said of the logo.
Soon, she got a business license, a website and set up shop. Schwartzman didn't plan on making decorative cakes.
"I didn't think I was creative enough to do cakes," she said. "I didn't think I could put my ideas from my head to the cake."
Then came her first customer. She wanted a baby shower cake for a boy. Schwartzman said yes and set out creating a two-layer, cartoon-like giraffe lying on a blue baby blanket topper.
Conklin delivered it.
"I was too afraid," she said of delivering the cake herself. "I didn't want to see the disappointment."
She missed quite a show, Conklin said. The clients were speechless.
"To see the reaction on people's faces, sometimes they don't have any words," Conklin said.
Since that first cake, she has done nearly two dozen from wedding cakes to toddlers' birthdays. Her cakes are often vibrant and fun. And delicious. She puts taste before beauty.
"The brightness reflects her personality," Conklin said, turning toward her. "Your personality is bright and bubbly."
Oh, and unlike many decorators, she doesn't sketch. She can't draw, she says.
"If you saw my sketches, you wouldn't want my cakes," the senior at St. Petersburg College said, laughing.
Linda Zimmerer, 60, of New Tampa searched the Internet in July looking for a baker to create a special cake.
"I wanted a really spectacular cake for my granddaughter's third birthday," she said. "I wanted it to be something that would please a 3-year-old and be edible and good for adults."
It also had to be SpongeBob themed. Schwartzman delivered.
"She took ideas from about two or three cakes and incorporated it into what I wanted," Zimmerer said, adding that she'll be a repeat customer.
She recalls how birthday girl Lily Anna Jolly immediately dug into the "seaweed" when the cake was set down in front of her.
"It just disappeared, that cake did," she said. "Everything about that cake was good."
Zimmerer hopes to see her new-found baker on TV. "I hope she gets this because she's absolutely marvelous."
If Schwartzman lands on the show and is victorious, she plans to use the prize money to open her storefront bakery, which she hopes to do anyway within a year with Conklin as manager. First, though, they will concentrate on their March 10 wedding.
But who will make the cake?
"That is the million dollar question," said Conklin.