Friday, August 27, 2010

To Bake a Wedding Cake or Not?

A few days, NPR had a charming commentary written by a woman who baked a wedding cake for her brother's wedding.  It was about how much love and effort she put into the cake, and how it was still wonderful, even though it wasn't perfect.

I'm in complete agreement.  It was a wonderful, thoughtful, charming gift she gave to her brother.  She saved her brother and his bride a good chunk of money.  But if you're considering baking your own wedding cake, or baking a wedding cake for a friend, there are some very important things to consider before committing to the task.

A few of the cakes I've given as gifts:

I'm speaking as someone who has made several wedding cakes as gifts, is the daughter of a pastry chef, granddaughter of a professional cake decorator.  Here are some things I've learned along the way.

Is it even allowed?

Some wedding venues only allow cakes from licensed professional bakers.  Check with the venue before deciding to make the cake.

Baking a wedding cake costs more than you think.

Especially if you're not experienced making cakes like wedding cakes, even if you're an excellent baker, you're going to need a lot of equipment you probably don't have on hand.  Pans (be sure your oven is big enough to handle the largest pans!), cardboard rounds, dowels or support systems, food coloring (not the grocery store kind), disco dust, gumpaste, gumpaste cutters, gumpaste tools, fondant (expensive to buy!), luster dusts, petal dusts, cans of aeresol luster dust, large spatulas, long bread knives, extra wide commercial grade cling wrap, and much, much more.  Those are just a sampling of the supplies I use on nearly every cake I make.  And I always make at least one trip to the cake supply store when making a cake and seldom walk out spending less than $100.  (Some of that is undoubtedly my own fault due to lack of restraint.  ;-) )  Someone new to making stacked or tiered cakes will easily need to invest several hundred dollars in supplies.

Also consider the cost of the ingredients.  "It's just eggs and flour!" is a common complaint of brides with sticker shock at the price of a wedding cake.   It's not a whole lot more than that, true, but it's a lot of it, and the costs really add up.  Add in the many practice cakes you'll probably be making while figuring out what kind of cake to make, and you've already invested more than the average person spends on a wedding gift.

Baking a wedding cake takes more time than you think.

Start baking the wedding cakes at least a week ahead of time if you want to stay sane.   When I make large gift-cakes, I typically follow this time schedule:

  • At least two weeks before the wedding, spend one to three days working on all the gumpaste figures and flowers.  
  • One week before the wedding, bake all the cakes.  This takes a full, solid day of baking.  Let cool, wrap tightly in commercial cling wrap, and freeze.
  • Two days before the wedding, defrost cakes in the fridge.
  • Day before the wedding, level, torte, fill, and crumb coat.  This will take several hours, much longer than you expect.  
  • Day before the wedding, or day of the wedding if you're leaving things to chance, Cover in fondant or do the finish coat of buttercream.  Stack if delivering stacked, add all decorations and embellishments.  Put back in dedicated fridge.
It takes days of solid labor.  True pros with just the right equipment and resources can do it a little more quickly, but even for them, it takes real, substantial time.  For the average home baker, you're talking about days of effort.

If this is your first stacked cake, you really, really need to practice the techniques for creating a stable stacked cake before making the wedding cake.  It's trickier than you might think, so don't risk your loved-one's wedding cake as your firsts attempt. 

Baking a wedding cake takes more space than you think.

You need enough freezer space to accommodate the cakes.  You need fridge space to accommodate the cakes while you're taking the layers in and out of the fridge as you do crumb coats and each stage of the decoration.  It's best to have a dedicated fridge, so no funky smells from leftover Thai takeout get absorbed into the cake.  (I had a strawberry once that had essence of the meatball it had been sitting next to infused into it.  It was one of the most repulsive things I've ever put in my mouth.) 

And trust me, you'll be eating nothing but takeout for a few days before you deliver the cake.  My kitchen always looks like a sugar explosion while I'm making a cake--equipment and gumpaste bits absolutely everywhere.   

Baking a wedding cake is an amazing gift to give someone.  But if you decide to give that particular gift, be aware of the cost and tremendous effort that goes into it. You'll spend hundreds of dollars and many full days of work.   

Perhaps suggest cupcakes if you're feeling a little intimidated by the thought of a full-blown wedding cake.  It's still a tremendous effort, but it's definitely less complicated and prone to disaster. ;-)

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