IT’S IN THE DETAILS: Barranco’s intricate designs can require more than 60 hours and as many as five bakers.
In my family, making food is a way of showing your love,” says Heather Barranco, owner of Dreamcakes, whose decorative desserts earn as many accolades for their fanciful appearance as they do from their creative flavors and fillings.
Barranco grew up on Staten Island, where her father was a chef—specializing in ice and fruit sculptures—and her grandparents owned a bakery and catering company. “We never ate fast food or anything that wasn’t made from someone’s hands,” she says.
When she began baking as a teen, Barranco carried that handmade philosophy into the kitchen. Now, 37, she maintains the credo at her burgeoning South Orange business.
True flights of fancy, Barranco’s confections are intricately detailed, fashioned from flour and fondant, some enhanced with edible hand-painted decorations, all crafted from scratch. Design inspiration for these treats can be far flung (a ceremonially dressed Indian elephant or a Japanese pagoda on a hillside) or as deceptively simple as a stack of gifts with three-dimensional ribbons, bows and patterns. Dreamcakes’ highly sculptural and often multitiered baked goods can require upwards of 60 hours and four or five decorators. Barranco, who studied at the French Culinary Institute and apprenticed under iconic Manhattan cake designer Colette Peters of Colette’s Cakes, offers more than 42 combinations of fillings and cakes, such as chai latte, mango coconut, tiramisu, and raspberry red velvet—as well as custom flavors.
Artistic by nature, Barranco earned her college degree at the Parsons School of Design in New York City. In 1996, while freelancing for one of her professors, she met Jason Machado. Three years later, while Barranco was working as a product designer for New Jersey-based Insync Design, the couple married. Eventually, the pair settled in South Orange after starting a family. “I love it here because it’s a great community and there’s lots of space,” she says.
Barranco would need the space to raise three children, Ariana, 10, James, 7, and Daniel, 4. When her kids were toddlers, Barranco was a stay-at-home mom, taking on freelance design work when she could. She also dabbled in furniture making, illustrating children’s books and, doing what would soon take centerstage in her life, making elaborate cakes.
In March 2011, Barranco followed her passion for family and food by launching Dreamcakes. Within months, she gained a large and loyal clientele, creating occasional and novelty cakes for high-profile clients, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and reality-TV star Ramona Singer of the Real Housewives of New York City.
“As much as I loved product design, I missed the fact that I couldn’t design for a client and witness their emotional reaction afterward,” says Barranco. While freelancing, she helped create products such as L’Oreal lipstick and AT&T’s first personal digital assistant, which evolved into today’s smart phone. “I would walk around and tell people ‘I helped design that phone!’ and people would look at me like I was nuts. The most rewarding experience in designing anything is seeing and hearing someone love what you do.”
She got that chance with the cake she baked for a State House event. The confection—which took 72 hours to complete—honored Secretary Clinton, as well as former Secretaries of State, who helped raise $20 million to preserve the diplomatic reception rooms at the State Department. Barranco, with her children by her side, presented a bananas Foster chocolate cake to the former First Lady. “It was a lot of fun and a great learning experience taking the kids to Washington, D.C., to shake hands with Hillary Clinton,” she says. “It was an amazing opportunity that most kids will never have.”
Barranco admits that launching a successful business while raising three young children initially was a struggle. “The most important thing is having a supportive husband who helps you with everything that you do,” Barranco shares. “I don’t think I could have done it without his support.”
To manage it all, she emphasizes the importance of prioritizing. For example, she believes religion and family should come first, so she makes time to teach religious education classes on Monday afternoons.
Working locally—her baked goods are available through Eden Marketplace in South Orange, as well as at the chain’s other locations—has also helped her stay close to her family. “The kids were so used to me being home,” she says. “They had to get used to the fact that mommy had to go to work, even on the weekends.”
Barranco’s transition from stay-at-home mom to working mom has given the family a new perspective. “We took it for granted when they were younger,” Barranco says. “Now, [the kids and I] value the time we share and appreciate one another, which has definitely been positive.”
Like mother, like son.
Just as Heather Barranco grew up surrounded by entrepreneurial family members, her children have gleaned valuable experience about business from their parents. In fact, the couple’s son James, inspired by conversations at home, started his own small business in the first grade. During his lunch break, he began creating and selling his drawings to classmates for a small fee.
“My son is quite a talented artist for his age,” says Barranco. “But it came as a surprise when one child’s parent came to me and asked if it was okay for her son to buy artwork from mine. My husband and I teach our kids about percentages, prices and money and how you really need math in life. We use our life experiences to help them learn and do their school work,” she says.
Her kids have also benefitted from lessons in responsibilty. “They know that they’re responsible for keeping their rooms neat on Fridays in order to be rewarded and do something fun on Saturdays,” she says. “These are little life lessons, but they have to learn.” —DO