Making Your Own Wedding Cake: What’s really Involved
Wedding cakes can cost upwards of $15 a slice. Since everyone raved about that German chocolate masterpiece you brought to your aunt’s Thanksgiving dinner two years ago, it’s tempting to think that making your own wedding cake would be no big deal.
But while it’s possible to make a successful wedding cake yourself (if you have the time, talent, and realistic expectations), it might also be an area where you’d rather splurge. The effort involved in making your cake come out right is akin to deciding to make your own wedding dress.
Is making a wedding cake right for you?
How perfect do you want your cake to look? If you’re dreaming of a perfect replica of Cinderella’s slipper, or a five – tier masterpiece done up in flawless pastel plaid, you’re better off paying a professional and saving money somewhere else down the line.
One determining factor is how many guests you’re inviting. If you’re envisioning a casual wedding reception the size of a dinner party, you’re looking at a much easier cake. But even for experienced bakers, the demands of preparing a cake to feed a large wedding can be unexpectedly challenging.
Even baking a large number of cupcakes can be a difficult decision. While cupcakes aren’t terribly demanding, the difficulty can be compounded when you’re in the midst of coordinating out-of-town guests, calming pre-wedding jitters, and making sure you’ve remembered everything for one of the most important moments in your life.
For one, consider when you’ll be making the cupcakes. Do you really want to be leaning over a hot oven the night before your wedding? And making them too far ahead of time, will result in stale products.
Ideally, you should bake the cake two days before your wedding and hold off on final decorations until the day of your wedding. To prevent transportation mishaps, you may want to wait to assemble the tiers of the cake until after you’ve arrived at your wedding site.
Check your calendar; is this doable? Even if baking your own cake would be a fun project on a normal week, it might not be nearly as enjoyable when you’re about to host a major event.
If cost is influencing your decision, make a list of everything you will need to buy beforehand. Do you already own most of the materials necessary for constructing the cake? The cost of ingredients, materials, and even electricity can add up to hundreds of dollars very quickly.
Don’t forget to factor in the cost of your time, which will be at more and more of a premium as the big date nears. Depending on the type of cake you’re attempting, a simple bakery cake could be cheaper.
Building the Cake: Practical Considerations
Picturing a big cake? Have you tried baking anything with tiers before? This art form definitely deserves a few trial runs before the big day. Half sculpture and half construction project, trying to build a tiered cake from scratch is comparable to building your own wedding venue. Sure, some couples might be able to do it, but if you don’t have a proven track record, you don’t want to wait until you’re in front of 200 friends and family members to find out you can’t.
You’ll need one cake pan for each tier, with each one about three inches wider than the one above it, as well as cardboard circles in the same diameters. A rotating platter (like a Lazy Susan or pottery wheel) is also extremely helpful in applying the icing smoothly while the cake spins slowly under it, so consider investing in one of these if you’ll be decorating multiple tiers.
Making layers on a wedding cake is no different than making layers on any other cake. Just slice each layer horizontally and add the cream, fruit, or filling of your choice, then put the layers together again. The only difference is that you will then be stacking each layer on its own tier. Don’t forget to add icing between tiers that will be touching as well.
If you’re nervous about building cake tiers, you’re not alone. This is the stage at which disastrous collapses can leave you with a useless (but still delicious) pile of cake crumbles. Alternatively, you can buy or rent a wedding cake stand that presents each layer on its own level. It’s not a continuous cake, per se, but it’s still an elegant (and easy) way to present it. If you’re more concerned with taste than presentation, this is the way to go.
Making even measurements is key. Unless you’re making a “topsy turvy” cake, you’ll want each tier perfectly centered on top of the previous one. Make discreet measuring marks with a toothpick all the way around the circle. Measure twice before you actually touch the pieces together.
Use wooden dowels for support to hold the tiers together. Keep lots of cream or icing on hand to smooth out any holes and to “glue” the tiers together. When placing one tier on top of the next one, keep a large, flat surface (like a spatula) underneath the tier to support it until the very last second.
The Rest is Just Icing (on the cake!)
When you’re done assembling the cake, use icing to cover any rough spots. If you use a heated spatula, you can melt uneven icing into smooth submission. It can be hard to get a homemade cake flawlessly put together, but an extra icing-flower here and there goes a long way in disguising imperfections. You can also use real flowers to decorate, although make sure they haven’t been sprayed with pesticide. Edible flowers, like roses, violets, and orchids, are even better options.
What kind of icing will you use? If you’re planning anything sculptural, like flowers or ribbons, remember that not all icing takes shape easily. Fondant (an elastic sugar mixture with a smooth finish) is tricky to use and requires some practice to apply smoothly, but it is worth the learning curve if you want to attempt anything especially artistic. When you see cakes with “real” looking 3-D sculpture, it’s a good bet it’s fondant. You can buy it or make your own.
Keep in mind the amount of time it will take you to ice the cake. If you’re attempting a complicated decoration (and it’s better to leave much more time than you think you’ll need), the cake will need to be sitting on the counter while you do it.
The more time you’ll need to decorate the cake, the less perishable your cake should be. This means you’ll need to avoid any ingredients that melt easily or spoil quickly. Perishable ingredients, like fresh fruit filling, need to be refrigerated as soon as possible.
How will you preserve the cake until it’s time to be served? Do you have a refrigerator large enough to house it? For outdoor weddings, you’ll need to protect your cake from flies, ants, and other creepy-crawlies until the very last minute before its unveiling.
Similarly, the cake could melt if left out of a refrigerator for too long, even indoors, depending on its ingredients. Keep your cake in the refrigerator (or freezer, if your ingredients freeze well and you need to make elements ahead of time) whenever possible. This means working on only one tier at a time.
Making the cake is only half of the equation. Give some thought to how you will serve the cake. Professional bakers are experienced in transporting large, fragile, perishable items.
You probably don’t want to be worried about coddling the cake when you’re trying to enjoy your big day. Assign someone trustworthy to make sure the cake makes it out of the fridge and to the table safely and at the appropriate time.
Whatever your plan, practice is the ultimate key to success. Bake a similar cake at least a few times before the wedding, until you’re sure you can do it in your sleep. Practice transporting it and keeping it cold. Take note of anything that can be improved along the way. That way, if anything goes wrong, you’ll know your cake is in the hands of a pro: you!