When Mallory Valvano started working a 9-to-5 job in the middle of the pandemic, she realized — for the first time in a long time — she had some extra energy to spare. Valvano had previously been a chef at American Sardine Bar, a job that could be all-consuming, and suddenly she had more traditional working hours. Working from home all day, she decided she really needed a creative outlet.
Toward the end of her time as chef at American Sardine Bar, Valvano had begun teaching herself how to make pastries and desserts, so it made sense when a friend asked her last minute if she wouldn’t mind making a cake for his wife’s birthday. “I ordered the icing tips and stocked up [on supplies],” she says, largely learning how to decorate the cake by watching baking YouTube. “I was researching and it all just spiraled. I got very, very into it.”
Valvano really enjoyed the process and leaning into a specific retro aesthetic, so before and after her day job hours in her South Philly home, she started to experiment more. “I did a pop-up for Valentine’s Day and got 12 orders,” she says.
Inspired by the snack foods she remembered loving as a kid and encouraged by her early successes, Valvano started Party Girl Bake Club, an Instagram cake pop-up where Valvano — who was a kid in the ’90s and ’00s — makes elaborate throwback cakes in neon colors with extreme toppings, highly detailed piping, and nostalgic ingredients. A list of her cake flavors reads like a ’90s kid’s dream feast: Cosmic Brownie, Yoo-hoo dulce de leche, Fruity Pebble Funfetti.
“I’ve always been super into the classy trashy vibe,” Valvano says. “I love high end, but I also love nostalgic bodega candy — and I love blending the two.” She captions her posts with lyrics from emo bands that were big during the time period, like Taking Back Sunday and Bright Eyes, and her Instagram bio reflects her throwback aesthetic: “Sweet Dreamz & Emo Treats.”
One of her favorite cake creations is a butter cake with cheddar buttercream and Cheetos. “I use powder for flavor and it opens a lot of things up,” she says. “[That cake] has the cheddar dry powder that you use on popcorn, and it’s salty and sweet with caramelized apple.” Valvano also thinks she invented a new kind of frosting, where she pulverizes potato chips into a paste, then mixes it into her buttercream. Potato chip buttercream shows up in Valvano’s vanilla cake with Nutella chocolate chip cookie dough filling, which is then topped with a mountain of Herr’s potato chips, Kit Kats, M&M cookies, and Oreos.
Mastering all the techniques that go along with cake-making was a challenge, Valvano says, but it’s been fun to figure it out. “Learning how to make a good cake is hard,” she says. “I’m so used to cooking where you can do whatever anything on the fly. You can mess up and still make it really good.” It’s less easy to hide mistakes with cake-making. “Technically I can cover it up with frosting, but if the cake’s dry, well, shit.” Valvano says she’s always learning and researching by watching baking shows, following Instagram’s famous cake-makers, and constantly testing flavors.
Since launching the pop-up in December of 2020, Valvano has done all kinds of events: bridal showers, baby showers, birthdays. “A lot of moms are getting them for their kids,” she says. But then, some people tell her, “I want to buy a cake for myself.” She’s partnered with Philly favorite 1-900-Ice-Cream in Fishtown for ice cream cakes made with two layers of cake and two layers of the ice cream shop’s ice cream. “Ice cream cakes aren’t always made with cake,” Valvano says, so she wanted to make sure she was providing the full authentic experience beyond those meager crispy cookie bits. The ice cream cakes are bona fide tributes to the era of Chuck E. Cheese, neon carpets, after-school Nintendo, and all the sugary packaged foods that kept kids in the ’90s happy.
She’s been making five or six cakes a week these days, with a rotating seasonal menu that can be ordered by direct messaging her on Instagram. Valvano isn’t worried that she’ll run out of ideas, though: “I think of recipes in my sleep.”
Party Girl Bake Club cakes can be ordered by Instagram direct message. Flavors change seasonally and 6-inch cakes begin at $55, with prices and sizes going up from there. Custom cakes, with vegan and gluten-free options, are available.