It isn't quick -- or easy -- but making a cake for someone's wedding is a wonderful gift and a money-saver for the newlyweds. Food writer Nicole Spiridakis relays tips and recipes from her cake-crafting success story.
On a cool morning in late June, the Maine skies threatening rain, I held my breath and carefully stacked heavy cake layers one on top of the other (they held). I smoothed out butter cream frosting and placed bright flowers here and there. I crossed my fingers, gave the cakes one final look, and set off along the green coast for a wedding.
Then for much of June 26, I held my breath, and not only because the U.S. was slated to play Ghana in the second round of the World Cup tournament. My younger brother was getting married that afternoon. And I had baked his wedding cake.
I'd always sort of wanted to bake a wedding cake. In addition to the challenge ? and I am loath to avoid a baking challenge ? doing it yourself can save hundreds of dollars and is a wonderful gift to give newlyweds. So when he and his fiancee asked me if I might like to bake their cake, I immediately said I do.
For months, my mind spun with possibilities. I spent hours debating the merits of butter cream over fondant. I thought about making strawberry jam in California and lugging it with me to New England (this was quickly abandoned in the interest of using blueberries in a nod to the locale, not to mention keeping the carbon footprint to a minimum). I agonized over whether the dowels would really work, and if not, would my cakes collapse into a sticky mess of crumbs and tears? And would it taste OK, never mind what it looked like?
Baking a wedding cake is mostly about planning. For the amateur baker ? i.e., not a pastry chef ? it also requires a book (in my case Dede Wilson's Wedding Cakes you Can Make, Wiley 2005) and a lot of ingredients, equipment not typically found in the home kitchen, cardboard, and too much butter to fully articulate. It also requires a lot of time and a leap of faith.
So I leapt, though not without a safety net. I recipe-tested for months, grilling my co-workers about the consistency of various types of butter cream and crumb tenderness (somehow they didn't seem to mind these assignments). I Googled. I pored over beautiful cake photos in wedding magazines. I reminded myself that I had baked for years, and even if I'd never baked a 12-inch round cake, certainly all my past experience would serve me well.
My brother, Kurt, and sister-in-law, Emily, love food. Oh, they're not really fussy about it, but they appreciate a good meal and are stellar cooks and gardeners (my brother is the one who steered me not-so-gently toward cooking in season from the farmers markets lo these many years ago). When I visit their house perched across the street from the Kennebec River, with a comfortable kitchen that affords a nightly view of the fiery New England sunset, I am treated not only to the pleasure of their company but also to the joy of their table.
I took my responsibilities very seriously. Baking a wedding cake for two people I adore and whose palates I admire is no small feat. I wanted their cake not just to taste good, but also to be special and something to be remembered long after the plates were cleared away ? much like the two of them.
Mostly I wanted it to taste of love.
So after all those months of thinking, I finally tucked myself away in a kitchen in a little town in Maine and got to it. I baked for a solid seven-and-a-half hours. I frosted and assembled for about five more. I endured a nail bitingly slow five-minute car trip with the precious cargo in the back (it was fine). And I enjoyed nearly every minute of it.
I'd decided to make two cakes to serve the 120 or so guests expected. One was a yellow cake (Alice Waters' deliciously reliable 1-2-3-4 cake), its layers alternating with homemade blueberry jam from Maine, wild blueberries and lemon curd. The other ? mostly because the groom had requested it ? was a chocolate cake (also from an Alice Waters recipe) filled with chocolate ganache. Both cakes were frosted with a simple vanilla butter cream frosting.
If you're doing a tiered wedding cake, you basically look at each tier as its own cake. First you work out the sizing and how many servings you'll need. Then you figure out just how many batches of your preferred cake recipe are necessary. In my case, I needed to bake five batches of each flavor of cake.
I realized after the fact that I probably made too much cake ? and indeed there were plentiful leftovers. But I was nervous about having too little; a lesson learned for the future.
I started with the baking part. I chose recipes that I knew were sturdy and would stand up to a bit of hauling around. The yellow cake I baked in 6-inch, 9-inch and 12-inch rounds, each two layers then further split, so each slice would have four layers of cake sandwiching the filling. The chocolate I baked in 8-inch, 10-inch and 12-inch squares just to change it up a little. (Round layers are easier and prettier to frost). I spent the first full day baking and making the lemon curd and jam, and froze the layers for easier cutting once it came time to frost them.
A few days later, I filled and frosted. This took a bit longer than I envisioned ? a full three hours longer ? and it was a hot day. Picture frantically making more batches of butter cream with rapidly softening butter and cursing your own existence. ("If I never see a bowl of butter cream again it will be too soon.") The final decorating took place in a mad rush early the morning of the wedding.
After the ceremony, which took place in a lush green field near the coast, I walked into the room where the reception was being held and finally let out that long-held breath. The bride and groom were glowing. The white sangria was cold and delicious. And the cakes looked great ? not perfect, of course, but they were real and definitely were baked with a lot of love. They tasted very, very good, too.
In hindsight, I realize I wasn't completely cognizant of what I was getting myself into when I started out ? eight hours of baking? How many batches of butter cream? Yet that night, as I looked around at the wedding guests cutting themselves enormous slices of chocolate cake and raving about the lemon curd, I felt a sense of joy no baked good I'd previously produced had elicited. I hoped I'd done my brother and sister-in-law proud. And then I went back for seconds.