You'd be hard pressed to meet a baker, especially one who specializes in wedding cakes, who isn't passionate about what he or she does for a living. Still, most people don't understand all that goes into creating a quality cake that's truly worthy of being served at a wedding reception. "Wedding cakes require a great deal of time, skill, and care," explains Liz Berman, founder and owner of The Sleepy Baker in Natick, Massachusetts. "It's important for the cake to not only look beautiful, but to taste delicious, too."
A baker also needs to pay close attention to the wishes of her bride and groom. Unlike your birthday cake, which is different every year, you (hopefully) only have one wedding cake in your lifetime, so it might as well be perfect. To help you understand how these big-day desserts are created from start to finish, we asked two bakers to explain exactly what goes into creating a wedding cake, and it's shockingly complex.
As you might expect, it all begins with the first client meeting. Most couples hear about a potential baker from another couple they know personally or an online review. From there, the bride or groom will call to inquire about prices and set up an in-person meeting to discuss what they're looking for. If it seems like a fit, the couple will schedule an in-house appointment to further discuss their needs, taste different cake flavors, and decide on a design.
Both the bride and groom should be present at the official cake tasting, says Janette Stenstrom, owner of All Things Cakes in Tulsa, Oklahoma. While some couples choose to bring additional people, often their parents, Stenstrom recommends keeping the invite count to just two. "The adage 'Too many cooks in the kitchen' has never been more true," she says. "Too many opinions make this appointment more difficult than it needs to be." Instead, she recommends relying on your own taste buds and leaning on your baker to make recommendations on flavor and filling combinations that will please a crowd.
Once you've decided on the cake and filling flavors, you'll discuss the design, so plan to show your pro all of the ideas you've collected, be it on social media sites or in magazines. "All cakes start as an idea, which can come from a variety of different sources—a color scheme, a piece of fabric, or an invitation. The inspiration possibilities are endless," says Stenstrom.
Like at most bakeries, design consultations at All Things Cake start off as a discussion. "We listen for design cues and look at ideas together to identify preferences," says Stenstrom. "We also listen for words like simple, sophisticated, rustic, romantic, whimsical, modern, and vintage, as these words each have decorating techniques associated with them that allow us to start to sketch." Once the cake is drawn, final design elements can be discussed and solidified.
Only after everything has been decided on will your baker will put all the details in writing for you to sign off on, Stenstrom explains. The contract is important not just for aesthetics—while it will explain what you've all agreed on, it will also detail the final price and explain the delivery process. Furthermore, the contract lists all the details and fine print associated with the wedding cake, so Stenstrom urges her clients to always read it in full.
After the couple has signed the contract, the real fun begins—for the baker, that is! Your pro and his or her team will determine which elements of the cake that need to be made in advance, like three-dimensional accents, sugar flowers, and bows. "These edible items are made from gum paste or fondant and will need to dry and harden to hold their shape," Stenstrom explains. Work on the actual cake won't begin until your wedding week. Surprisingly, the first step isn't to bake the cake, says Stenstrom, but rather to make the icing and the fillings. "Whether it's raspberry, lemon curd or chocolate ganache, the filling is made, labeled, and stored, so the flavors can deepen."
"Baking the cake is the final step before assembly, which means that it's as fresh as possible for your wedding," says Stenstrom. "The different batters are made and poured into the corresponding pan sizes and baked." After, the cakes are cooled, de-panned, wrapped in plastic film to lock in moisture, and placed in the cooler to further firm up.
While the cakes are chilling, the boards that will be used to stack and display the cake are prepared. "The drum, or heavier board that the cake is displayed, on is covered in food-safe wrapping or fondant depending on the desired presentation style," Stenstrom explains. Once the cakes have cooled, they are then removed from the plastic wrap, leveled, and cut in half horizontally to create additional layers. Then, the tiers, which are usually made of anywhere from two to four layers or cake, are stacked on the drum and filled. Each tier will then be crumb-coated, or coated in a thin layer of buttercream that locks in moisture. The cake heads back to the cooler to chill again.
Stenstrom explains that each tier still needs its final coat of icing, which will serve as the foundation for any decorations. "Often, this is a more substantial layer of smooth buttercream or fondant, but it may also include a texture or metallic finish," she says, offering quilting, horizontal lines, ombré or marbled buttercream, metallic airbrushing as examples. Once the tier has its final layer of icing, it's chilled again in preparation for stacking.
The process of stacking and assembling a wedding cake varies from bakery to bakery, but at All Things Cake, any dessert that is four tiers or less is stacked in the bakery, then transported in full to the venue; any cake that has more than five tiers is stacked in two or more pieces and fully assembled at the reception. While most wedding cakes look as though they are sitting directly on the tier below, Stenstrom explains that they are actually supported by dowels inside each tier.
After the cake is stacked, either fully or in parts, decoration begins, and this process may include details like piping, borders, fondant accents, lace, swags, sugar pearls, hand-painted details, and more, says Stenstrom. "Sugar flowers and other 3D accents that were made in advance are added at this time," she adds. Out of all steps involved in cake-making, this one requires the most skill and time. "After the cake is decorated according to the client's specifications, it's boxed and prepped for delivery."
Most bakeries will deliver the wedding cake themselves, which allows them to ensure proper handling. "If the cake is more than three tiers, which many are, it will need to be assembled on-site," says Berman. "That requires bringing a 'tool kit' so I can assemble and work at the location." Even if the wedding cake can be delivered intact, it may still require special set up on-site. This can be as simple as adding a topper or as complex as decorating the dessert with fresh flowers.
"We do multiple weddings each week, so Saturdays start early and don't end until all the cakes are delivered," says Stenstrom. "The feeling you get after delivering the final cake of the week is equivalent to stepping into the open-air lobby of a resort—you take a deep breath and finally begin to relax."