Wedding Cake 101

Gourmet’s research chief learned the hard way that baking a friend’s wedding cake is no piece of cake.

Are you insane?” asked Gina, the Gourmet test kitchen’s resident pastry wizard. “I’d never do it,” chimed in her colleague Paul, an erstwhile protégé of Simone Beck. “And she’s letting you?” Gina demanded.

“Actually, um… she asked me to.” The cooks were aghast. “She asked you to?” Gina’s voice rose half an octave. “Really?” Make that a full octave.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and novice bakers blithely agree to make their friends’ wedding cakes. “What’s the big deal?” I asked nonchalantly.

I’d find out soon enough.

All cooking is art, and all cooking is science; but only baking lies precisely at the nexis between the two, with no room for false moves. The natural-born pastry chef has a sense of precision akin to an opera singer’s perfect pitch—the ability to hit things just so. Her mise en place is immaculate. She separates yolk from white smoothly. She never, ever over-mixes. Butter, sugar, and flour respond to her the way even the most recalcitrant dog gentles in the presence of a veterinarian: They know they’ve met their master.

Anyone who has spent five minutes in the chaos of my kitchen knows I’m not a natural-born pastry chef.

But I also can’t resist a challenge. So when my friend Kristin asked me if I’d be interested in making her wedding cake, I said yes like a girl whose sailor just came home on shore leave—and the warnings of the experts fell on deaf ears.

Making a wedding cake is a slippery slope: The first step, deciding on the flavor, is gloriously seductive. Once we’d selected two candidates—lemon-blackberry with cream cheese frosting and chocolate with orange buttercream—it was time for the first official tasting. The lemon cake was pleasingly dense, and the cream cheese frosting, with its hint of sourness, complemented the bright berry filling perfectly. The chocolate was light and velvety without being cloying. “I love them both,” Kristin said, helplessly. “I can’t choose.” (You see? Gloriously seductive!) We quickly called in the troops—in a city where people book up weeks in advance, the entire bridal party was, strangely enough, immediately available for an emergency sampling—and the verdict was unanimous: The lemon-blackberry was the seasonal choice, its fresh flavors the perfect antidote to a humid New York summer day.

So far, so good. “This is a breeze!” I reported back to Gina, who just smiled and shook her head. Soon it was time for the cake’s dress rehearsal—and it was here that I first began to suspect that I might have bitten off more than I could chew. Twelve hours, 14 packages of cream cheese, 16 sticks of butter, 18 lemons, four boxes of confectioners sugar, and six pounds of blackberries later, my postage-stamp-size Brooklyn kitchen had given birth to a miracle: a three-tier, twelve-layer, lopsided fairy tale of a cake. Word of the dress rehearsal had already gone out to the masses, and my friends turned up in droves for the tasting. They plied me with compliments. They ate enthusiastically. They were full of helpful suggestions.

Slumped against the dining room table, I was too exhausted to do more than nod my head.

Good thing, then, I’d had the foresight to ask my tasters to fill out a questionnaire. What did they think of the flavor? Texture? Presentation? Based on the look of the cake, what kind of couple did they imagine the bride and groom to be? And would they want a cake like this for their own wedding?

Let’s just say there’s a reason that the silent ballot is known as the cornerstone of democracy. Many tasters found the cake dry—which, undeniably, it was. Others thought it looked unprofessional (which, undeniably, it did—the cream cheese frosting couldn’t withstand the humidity of my third-floor walk-up). Everyone agreed that, based on the cake, the bride and groom must be “relaxed” types (well, yes—but also gorgeous and cosmopolitan. The same could not yet be said of their cake).

It was at this point that I seriously considered calling a caterer.

But I rallied—after all, now that I knew what the problems were, the plan of attack was clear. For the actual cake, I’d borrow a friend’s kitchen, one that possessed all the amenities mine lacked: an electric oven (for even baking); flat floors (for even layers); air conditioning (to keep the frosting from melting); and actual, honest-to-God counter space. This time, to avoid dryness, I’d wait until the last possible minute to bake the layers, then—the moment they were sufficiently cooled—split them and soak them within an inch of their lives with the lemon syrup. I’d top each layer with an orchard of blackberries and an avalanche of frosting. Dry, lopsided cake? Over my dead body.

We will pass quietly over the events of what Kristin and her husband Dominic, in their innocence, doubtless think of simply as their wedding day. (For me, that period of time will be known forevermore as Wedding Cake Massacre: The Sequel.) Highlights included an oven that shut off repeatedly and without warning; the similarity to the untrained eye of a certain French manufacturer’s blackberry jelly and its blackcurrant jam; 17 texts to a dear friend threatening suicide; 17 texts from a dear friend suggesting alternate courses of action; and a near fistfight in the flower stalls of the Union Square Greenmarket. We will focus, instead, on the second nicest thing about making a friend’s wedding cake—the nicest thing, of course, being the look on her face when she first sees it—and that is that, when all is said and done, people will think you’re a genius. An angel.

Only you need to know you’re really a fool.


• Know your budget. Depending on where you live, making a wedding cake will cost between $400 and $600, including groceries, equipment, and transportation. Clipping coupons and buying in bulk will cut down costs significantly, but whatever you do, don’t skimp on the ingredients themselves. Farm-fresh, high quality eggs and butter, while expensive, are a must.

• And don’t forget to budget your own time: Plan on at least 12 hours from the moment you crack the first egg into the mixer to the final scattering of flower petals atop the cake.

• Plan ahead. Most frosting can be made up to a month in advance and frozen (just remember to allow ample time for it to defrost). Considering decorating the cake with edible flowers from your local farmers market? Talk to various vendors a week or two ahead of time to see what’s available, and ask them to set aside a few choice blooms for you.

• Ask for help. Having a few friends on call for emergency grocery store runs will save you precious time—and nerves. And don’t hesitate to borrow everything you can, especially when it comes to specialized equipment (12-inch serrated knife, 6-inch-round cake pans) you aren’t likely to need again.

• Consider assembling the cake on-site. Professional bakeries have all sorts of easy tricks (rubber trivets, double-sided tape) that you, too, can use to ensure that your pre-assembled cake arrives at the wedding unscathed. But if the prospect of subjecting your baby to a car ride is still too frightening, simply coordinate with the wedding site to have an air-conditioned corner of the kitchen available for you, and finish assembling it there.

• Accept imperfection. Your cake won’t be perfect; for that matter, if you look closely, you’ll see that not even the most exquisite professional cake is without flaw. But smooth frosting and a scattering of flower petals are sure to make it a thing of beauty. And while practice may not make perfect, it will help ensure you create a final product that tastes—and looks—fantastic. Best of all? You made it yourself.

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