Earlier this month, I had the privilege of baking a wedding cake for a couple of friends who were getting married. The bride approached me last year to make the cake because she wanted to cut into the real thing and not a chunk of styrofoam. I didn’t even hesitate.
So for the first half of 2015, I spent every free moment thinking about and researching for this mammoth project. It was my first time making a cake this large and for such an important occasion. I wouldn’t say it was the smoothest journey, but I’m happy with how it turned out. And, of course, elated that the couple loved the cake.
Now that it’s over, I do have some learning points should any of you decide to head down the DIY-wedding-cake path. (Warning: It’s a long post…)
But first, some information about the cake. It’s three tiers comprising a 10-inch round, 8-inch round and 6-inch round. Each tier has four layers of cake, sandwiched and covered with a peppermint and vanilla buttercream icing. The cake itself was a yellow sponge flavoured with Earl Grey tea and vanilla.
The base tier is covered in piped rosette swirls which graduate from a deep purple at the bottom to white all over the top. (Here’s an excellent tutorial video from Cake Style on the piping technique.)
The top two tiers are iced in a deep purple buttercream with piped white Cornelli lace and topped with small white gum-paste roses. Surrounding the bases are a string of pearl dragees.
Each tier sits separately on its own stand. The original vision was for each tier to be stacked on top of each other like a traditional wedding cake. But the hotel was going to charge to deconstruct a stacked cake, so using a cake stand with separate tiers was the compromise.
And now, for the pointers as promised.
(1) Draw it out.
The cake was for the bride and groom, so I wanted to be absolutely sure that I met their expectations. Be sure to find out what they like (cake flavours, colours, etc.) and what they need (how many to feed, dietary requests, etc.) to help you conceptualise the cake.
Then, to make absolutely sure that all three of you are on the same page, it helps immensely to create a visual of the cake.
You don’t have to create a scale drawing like I did, but even a simple sketch will help everyone to see what the final cake should look like. As you can see we made a small change to the 8-incher, moving the cornelli lace half to the top so it visually connects with the lace on the bottom-half of the 6-incher. You can discuss details like this once you have a visual.
(2) Know what you’re capable of.
Unless you’re prepared to take lessons, as an amateur you need to take stock of the skills you possess. For instance, I have neither experience nor desire to work with fondant. Fortunately, the couple felt the same way about fondant as I did so it was buttercream all the way.
I also knew I didn’t have the skill (and time and patience) to do detailed floral decorations like the gum-paste white roses, so those were store-bought and attached to the cake with buttercream.
Fortunately, wedding cake designs are usually very understated and elegant — just executed very, very well. So keep your designs simple and minimal but take your time to do the best job you can.
And it’s not just about skills — be aware of what equipment you have. My oven can just about hold one 10-inch cake tin so that was the largest size I could manage. Also consider how large your refrigerator is — I had to move stuff around (and warn everyone else in the house not to buy any extra groceries), but I could just about squeeze in the three tiers.
(3) Plan, plan, plan.
There’s no getting away from this — you have to know what you’re going to be doing, especially since it’s such a large cake.
When you’ve selected your cake recipe, it’s a good idea to know how many cups of batter it makes and then scale it up (or down) to fit the cake pans of each tier. I used this handy chart from Wilton (and a lot of math) to figure out how much batter to make for each tier of the cake.
BONUS TIP! When baking large cakes, don’t ever alter the baking temperature — just lengthen the baking time. My 10-inch tiers spent a good 80-90 minutes in the oven. If you find the top of your cake is browning too quickly, just loosely cover the tin with a sheet of aluminium foil. Another great tip I picked up from North Star Cakes blog on baking large cakes evenly was to cover the top of the batter with a baking paper circle with a hole cut out in the centre. Either way, whether the top burns or not, you’ll still be slicing it off to keep your cake layers level.
Do the same scaling with your icing recipe. And what do you know — yet another handy chart to tell you how much icing is needed for each tier! Of course, make extra, especially if you’re colouring your icing. You’ll never be able recreate an icing colour once it runs out.
(4) Make parts ahead of time.
You’ll want to start at least a week in advance so that you can spend the day or two before the wedding just focused on building and decorating.
Buttercream icing lasts a couple of weeks in the refrigerator so that’s probably the first thing to get out of the way. It’s already a mammoth task in itself considering how much icing you’ll need. I thought my Kitchen Aid mixer was large, but I had to make four batches of icing with the bowl completely full each time!
Just pop your icing in airtight containers, maybe with a sheet of plastic film pressed down onto the icing just in case, and store in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it.
Baking that much cake also takes a lot of time, especially if you just have an average-sized home oven. My two 10-inch tins had to go into the oven separately and the 8-inch and 6-inch tins could go in in pairs, so that meant 4 baking sessions in total, not counting time to allow the ingredients to come up to room temperature, mix up the batter, wash up my equipment in between sessions, and cool the cakes before storing.
Un-iced cakes only last well for two days in the refrigerator. You can buy much more time by freezing them. I made all my cakes several days in advance, wrapped them in plastic film and froze them.
Just move them down to the refrigerator a day before you want to use them to give them time to defrost.
(5) Be precise.
When making large cakes, any mistakes you make are amplified. So this means taking the time to torte and level your cakes so that each layer is perfectly flat.
Torting and levelling your cakes is so important for wedding cakes. Any doming or unevenness will make it that much more difficult to get a flat top and crisp lines, and if you’re stacking your cakes, each layer has to be perfectly level or the whole structure will slant, or worse, become unstable and be prone to tipping over.
BONUS TIP! I’ve written before about levelling cakes with just a knife, but for this project I made a (small) investment in a cake leveller and honestly it is the best thing I have ever bought in my entire amateur caking career. I was literally swooning over how flat and even my cake layers were. (I’m weird like that.) And when you’re working on large unwieldy cakes like the 10-incher, a cake leveller is a godsend.
Another great tip is to refrigerate your cakes for at least 6 hours before torting/levelling. You’ll find that the cake holds together better, there are fewer crumbs, and your cuts will be a lot cleaner. Avoid cutting into a cake just fresh from the oven because that’s when its structure is at its weakest.
Also think about icing your cakes as evenly as possible, even between the cake layers. When I was constructing the cake, I used my 1/4-cup disher (ice-cream scoop) to make sure each layer had the same amount of icing. Again, use this chart to help you know how many cups of icing to use in-between the cake layers.
(6) Think of transportation.
So you’re done with the cake — congratulations. How exactly are you going to get it to the wedding?
Unless you have a van, chances are you’ll be better off transporting the wedding cake in separate tiers and assembling it at the venue.
I don’t have a picture of it, but I stuck bamboo skewers into the sides and top of the tiers to brace against the box and minimise damage during the journey. I also had some icing in a piping bag ready to patch up the cake when I removed the skewers at the hotel where the wedding was held. (The gum-paste roses were also added onsite.)
It’s definitely not a one-man job — get anyone in the wedding party with a good sense of balance to help you carry the other tiers.
A refrigerated truck would have been nice, but seeing as I didn’t have one, I just made sure to have the AC on my car on high to keep the cakes cool. Drive carefully. When we got to the hotel, it was straight to the kitchen to have the cake tiers stored in one of their commercial refrigerators until later.
(7) Relax and enjoy the process.
If I could go back in time, I would tell myself to take it easy. It’s not like I didn’t have fun planning and making the cakes — I had a blast just thinking about all the possible cake designs and decorating techniques I could use.
But the pressure of making sure I don’t disappoint everyone definitely took away some of the joy, not to mention I was a bundle of nerves at the wedding right up until the couple’s knife finally sliced into the cake.
It’s definitely a lesson you only learn in hindsight, but I should have spent less time worrying and more time savouring the moment because it was over far too quickly. I suppose that’s more of a life lesson than a cake one.
Speaking of hindsight, now as I look back on creating this cake, I see how much I’ve grown as a baker. I’ve taken a hard look at my capabilities, picked up new skills and refined old ones. I’m glad I accepted the challenge, met it head on and came out the other side better than ever. Now, if only I could do the same to everything else in my life…
[Pictures of the completed wedding cake were kindly provided by the couple.]