Working with Your Baker

Martha Stewart Weddings, Summer 2001

A wedding cake can be anything you want it to be: grand or petite, richly decorated or complex only in its flavor. Because there are so many ways to construct and design a cake and so many possible flavors and textures, working closely with a baker is crucial to getting something that reflects your desires.

Couples should start thinking about the cake as soon as they choose the time, date, and place for their reception, because those elements affect the style and shape of it. Certain ingredients can be disastrous on a summer day, for instance, and a heavy dessert may be unappealing in midafternoon.

To get a sense of what you like visually, start by collecting photographs of cakes from magazines and the Internet. Many bakers have websites with pictures and descriptions of their work. If you don't see anything that exactly suits you, consider how the style of your wedding, your family history, or your personal passions might influence the choice. The embroidery on your wedding dress or the motif of your invitations, for instance, can be mimicked in your cake's shape and details. Or a family member's wedding cake could be the source of inspiration. Jessica Norkin-Beardsley, a baker in San Francisco, was asked to re-create a cake from a 50-year-old picture. To the couple's delight, she was able to duplicate the three-layer carrot cake surrounded with gardenias and white roses. If you are an artist, you might want a cake that plays off one or more of the themes that you use in your work. Your pet could even inspire the design. Lindsay Michel, the owner of Once Upon a Cake in Falls Church, Virginia, was once asked to create a cake based on a couple's two cherished parrots. She wound up designing a cake with a jungle theme, complete with monkeys, tigers, lions -- and, of course, parrots.

Once you have some ideas for a cake, it's time to look for a baker. Good bakers may be booked a year in advance, but the most typical booking time is three to six months before the wedding. For names, ask your caterer, friends, and relatives. If you are getting married in a faraway city, ask someone local for a resource. "It's good to ask a florist or banquet-hall manager for their recommendation for a baker," says Philippe Erramuzpe, the owner of Philippe's Catering in Augusta, Georgia. "Also, it's not bad to ask a photographer or a videographer about it. They usually have tasted a lot of cakes." If you are getting married in a small town or a remote location where there are few specialized bakers, it's best to go with a simple confection, perhaps a stacked white cake filled with chocolate- or lemon-flavored whipped cream and topped with a smooth buttercream. Instead of having the baker make elaborate decorations, you can surround the cake with flowers.

Working with Your Baker: Learn the Language

When you have found a baker, call with some key questions. The first one should be, "Are you free on my wedding date?" If so, ask what kind of cakes the baker makes, what the price range is, and whether you can arrange an appointment for a tasting. All bakers worth their sugar have portfolios and offer cake tastings. Try to set one up for your first meeting. Some cake makers only schedule mass tastings for groups, which occur a few times a year. Others will let you arrive at any time to sample a tart, cupcake, or cookie. Karen Krasne, owner of San Diego's Extraordinary Desserts, a pastry shop and cafe, prefers this approach. "I prefer to take an appointment only after the couple has come in, tasted my pastries, and become familiar with my portfolio," she says. "I want people to be sure that they like my desserts and my style."

You and your fiance should meet with the baker together. If only one of you can go, it might help to bring a friend or relative for a second opinion. As you look through the baker's portfolio, you'll get an idea of whether your tastes and sensibilities mesh. Though most good bakers can offer anything from a simple chocolate ganache cake to a meticulously designed fondant sculpture, the portfolio will highlight their strengths.

During your meeting, explain where the wedding is being held, how many people will attend, and the time of the reception. A smart baker will ask you some of the following questions: What are the colors for your wedding? Is there a theme? Do you want a stacked cake or a pillared cake? What does your dress look like? Show the baker your collection of cake images, but don't expect him to make an exact reproduction. The photos are meant to give insight into your style.

In collaboration with the baker, think about your wedding colors or the pattern of your dress. You could add grosgrain ribbon in your color palette to the base of each tier. Your flowers could inspire the baker to make sugar gerbera daisies with marzipan leaves and stems. Play with the shapes and colors of the piping designs and sugar creations. You could have dots, stripes, diamonds, or edible sugar pearls accenting your cake in periwinkle, sea foam, or lapis blue. Each tier could even feature a different design in the same piping style. And remember, you don't have to go with round tiers. You could try stacked or pillared hexagonal, square, or heart-shaped cakes. It's also possible to have three tiers stacked and the top tier separated by pillars. Cakes separated by pillars look beautiful with fresh flowers placed between tiers.

If you are planning to use fresh flowers, talk with your florist to make sure that no poisonous flowers will be put on your cake. Also check with the florist or baker to see about buying flowers that are grown solely as a food source, so they are not sprayed with harmful pesticides. Edible flowers include orange and lemon citrus blossoms, English daisies, pansies, roses, violets, and tulips.

The cake should taste as good as it looks. Once you've decided on the flavor, choose the filling. Cakes usually stand three to four tiers high, and each tier typically has three or four layers of cake held together with filling. If you have a tier made up of four layers, you could have three different fillings. A white cake could be filled with a layer each of Grand Marnier, hazelnut, and chocolate fudge, all covered in buttercream.

Then there's the matter of the frosting. Are you a fondant or buttercream person? Fondant has a beautiful porcelain finish and keeps the cake fresh. Buttercream is buttery soft. The choice may depend not only on which texture you prefer but also on the weather. Fondant can protect a cake if you are having an outdoor wedding on a warm afternoon. Buttercream does not hold up well in a hot environment; it will melt if left out in the sun. "The weather is a big consideration when planning your cake," says Norkin-Beardsley. "One ray of sun on a whipped-cream cake and you'll have a puddle of milk." Alain Braux, the executive pastry chef at the Barr Mansion in Austin, Texas, will not use chocolate in the summer because it is ruined by heat and humidity. "Any good professional baker will adjust his or her cakes to the environment," says Braux.

Working with Your Baker: Learn the Language

The baker will make suggestions that suit the time and season. If you're planning an afternoon garden wedding in June, you might want something delicate, such as an almond pound cake filled with a light, creamy lemon curd blended with fresh blueberries and raspberries. If your reception is more casual, you could serve an open-faced berry tiramisu.

Budget, of course, will also affect your decision. Cakes are usually priced on a per-person basis. If you're considering a three-tiered rolled fondant cake with lemon-curd mousseline filling and labor-intensive design elements such as marzipan roses or nougatine barquettes, you will likely pay $6 to $15 per person. But if you opt for, say, a chocolate buttercream cake with raspberry filling, decorated with fresh flowers, you might pay $5 or less per person, although probably more in cities like New York. The cost may reflect the price of fresh ingredients at the time of your wedding. "I usually charge between $4 and $5.30 per person," says Norkin-Beardsley. "But it might cost more if you want whipped cream and strawberries in January. Cream-cheese cakes are also more expensive."

If there's a cake you must have but it costs too much, you can save money by getting a smaller version and serving additional cakes that are cut in the kitchen. For example, if you are expecting 200, you could buy a three-tiered cake that feeds 100 people for, say, $500, and four more 10-inch sheet cakes or rounds that can feed another 100 people for about $150 total. Side cakes also help the caterer, because they can be cut and plated ahead of time and served as soon as the couple cuts the cake. This is also helpful if you've decided to add a sauce, such as a raspberry puree or a creme anglaise, to the plates.

Once you have decided on the cake's design, flavors, and fillings, the baker may require a 50 percent deposit upon the signing of the agreement. The contract should detail everything you discussed, including the exact design elements (some bakers provide a sketch of the cake), the cost per person, the delivery time, explicit directions to the reception site, and all necessary contact numbers. "I make sure that I have every vendor's phone number, just in case something goes wrong," says Brian Kiefer, a wedding planner with Food for Thought in Chicago. "I do this especially if there are vendors working the party whom I have not hired myself."

Be sure that the contract doesn't have any hidden charges. For example, if the delivery exceeds the baker's ten-mile radius, a per-mile charge might be tacked on. (You should also find out if your caterer or the banquet hall charges a fee for cutting a cake that is brought in from outside. Cutting fees usually range from about $1.50 to $2 per person.) The contract should also stipulate whether the baker or the florist will order the flowers, and who will decorate the cake with them. Some cake designers prefer to provide and arrange the flowers themselves.

One of the last things to think about is the custom of saving the top tier. Traditionally, the top tier was kept for the christening of the couple's first child a year or so later. Some couples save it in the freezer for a year, while others save it only until their one-month anniversary. Others ask their bakers to make a small version of the cake to be enjoyed later.

Lenora Todaro and Paul Elie, who were married in 1999, enjoyed their cake even more the second time around. "Taking the cake out on our one-year anniversary and eating it was a transcendent experience," says Todaro. "It tasted just as good as it did a year ago. As we were eating it, we kept thinking that the cake was there at our wedding, and here we get to eat it again. It was a collapse of time, sort of like tasting your wedding."

Working with Your Baker: Learn the Language

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