Ron and Ruthie Bzdewka have known since the taping in L.A. last September that they would emerge victorious on the Tuesday, February 15, episode of Food Network’s Cupcake Wars. But this husband-and-wife team, proprietors of House of Cupcakes on Witherspoon Street in Princeton, had to keep it a secret even from their two young sons, lest they forfeit the $10,000 cash prize. So, shortly before 10 p.m. on the 15th, their living room, full of their sons’ schoolmates and parents erupted, naturally, into pandemonium. “The boys were jumping all over the place,” an exhausted but happy Ruthie told me the next morning.
The Bzdewkas still don’t know what initiated the phone call they received from the show’s producers last year. But they responded, and within hours had put together the required three-minute video audition. On that video (viewable on YouTube), sons Rage, 10, and Riot, 6, announce that, should their parents win, the entire amount would be donated to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In order to win that prize, the House of Cupcakes team had to beat out three competitors in a series of three elimination challenges, culminating in baking 1,000 cupcakes for a Cirque du Soleil album-release party in conjunction with Cirque’s “Viva Elvis” show.
I ask Ruthie about how she and Ron, who have been married 20 years and live in Somerset, had strategized to get to that point. I mention that I was surprised, at the start of the episode, to see Ron, rather than Ruthie, come onscreen to represent House of Cupcakes. “That was part of our strategy. He does not look like your typical cupcake baker,” she says. In fact, at six-feet-plus, with a bear-like build and long, blond/gray locks, he looks more like a biker-of-a-certain-age than a baker of dainty treats. He towered over his three diminutive female competitors, who quickly dubbed him “The Jolly Green Giant,” in part because of the color of the House of Cupcakes t-shirt he was wearing.
For the first challenge, the couple made an oatmeal cookie cupcake. “These take so much time, so we split it up so that we each were in charge of certain ingredients. That was the only way to get them into the oven in time,” Ruthie relates. “If the cupcakes are still too hot when it’s time to ice them, the icing melts and runs all over the place.” In fact, that is exactly what happened to the challenger who was eliminated in the second round.
Besides time limits and pacing, there are other challenges on the set, she says. “You’re in a strange kitchen, using strange ingredients, and you are not allowed to have a recipe in front of you.” The ovens on the set of Cupcake Wars use gas heating, while those at House of Cupcakes use convection.
The second challenge required each team to make three different cupcakes, and the Bzdewkas made one with tomato soup, another with beer and sauerkraut, and an espresso brownie version. I asked about the inspiration for the beer-and-sauerkraut. “We had to go with what was on hand, and we knew one of the parameters was sweet and sour. The bubbles in the beer actually result in a texture like angel food cake,” she says. (The cupcakes they featured on the show are currently available at the Witherspoon Street store, and recipes are posted on the Food Network/Cupcake Wars site.)
The third and final challenge, against a sole remaining competitor, was to create a “grand” display of 1,000 cupcakes for the Cirque du Soleil party, for which each team got help from four baker-assistants and one carpenter. I told Ruthie that I knew the Bzdewkas would win when they showed Ron giving a sketch and instructions to their carpenter, asking for a multi-tiered platform with lots of light and moving parts. To me, not only did it epitomize Cirque du Soleil, but, because Ron formerly taught woodshop and worked in construction, his idea was detailed and doable.
Ruthie grew up in New Brunswick but spent a lot of her childhood in Princeton, where one set of her grandparents lived. She and Ron opened House of Cupcakes in August, 2008. Previously the couple had been in retail for 15 years, having owned two party stores. When she had kids and wanted to stay home, they sold the stores. When her youngest entered preschool, she says, “I have always liked to bake, and my cupcakes are always popular with friends and family.” After experimenting for six months, she was satisfied with the results, and the couple began looking for a location. They found the Witherspoon Street spot on the first day of looking.
By 9 a.m. the morning after the Cupcake Wars episode aired, the Bzdewkas’ personal voicemail box was filled to capacity; they had received congratulations, quite unexpectedly, from New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno; and the phone at House of Cupcakes hadn’t stopped ringing. But the couple was more than ready: months ago, they began expanding their shop, taking over the 600 square feet in the rear that had been the kitchen for Abel Bagels. When it is completed in the next few weeks, it will become the new bake center, doubling the display and cafe space up front, which is also getting a makeover.
Food Network’s check is in the mail, Ruthie Bzdewka says, and the entire amount will go, as Rage and Riot promised, to the St. Jude hospital. Sweet.
House of Cupcakes, 30 Witherspoon Street. Owners: Ruth and Ron Bzdewka. 609-924-0085. www.houseofcupcakes.com.