The Art of Floral Wedding Cakes

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I was introduced to sugar flowers on a Food Network special more than a dozen years ago.  This was before pastry school, before cakes and Sugar Couture, back in a time when I would bounce from creative project to creative project.  My patient husband Jay recalls this time by how it affected him, like for example that time when I was making glass mosaics and he had tiny shards of glass stuck in his socks for months.

After I saw that program, I thought what I usually do… “I can do that”, and immediately ran out to buy my first sugar flower making supplies at the only place I knew of at the time, New York Cake and Bake.  Armed with more a brochure than book, I started to teach myself how to make beautiful flowers out of gumpaste, a sugar dough that dries firm.  I then promptly put them down and didn’t return to them until pastry school.    But then I was hooked.  As Sugar Couture grew, I had more and more requests for these fragile beauties.  People were impressed with their lifelike quality, delicate petals, and their impressive statement on the wedding cakes I made.

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Sugar flowers are some of the most time consuming things I make for my cakes.  The centers are made and dried for days.  The gumpaste is rolled out and each petal is individually cut out, sometimes veined for texture, attached, and left to dry. Depending on the amount of petals and flower form, this can take days, with drying in between.  When they are set, they are dusted with color to give them depth and life, and that color is set with steam.  And then when they are complete, they are terrifyingly delicate.  They can break and chip at the gentlest touch.  They are subject to the weather and have to be kept humidity and heat free to stay beautiful.  This might explain a bit about the price points of of these works of art.

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From time to time I’ll have a client consider real flowers, mostly for budgetary reasons.  I do understand this, but real flowers are rarely a way to go.  Many flowers are toxic, and because of that should not be placed on food. And for the flowers that are not toxic, they can be grown with pesticides that are not used for food, so if you’re going to go that route, organic is the only way.

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There are some flowers that are actually edible, roses, pansies, violets, and these are fine, but you’re limited in the design and use of them because you should never stick a flower stem into a cake. And last but not least, flowers need water to stay beautiful for long periods of time.  Water is the nemesis of cake.  So those flowers that were beautiful when they were first put on, will wilt and slump and when you’re ready for the cake’s photo op, the flowers are long past their prime.  I’ve heard stories from photographer friends who’ve seen the real flowers wilt over the progression of the celebration, their weight tearing the fondant down with them, and ruining the entire cake.    This is the reason the art of sugar flowers was born,  to  solve all these issues and more.  And even better, if you’re the kind of person that likes to keep mementos, the flowers can be removed from the cake, stored and arranged on floral foam with a little desiccant (those packets that come with new shoes), under glass, to keep them beautiful indefinitely.

If budget is a factor, consider a few smaller bunches rather than full on drape or wrap.  Or a single large statement bloom can be all you need to keep all eyes on your cake, and all your guests talking about it for months to come.

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Never Say Never; Birthday Cake Edition

When I made this cake, I spent more than 8 hours painting all the little gray boxes on the side of the trunk cake.  After that, while nursing my sore wrists, I swore I’d never do it again.  Two weeks later I had a new order for another version of it.  Lesson of the day…  Never Say Never.

pink trunk cake detailsThe first cake was for a 40th birthday  of a mother of 3.  It featured her passions, family, home and of course shopping!   This latest one would be a Sweet 16 cake.  Vanessa loves all things pink, gold, elegant and sparkly.  Couldn’t agree more on the sparkly part.    The Cakestory we told  honored her dual heritage and put her on the  over of Vogue.     Details included all kinds of make up and brushes, Beats by Dr Dre, a pink purse, golden mirror, sparkly gold shoes and a blown sugar perfume bottle with her logo on it, all made from different kinds of sugar, and all completely edible.

pink trunk cake shoesLuckily for me, I figured out a better technique for painting those squares on the designer trunk cake.  This time around it only took me 3 1/2 hours.  So there’s that.

Any cake can be reimagined with someone new in mind.   Change the colors, a few of the details, and while it is essentially the same, its completely different and tells an entirely new story. And for me, telling stories is what cake is all about.
pink trunk cake

 

 

Our Top Party Cakes of the Year

One of my favorite things about making cakes is that every single one is different.  Every party is different, every guest of honor, so it stands to reason that no two cakes are ever exactly the same.  Here are a few of the true stand out custom party cake creations from 2013.

 

Which is your favorite?

 

This was a challenge... how would you combine NYC, CT, Queens, shopping and family?   A LV trunk cake of course!

This was a challenge… how would you combine NYC, CT, Queens, shopping and family? A LV trunk cake of course!

Seriously... what else screams party but a disco ball cake?

Seriously… what else screams party but a disco ball cake?

Love this adorable elephant cake.  His trunk is up for good luck.

Love this adorable elephant cake. His trunk is up for good luck.

A construction site cake for George's 4th birthday.  My favorite part, the crane holding the 4...

A construction site cake for George’s 4th birthday. My favorite part, the crane holding the 4…

 

Lego Marvel Super Heroes.  Sand Central Station.  Spidey is my fav...

Lego Marvel Super Heroes. Sand Central Station. Spidey is my fav…

Black Lace Wedding Cake

I love it when my clients are willing to go in brave new directions with their wedding cake.  And this black based wedding cake has been percolating in the back of my mind for a long time.  The bride told me a lovely story about the first time she met her groom.  She was wearing a black lace dress and he started to call her Lacy.  The nickname stuck and would end up inspiring the couple’s wedding cake.  Inspiration comes from the most unexpected places.

Next time we’ll cover the whole cake in white lace!

black wedding cake with white lace

A whole new world… Bananas. A recipe.

A few years ago I hit on one of those holiday recipes that became tradition. A sweet potato casserole that had one magical ingredient… banana. But it wasn’t just the banana that made it so special, it was the treatment of it, specifically roasting, that opened culinary doors for me. During my externship after pastry school I was first introduced to roasted ginger to add complexity of flavor to the final dish. Think Chef thought I was a bit crazy asking him why all the ginger was in the salamander.  I was mesmerized.So when I first came across the idea of roasted bananas I knew it had to be good. Great even.

No more waiting for bananas to go overripe to make banana bread. Roasting develops the natural sweetness of the bananas, and it softens the flesh so there is no real mashing to speak of. It takes mere minutes, and its this kind of trick, taking something one more level, that lifts a recipe from basic homemade to something really special.

Here I use the technique to make a ganache that becomes the filling for chocolate sandwich cookies. Very chocolatey, carmely and overall deliciously satisfying, these cookies are as popular on the table as that original sweet potato casserole, and disappear just as fast. I highly suggest you make them, but if you don’t, definitely roast a banana or two… put them in smoothies, bake them into cakes, or just spread them over ice cream. I love the chocolate coconut one I shared in this post. I promise, you won’t be sorry.

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Chocolate Banana Sandwich Cookies

Measurements are given in ounces, but their corresponding volume measurements are in parenthesis following.

1   Medium banana
5 oz   Semisweet Chocolate
4 fl oz   Heavy cream
½ cup   Sugar
½ tsp   Salt

10 oz (2 c)   All purpose flour
3 oz (1/3 c)   Cocoa Powder
¼ tsp   Baking powder
1 ½ tsp   Salt
3 oz (¾ c)   Powdered sugar
4 oz (½ c +1Tbs)   Brown Sugar
6 oz   Unsalted butter, softened
3   Egg yolks
1 Tbs   Vanilla

Filling:

Make the filling first to allow it to set. To ensure success, make sure you have all your ingredients ready to go so you can quickly move through the process and not over cook the caramel.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Poke a few small holes in the banana and roast it skin on, on the rack of the oven for a few minutes until blackened all over.  When cool enough to handle, remove the pulp from the skin and mash thoroughly with a fork.  Let cool.

Chop chocolate finely and place in a medium size heat-proof bowl.

Using the ½ cup of sugar, make a dry caramel.  Heat a light colored medium saucepan over medium high heat.  When hot, sprinkle the sugar over the bottom of the pan.  As it quickly melts and starts to caramelize, stir with a wooden spoon.  Keep adding the sugar in thin layers and stirring until you’ve used it all, all the sugar has dissolved and it’s turned a rich caramel color.    Immediately remove from the heat and carefully add the heavy cream to the caramel.  Be careful as this can spit and continue boiling.  Place the pot back over the heat and bring back to a boil, making sure to re-melt any caramel that may have set up when adding the cream.  Stir in the salt.  Pour the boiling caramel cream over the chopped chocolate.  Gently shake the bowl to make sure all the chocolate is submerged.  Let this sit for 5 minutes.   Whisk completely until silky and shiny. Stir in the mashed banana.  Cover with plastic wrap touching the surface of the chocolate.  Let sit at room temperature for 8-24 hours to set completely. Yours may set up faster or slower depending on the room temperature.  Its best to let it firm up at room temperature, but you can also place this in the refrigerator to speed setting but be careful to watch it so that it doesn’t set up to hard.

Cookies:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium sized bowl, combine the flour, cocoa powder baking powder, and salt.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, place the butter, brown sugar and powder sugar.  Cream with a paddle on medium speed until light and fluffy.  Mix in the yolks one at a time.  Mix in the vanilla.

Add flour/coco mix in two additions, mixing on low speed just to combine.  Divide the dough in half and place each half between two pieces of parchment.  Roll the dough between the parchment as thin as possible, about 1/8” thick.  Repeat with the remaining half.  Refrigerate or freeze until firm.   The dough may be rerolled.

Using a 2” round cutter, cut cookies from the chilled dough and place them on parchment lined cookie sheets with about a 1/2” of space between the cookies.  Bake for approximately 10-12 minutes until the tops are no longer shiny.   Cool completely.

Transfer the set chocolate banana cream to a pastry bag with a 1/2” tip.  Turn half of the cookies upside down.  Pipe about 1 teaspoon of filling on the upturned cookies.  Top with another cookie, pressing down gently to distribute the filling.

Makes 24 2” cookies.

Wedding Cake Basics

Earlier this year I collaborated with Colin Cowie Weddings to come up with the definitive wedding cake info guide.  Everything you ever wanted to know about choosing a wedding cake can be found below.  And of course lots of beautiful photos can be found  throughout the site, starting with Elegant

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A wedding cake is more than just the highly-anticipated dessert at the end of a wedding meal. It is really a unifying, central element of the event that pulls together the wedding’s theme and décor. It’s both a sweet showpiece and the last, lingering taste of the evening. And if you’re following tradition, the wedding cake is a dose of wedding day sweetness to be shared by the happy couple as they celebrate their first year of marriage.

But just how do you decide what this fantastical confection will look and taste like? That’s where your cake designer comes in.

ALL IN GOOD TIME

You should plan your first meeting with your cake designer 4-8 months prior to your event. However, don’t plan a meeting with your baker before you’ve chosen key elements like your date, venue, wedding dress and color palette. These details will determine both the kind of cake you get and what the design will look like.

You should also have an estimate of your guest count, since the size of the cake will be based on the number of servings. Keep in mind that, though a 12” three-tier cake sounds small, “cakes have dimension, they have detail, and their true presence is about much more than size,” says Penny.

BRING INSPIRATION

Focus on visuals that are related to both your wedding and your aesthetic, including the invitation, color swatches, floral inspiration, dress photos and anything else that represents the style of your wedding. Anything from fashion and jewelry to pages from interior design magazines can be helpful if they’ve helped to dictate how you’ll be decorating your ceremony and reception or how you’ve chosen other details for your big day.

Believe it or not, pictures of other cakes aren’t always that helpful when you’re looking for a custom-designed confection. It can be hard to move away from a cake you love on paper to something that really represents your event if you have pictures of other cakes mixed in with your inspiration. “But,” says Penny, “I do think its really helpful if the couple has done some research and looked at other cakes, to get ideas of what they want, and often more importantly, what they don’t.”

THE TECHNICAL DETAILS

It’s time to get down to business. Let’s break it down, shall we?

  • Standard sized wedding cake layers are generally around 4” tall, each consisting of 3 interior layers of cake and two layers of buttercream or filling, which are iced in a thin layer of buttercream.
  • Cakes can be filled with buttercream, ganache, curds or fruit filling. Buttercreams can be flavored in an endless variety of ways, creating custom flavor palates when combined with the cake flavor. Ganache is a mix of chocolate and heavy cream – rich, decadent and great for maintaining the stability of a cake. Curds and fruit fillings add an extra layer of fruit flavor to the cake.
  • From there, cakes can be either covered in fondant or a thick layer of buttercream. Fondant is a rollable sugar dough, similar to a dense marshmallow. This is what provides the elegant, porcelain-like finish of modern wedding cakes. It allows for techniques, like painting and applique, which aren’t possible on buttercream frosting, while also protecting the cake and maintaining freshness.
  • Once the cake is covered, either in buttercream or fondant, decorative details can be added using fondant, sugar, sugar paste or chocolate modeling paste. Sugar paste is a dough similar to fondant that dries hard, allowing cake designers to create things like intricate sugar flowers.

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MIX IT UP

Now you know the basics, so how can you create something more unique? First, Penny recommends playing with the shape of the cake. Round tiers of equal height are the most traditional shape, but there are many variations – square, rectangle, hexagonal or a series of tiers in different shapes.

You could also experiment with asymmetrical cakes, with the tiers mounting off to one side of the cake instead of up the center, as well as using tiers of varying heights. Tiers can also be carved to create new, more unique shapes.  Take a look at our portfolio of Bold wedding cakes.

PERSONAL STYLE

Work with your cake designer to create something that represents the two of you as a couple. Penny recently created a cake for a fashion designer using some of her designs as inspiration. Another couple had her create two Cookie Monster figures getting married on the top tier. Her advice? “Always put any idea into the mix. Some will work, some won’t, but a good designer will always try to find a way to incorporate the details that have meaning for a couple.”

BE OPEN TO CONTRADICTIONS

As you talk about the event, details, style and your personal tastes with your cake designer, he or she will probably start to sketch and include many of the ideas that you’re discussing. Penny encourages her couples to tell her whenever she’s hit on something that they do, or don’t, like. Even if they don’t seem to make sense as they’re discussed, considering contradictory details or elements will help you “find the place in between where you can create something beautiful and unique.”

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SAY IT WITH FLOWERS

One of the most popular ways to decorate a wedding cake is with flowers. But are they real? Chances are, no, they’re made of sugar paste. These flowers are hand-formed petal by petal. Once the paste is dry and the flowers are assembled, they’re dusted with powdered pigments to make them look as realistic as possible.

The process of making sugar flowers is incredibly labor-intensive, making it extra pricey. The cost varies depending on the type of flower and the amount of detail work involved. They are edible but are mounted on wire, so they shouldn’t be served. Our recommendation? Preserve them as a memento – they’ll last forever and won’t wilt or brown like fresh flowers.

Some blooms can also be made from pulled sugar or white chocolate modeling paste. Since these materials have different properties than sugar paste, they’re not ideal for all flowers, but are another alternative to discuss with your cake designer.

Is your heart set on using real flowers? Most bakers, Penny included, recommend that couples stick with sugar flowers, but if the natural look is what you crave, be sure to bring your cake designer and florist together to discuss your options. Some flowers are toxic and should be kept away from food. In any case, stems should never be stuck into a cake – they should be arranged in plastic flower spikes and then added to the cake.

Additionally, says Penny, since flowers often wilt when left out of water for so long, you should “have your florist add the flowers at the venue.” And any flowers you use on or near your cake should be organic and non-toxic, even if they’re just on the cake table, to avoid any sort of contamination. The complications of using real flowers are some of the reasons the art of recreating flowers in sugar was developed.

A MATTER OF TASTE

When you’re doing your initial cake tasting, mix and match cake, filling and frosting flavors until you find a combination you love. “The clue to the final choice is generally which one has only crumbs left,” says Penny. If there are two flavors you love, talk to your baker about splitting the cake into two flavor combinations, alternating tiers with different cake and filling combinations.

Two flavors are ideal for a buffet or dessert table, where slices of cake are displayed and guests can choose the flavor they’d like. It becomes more complex when the cake is served at the table. “It would be impolite not to offer the same choice to each table, and one flavor might be more popular. In this case, I suggest ordering a bit more of each flavor to compensate.” Talk to your baker about ordering an extra sheet cake or two so that you can be sure to have enough should your guests prefer one flavor over another.

When choosing flavors, consider the seasons. “For spring and summer my favorites are always fresh and crisp, such as a lemon cake or fruity buttercreams. In the colder months, some great choices are pumpkin cake, cranberry hazelnut cake, chocolate spice cake and sticky toffee cake. No matter the season, I love a salty caramel buttercream.” Year-round standards? Red velvet, chocolate and vanilla. Use a flavored buttercream or fruit filling to brighten up a simpler flavor, or embrace the basics and serve the best classic flavor you can find.

Here’s our extensive list of cake flavors.  But don’t let it stop you there… just like our cake designs our flavors are custom too.

MONEY TALK

Cakes get more expensive as details are added. “To keep prices from getting away from you,” says Penny, “focus on one or two larger graphic elements. A single large flower can have stunning visual impact and keep labor costs down. Simple touches like edible glitter can make a cake sparkle.  Stencils can add background texture quickly and easily.” Be straightforward and honest with your cake designer about your budget from the beginning. As you design and brainstorm, they’ll be able to help you create something gorgeous that fits within your means.

The best way to get a wow-factor in your cake while keeping costs down is to make it personal. Whether you use an interesting pattern, a bold color or a single oversized sugar flower, picking a detail that ties in with the theme of your event will make even a more simple cake stand out.

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TRENDY OR TRADITIONAL?

Penny filled us in on the latest trends she’s seeing in cake design. Engaged couples and cake designers are using tier separators to increase the height and create a more shapely cake. Metallics have made a jump from the runway to the dessert table, as has the use of glitter and sugar gemstones. “Bold colors and graphic patterns are all very popular right now.” But Penny would rather set the trends than follow them. “I always encourage couples to be inspired by non-cake things they adore.”  Click here for more Graphic cakes.

And what if you’re more of a traditionalist? “All-white cakes never go out of style. Simple, clean and classic will always be just that.” Bunches of sugar flowers against an all-white cake are always stunning. Keep it understated for a cake design that will look gorgeous the day you cut it as well as in your wedding photos 20 years from now.

So collect your inspiration and get creative. The world is your oyster and, now that you’re armed with all you need to know, you’re ready to design the ideal cake for your wedding day.

The latest from Brides Magazine

Did you know there is a hot season for wedding proposals?  Well there is, and its now through February.   As newly engaged couples are dreaming about all the possibilities, I’d suggest considering one of my favorite new trends in wedding cakes… hand painted cakes.

This one was made for the November/December 2013 issue of Brides Magazine.  They sent along a gorgeous vase for inspiration and we worked to honor its form and grace.  Blue is always an amazing color to incorporate in wedding cakes.

Painted Wedding Cake

This cake can be scaled as required but in its original form served 85 guests.

What would be the inspiration for your painted wedding cake?