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…
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.