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Selecting a Wedding Cake

Martha Stewart Weddings, Volume 30 2004

When it comes to planning a wedding, few decisions are as delightful as choosing your wedding cake. After all, what could be better than sampling slice after slice of delicious cake? As eager as you may be to let the taste testing begin, taking time to envision the cake of your dreams will give you the sweetest results.

Since, ideally, you should order the cake six months before the wedding, it's best to start considering what you would like soon after you've chosen your reception site and the style of your wedding. It may help to look at photographs in magazines and books or online for inspiration. Think about the look and the flavor you desire to help narrow your focus. Have you always wanted a pristine white cake? Or maybe you love strawberry filling. The ideas you find may help you come up with creative ways to incorporate your favorites so they fit your wedding.

The cake's design should match the aesthetic of the day. A formal wedding generally calls for a structured, multitier cake; it can be elaborately or simply decorated, so long as its style implies something ceremonial and grand. These cakes are often round, but square or even hexagonal shapes are more unexpected -- and the tiers can be stacked for a solid look or set on pillars for an airy grace. White is the classic color for a wedding cake, but chocolate and tinted frostings can be just as elegant. For a less formal wedding, you can certainly embrace the unconventional. The cake can be iced playfully with swirls of meringue or strewn with flower petals that fall where they may. Or you can forgo a single cake altogether and opt for a trio of smaller cakes or even cupcakes, doughnuts, or pastries displayed on tiered cake stands for an impressive effect.

Details and motifs from the wedding can influence the appearance of the cake. Ron Ben-Israel, a wedding-cake designer in New York City, says inspiration can come from these four places: location, fashion, nature, or the menu. With location, not only can the reception site provide ideas, but so can the city and its architecture. A cake for a San Francisco wedding, for instance, may borrow the pastel hues of the city's Victorian row houses. The details of a bride's dress or accessories, such as the lace in her veil or the pearls in her necklace, are wonderful to re-create on a cake; perhaps the bows on her dress can be echoed around the tiers. Adding elements from nature is always beautiful; look to the centerpiece flowers or the environment surrounding the reception. For a wedding on the beach, you could adorn the cake with seashells. And the menu can also spark creativity with the design; if you're having a rustic Italian meal, the cake might display marzipan grapes.

As for the flavor of the cake, often the layers are white or yellow cake, but there's no reason they can't be chocolate, lemon, carrot, or hazelnut, to name a few. You can also tailor the cake to the rest of the meal; for example, a Mediterranean-themed dinner might inspire an orange-flavored cake, while an Asian feast could end with a cake featuring ginger. The fillings are another way to bring in more flavor. In addition to buttercream or other frostings, you can select jam, lemon curd, fruit purees, whipped cream, or chocolate fudge to complement the cake.

Of course, you can always serve more than one cake if you wish to add to the bounty. Some couples choose to have a groom's cake in addition to the wedding cake. Traditionally, a groom's cake is a dark, rich fruitcake or chocolate cake, which makes a nice contrast to a white wedding cake, but it can also just be the groom's favorite dessert.

Once you have some ideas for your cake, you'll need to find a baker. Your caterer may be able to make the cake, or he or she can suggest a baker; newly married friends can also provide recommendations. Or if you have a favorite bakery, ask the staff if they have experience making wedding cakes. Try to see samples of the kind of decorations you want, such as gum-paste flowers or marzipan fruits. The right baker will be able to not only carry out your wishes, but tell you if your vision for your cake is realistic. For instance, will the fruits you've selected be in season? Will the frosting stand up in the humidity? Is the style of the cake practical for the filling you prefer? "Some elaborate cakes take days to decorate," says Margaret Braun, a New York City wedding-cake designer. "A couple may want a perishable filling like fresh strawberries or whipped cream that just might not keep. Those fillings can work with a simple cake that can be put together in a day."

Your baker will also know the ideal way to use certain ingredients. Delicate fruits such as raspberries, for example, are best paired with a white or almond cake with an icing that isn't too rich, since the berries' flavor will be the main attraction. If you'd like the cake to be decorated with fresh flowers, the baker should be able to tell you what blooms are edible. Or he can arrange to order nontoxic flowers, which haven't been sprayed with pesticides but aren't edible and should be removed before serving. (Your florist can also order them as well as arrange them on the cake, but many cake designers prefer to do this.)

Once you've decided on the design and flavor, you should be sure everything is detailed in the contract along with the fee for the cake. Like caterers, cake makers charge per person (catering halls may charge their own per-slice cake-cutting fee if the cake does not come from them). Usually a 50 percent deposit must be paid when the contract is signed, with the balance due several weeks ahead of the wedding or upon delivery of the cake. One way to save money is to order a smaller cake for displaying at the reception and a sheet cake or two that can be cut and placed on plates in the kitchen; the sheet cakes don't need to be as elaborately decorated, and the dessert can be served more quickly, since the caterers can slice it as you are cutting the wedding cake.

If you are an enthusiastic baker and would like to make your own cake, or if a talented relative or friend offers, think carefully before you choose this option -- it may require more work than you expect. If you have your heart set on creating it yourself, consider baking two or three small cakes with fewer tiers, which are easier to manage in a home kitchen. You also may want to use uncomplicated decorations such as fresh fruit. But even the simplest of wedding cakes still makes a statement -- that the sweetness of married life is easily shared.

Though icing can be used to create embellishments, there are many other beautiful decorations: intricate flowers made from gum paste, also called sugar paste (a type of sugar dough); swags or dots piped in royal icing (made from egg whites and confectioners' sugar); and fruits or blossoms shaped from marzipan (a paste of ground almonds and sugar, which can also cover tiers). Fresh flowers and fruits are wonderful as well. It's wise to use whole fruits instead of sliced ones, since their juice can stain the frosting. Add edible or nontoxic blooms on the day of the wedding so they'll look their best; nontoxic flowers should be removed before the cake is served. Learn more about toppings.

 

A Chocolate Ganache Cake, topped with sugared fruit and chestnuts, makes a splendid wedding cake.

To create the tiny strawberries gracing this traditionally shaped cake, a mixture of white chocolate and corn syrup was molded and tinted with food coloring to resemble just-ripening fruit. The blossoms are made from gum paste, while the leafy swags encircling the tiers are piped in white-chocolate ganache.

The design of this Fondant-Covered Cake was inspired by a type of chinaware called English ironstone.

For this fondant-covered cake, sugar paste is sculpted to look like lace.