It’s 11 a.m. on a Tuesday and Melissa Ben-Ishay, 33 — mom, wife and co-founder of Baked by Melissa — has already had three meetings, purchased supplies for a photo shoot at her bakery in North Bergen, and started testing new products with her husband Adi.
“Cake is truly my passion,” said the inventor of bite-sized cupcakes that come in nostalgia-inducing flavors such as tie-dye cake with vanilla frosting and peanut butter and jelly.
That passion comes across in Ben-Ishay’s schedule and her first cookbook, a glittering, Technicolor guide to making the cake batters, icings, fillings and toppings she uses in her cupcakes.
“Cakes by Melissa,” which hits shelves on Oct. 3, encourages home bakers to think of the recipes as art supplies, and mix and match them in ways that result in completely new flavor combinations. It also tells the origin story of Ben-Ishay’s now 8-year-old company, which launched the day she was fired from her job in advertising.
amNewYork talked to the newly minted author about her book, her love for dessert and her most fortunate mistakes:
You’re known for your mini cupcakes. Why’d you decide your first cookbook should focus on cakes?
Because I really wanted to empower people to do what they love and create. At Baked by Melissa, we inspire and celebrate creativity every single day, especially with our team. I’ve been baking my entire life, and it’s really about dessert and cake whenever I think of new flavors. So bite-sized cakes are just my vessel for delivering the ultimate dessert experience. And I know realistically the people reading this book have all their cakes that they love to create, and I wanted to make it realistic and easy for them to do that.
Is it wrong of us to presume that dessert is your favorite part of any meal?
Yes, I can never say no to dessert. Food makes me happy. I love to create food for people I love. I love to enjoy food myself. Dessert is fun and light, and it should only make life sweeter. There’s no reason not to enjoy dessert every single day — you just have to enjoy dessert in moderation, which is why we created bite-sized treats.
In “Caked By Melissa,” you tell your readers to bake without fear of mistakes, because mistakes can lead to new inventions. Can you give us an example of that as it relates to your life?
Well, I got fired from my job, and then I started Baked by Melissa.
But really, without mistakes and challenges, you don’t have the opportunity to learn and grow. A mistake is the best time to sit back and say, ‘OK, what caused that mistake to happen and what can I learn.’
When I first started working on the cookbook, I knew I wanted to have a whole tie-dye tutorial. At first, I started doing it in a round pan. It always made a mess; it just didn’t seem efficient. And then one day it came to me, ‘Why don’t I use a sheet pan?’ And now I can make the cake whatever shape I want.
When you first started your company, you were baking in the kitchen of your Murray Hill apartment and pitching your cupcakes to caterers. What’s your advice for other young food entrepreneurs just starting out?
Oh my gosh, I have so much. First, you can do anything you set your mind to if you’re willing to work hard at it, ask questions, recognize your strengths, but more importantly your weaknesses.
When you’re doing something on your own, it’s so important to take your own excuses away, and take responsibility for everything. Because at the end of the day, if something happens that isn’t ideal, you can always change your response in some shape or form to effect a better outcome.
Does everyone need a guardian angel like Danny Omari — who helped you set up your first holiday market booth in Union Square and your first brick-and-mortar operation in SoHo — and a super supportive family?
Everyone needs an amazing team. I get the credit because I’m Melissa, and it’s crap. Of course, I work hard every day for Baked by Melissa, but so do some many other people. When we started the company, it wasn’t just me: I had my amazing brother [Brian], his business partner and our childhood friend, Matt, [our PR guy] Ben [Zion], Danny. The five of us founded Baked by Melissa as a team. Without them, we wouldn’t be here today.
Everybody needs to surround themselves with people who have skills that they don’t, because nobody does it alone.
After its Oct. 3 release, “Cakes by Melissa” will be available at BakedbyMelissa.com and major book retailers for $26.99. Starting Sept. 20, you can taste cupcakes inspired by the cookbook at one of the company’s Manhattan stores; the flavors are sugar cookie dough, electric tie-dye, sundae, caramel coconut, chocolate babka and s’mores.