Q. What is the proper way to cut a tiered wedding cake?
--Rochelle Jacobs, New York City
The first cut made into the wedding cake is ceremonial. According to tradition, a knife tied with a ribbon is set next to the cake; the bride picks up the knife (it shouldn't be handed to her) and cuts a small piece from the bottom layer of the cake. This is the piece the bride and groom will feed each other.
Usually, after the first cut, the cake is taken from the reception area to the kitchen, where it will be sliced and plated. But first, the top tier will be removed and carefully wrapped so that it can be frozen: If the cake has buttercream frosting, instruct the caterer to chill the top layer for at least one hour in the refrigerator so the icing can harden. Then have the cake wrapped in plastic and placed in a cake box, which will also be wrapped in plastic. On their first anniversary, husband and wife can celebrate by eating the preserved tier.
The remaining layers are sliced, from the top down, and served to the guests: The supporting dowels must be removed, usually with pliers. Then, a small circle is cut out of the center of the cake, making slicing more manageable and improving the slices' appearance. When the outer ring has been sliced, the circle is then cut into slices (the ideal length for the outermost edge of a cake slice is about 1 inch). The process is repeated for each layer of the cake -- a very large bottom tier may need to have two or more concentric circles cut in it. Before the plated slices are taken back to the reception area, they are often garnished with berries, edible flowers, or other decorative elements.
Q. How many weeks in advance should I order the wedding cake, and should I expect to pay in advance?
--Debra Lloyd, Indianapolis
As a rule of thumb, it's best to order your wedding cake three to six months in advance. You'll want to order the cake sooner if your wedding will be in a popular wedding month, such as May, June, or September, since pastry chefs can book up quickly during these times. The same holds true for three-day weekends and Saturdays at any time of year.
Payment policies vary, so it's important to get a signed contract that clearly explains the policy. Most cake makers require a deposit of between 20 percent and 50 percent of the cost of the cake to secure their services for the day. The remainder of the payment will be due one to two weeks before the wedding.
Cakes are often priced by the slice, with rates ranging from $3 to $15 a slice. If you're having a large wedding, consider having a smaller wedding cake for display, with additional cake kept in the kitchen. The caterers can then cut from a large sheet cake made from the same recipe, which will be less expensive.