Kitchen Confidence

How to Make a Wedding Cake, Part 1: The Cake

by • August 12, 2014 42 Comments

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. 

Today: Our very ambitious Community Manager, Catherine Lamb, recently baked a three-tiered wedding cake for her friends, and is walking us through the project all week. Here's how she got started. 

How to Make a Wedding Cake

So I decided to bake a wedding cake. And I decided to do it without a huge amount of forethought. In fact, I decided to do it over text message. My friend who was getting married texted me to ask if I still played viola for weddings, which I used to do back in the day. I refused, citing the passing of 5 years as an excuse, but jokingly offered to bake him a wedding cake instead. And then suddenly I was in our office's trash area, talking on the phone with him and his fiancée about which flavors they wanted (yellow, chocolate, and white); whether they wanted to have a plastic bride and groom on top (they did not); and their stance on fondant (thankfully negative).

After the bride and groom talked a few things out, we settled on a three-tiered cake. The bottom tier would be a yellow cake with caramel filling, the middle a chocolate cake with chocolate ganache, and the top a delicate white cake with raspberry jam. The whole thing would be covered in a fluffy Swiss buttercream, decorated very simply, and accented with fresh flowers. 

More: If you've got some weddings coming up on your calendar, we've got all the gifts you'll need.

Wedding Collection on Provisions

All in all it seemed pretty doable. I’d worked at a bakery part-time in college, making frosting roses and piping out “Happy Birthday” until I thought my hand would fall off. So I had a basic knowledge of how to make and frost a cake. It had been years since my last imposing cake project, though -- so to make this less intimidating, I decided to break down the whole shebang into clear, manageable steps. I divided the process into three days, and made sure to have plenty of coffee on hand for the process. 

Most people see baking a wedding cake as an intimidating undertaking -- and rightfully so. It requires at least two full days of work, preferably three. It requires nerves of steel, at least a passable knowledge of icing, and confidence in spades. It requires planning and organization and a friend or two to help you along the way, both mentally and physically. Though making a wedding cake requires all of these things, it is also totally, completely, 100% feasible for you -- yes, you -- to do. I’ll show you how. So gather your patience, an apron, and as much butter as you can carry -- let’s make a wedding cake.

How to Make a Wedding Cake

Step 1: The Cake

I haven’t been to many weddings in my life, but the few I have attended left much to be desired where cake was concerned. Often stick-to-the-tongue dry and draped with sickly-sweet fondant, it’s more of a token placeholder than an actual dessert. No wonder the bride and groom traditionally smear it on each other’s faces instead of eating it.

I wanted to make a wedding cake that was, first and foremost, delicious. I hold cake in very high regard (sorry, pie -- I’m on Team Cake all the way), and took this task seriously. Yes, the outside had to look beautiful -- but as we all know, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. This goes double for cake.

How to Make a Wedding Cake

When searching for the perfect cake recipes, I had three criteria in mind: They needed to be moist, lightly sweet, and sturdy enough to support three layers. So I turned, as I often do, to Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, who undertook a similar project. There, I found recipes for chocolate and yellow cakes, complete with conversions that would allow me to expand them to elephantine proportions. Huzzah!

In her cake recipes, Deb insists that you must scrape down the bowl several times. And folks, she is absolutely correct. If you’re worried about fitting the whole batch in your mixer, divide everything in half -- you’ll be weighing out the batter anyway. Save your leftover egg whites for the Swiss buttercream!

How to Make a Wedding Cake

For the white cake, I used a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated. Unlike yellow cake, white cake snubs egg yolks, and adds extra “oomph” in the form of almond extract. This one proved a bit trickier than its yellow and chocolate brethren, as traditional white cake is extremely delicate -- picture the kind of cake you served your stuffed animals at tea parties when you were younger (what, you didn’t do that?). For this reason, I chose to make it the smallest tier -- and I read the reviews to make sure the cake would hold up under layering. I wasn’t disappointed. 

Here are some tips to keep in mind before you tie on your apron:

Test first: Before committing to making a quadruple batch of cake, I recommend taking one batch for a test drive to see how it reacts to being stacked (you don’t want them to collapse!), frozen, and sliced. After putting my recipes to the test -- I halved the white cake and baked the yellow and chocolate cakes in 8-inch pans -- I knew I’d found some winners. Thankfully, I also had a friend’s birthday coming up, so no cake went to waste. 

How to Make a Wedding Cake

Prepare your pans: The last thing you want is to put your (metaphorical) blood, sweat, and tears into baking the perfect cake, only to have it stick to the pan. Disfigured cakes may taste delicious, but they won’t make the cut for a wedding.

To be extra safe, I buttered my pans, lined each with a parchment circle, buttered the parchment, and sprinkled the whole thing with flour. After tapping out the excess, my pans were stick-proof.

How to Make a Wedding Cake

Weigh it out: It’s crucial that the cake layers within each tier are identical in taste and appearance -- so I turned to a scale. If you don’t have one, borrow one. Or, if you’re a serious baker, it might be time to invest. Place a large bowl on your scale, tare it, then pour in your batter. Record the batter's total weight, then divide by the number of pans. Using the scale, evenly distribute the batter into your prepared pans. Look, math is useful after all! Be sure to tap the bottoms of your pans lightly against the counter to get rid of any air bubbles before baking.

Bake all your cakes on the middle rack. Yes, it may take more time, but it’s worth it to avoid overcooked bottoms or tops. Also, rotate your cakes halfway through their cook time.

Freeze It: Even if you’re making your cakes the day before the wedding, you should still freeze them overnight. Be sure to wrap them tightly in plastic wrap first. Once frozen, cakes are firmer and easier to handle; this will also keep them fresher, longer.

Stay tuned, because tomorrow I’ll walk you through how to prepare your fillings -- and I’ll also tackle the imposing princess that is Swiss Buttercream. 

Have you ever taken on the challenge of baking a wedding cake? How was it? Any tips or tricks?

Photos by Catherine Lamb

Topics: Cake

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Comments (42)

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4 months ago Jenn2323

Loved this article and identify with every detail. I too, make tiered layer cakes, obsess over recipes and use Smitten Kitchen as my encyclopedia. Looking forward to reading tomorrow's segment.

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4 months ago pmporter

I've made a few wedding cakes. Once I did a five tiered carrot cake with four layers each tier. The bottom tier was 18 inches in diameter and that baby alone must have weighed twenty pounds. So here is my tip for cake pan conversions for any round layer cake recipe: If you are using a recipe that makes, say, 2 nine-inch layers and wish to convert it to larger layers, use the formula: height x 3.14 (pi) x radius squared. Your recipe for the 9 incher makes 2 (in. height) x 3.14 x 20.25 x 2 (layers) = 254.34 (round to 255). If you want three layers at 12 inches, 2 x 3.14 x 36 x 3 = 678.24 (680). Divide 680 by 255 = 2.66 (2.5). Thus you need 2 1/2 times the original recipe for the 12 inch, 3 layer tier. Follow the same math for the other tiers. When you add them all together you will also see how much of each ingredient you need to buy.

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4 months ago Michelle

My sister and I decided we would make a wedding style cake for our parents 30th anniversary party. How hard could it be right? While mixing the batter in the stand mixer we dropped a whole egg into the mix, we naively thought we got out all the tiny pieces of shell and proceeded with our cake. We decided to frost the cake at the venue, and about half way through we ran out of frosting! My husband picked up some frosting at the store, so the cake looked ok, but my first bite I'm sure you can guess what was in there. A nice crunchy egg shell!

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11 months ago chefrockyrd

yeah its tricky. I found it by going all the way to the top and typing in wedding cake part 2 in the search, it shows part 3 also.

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11 months ago Green Rider

Is there a part 2 somewhere?

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11 months ago southernlady

I've made a few wedding cakes over the years. I always had good results with a white chocolate cake and white chocolate cream cheese icing from Southern Living (12-15 yrs ago). The cake tastes just different enough that guests can't figure out what is in the white cake.

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11 months ago Fran

I wasn't brave enough to try a wedding cake; but I recently made the shower cake for my future daughter-in-laws shower. And it was amazing. I chose a chocolate cake which I brushed with Kahlua & made a Italian buttercream filling & frosting which I also flavored with Kahlua. I piped a border with the buttercream frosting and filled in the center with chocolate shavings. It truly was a labor of love and was so pleased with the outcome. It was absolutely delicious.

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12 months ago chefrockyrd

for debbie, try your local adult education or vocational school to see if they give
cake decorating classes. a few hours with some icing, a pastry bag or fondant
can be a big help.
look on line for large size platters.

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12 months ago Debbie Cash

Something else....I sure would like to come across some nice platters for sale that would be great for presentation for large cakes. All I have right now are those pathetic white plastic Wilton cake plates. I would have loved to have something with blues and greens for the boy baby shower theme.

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12 months ago Debbie Cash

I can make the most delicious cakes, but I can't decorate worth a darn! I made my daughter's wedding cake 11 years ago. Three tiers, each tier having three layers, (I've got a longtime friend that tried to teach me to decorate, I DID learn some things) split the layers with a champagne filling and sliced fresh strawberries. I did a haphazard basket weave on the sides and shell decoration along the bottoms. We had the florist make us some very small bouquets to finish the decoration. It was delicious!! People raved and another couple asked if I would make their wedding cake. I did, though smaller.
Last weekend was my niece’s baby shower. I made a 14” round, three layer Blueberry Lemon cake with white chocolate cream buttercream frosting. Again, I don’t decorate very well. I Googled candied lemon peels and sugared berries. And I topped the cake with those.

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12 months ago S Knight

I offered to make a friends wedding cake for a March wedding so I am excited to read more! I've just started doing my research.

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12 months ago Catherine Lamb

Good luck! You'll do great.

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12 months ago Eve

I'm making a wedding cake next weekend, this is so timely! I can't wait to read part 2!

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12 months ago Catherine Lamb

Best of luck! I'm here if you have any questions.

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12 months ago chefrockyrd

ps
forgot this one.
when you slice a cake into layers, bring the cake as close as you can to the edge of the counter so your knife handle is off the edge. I never ever hear anybody say this, but its one of the first things I learned in culinary school 100 years ago.
And cut the cake layer working directly in front of you, don't worry about making it even in the back, just the front and keep rotating the layer around. If you cut in the middle you can cut deeper each time around until you get all the way thru. And you will have perfect layers.
Use flexible cutting boards to gently slide under the top one to remove it.
They are strong enough to hold them but thin enough to slide thru and large enough too. Unless you are making humungous layers.

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12 months ago chefrockyrd

I would also like to know how many people ate this cake/cakes? For logistics, I am wondering how 3 different cakes worked out.
Since you had 3 choices how did you serve them? for instance if someone only wanted a slice of the bottom layer did you dissasemble it and cut that?
I have made many many wedding cakes over the years and I can see how these choices would work if the guest list was small but it could be a fiasco if it was a large group. What if somebody wants to try all three? and they will!
I agree with alot that has been said about being prepared, have all of your tools and extra ingredients ready just in case there is a problem- and they do happen. And the best one is to keep it cold. The refrigerator or freezer is your friend. But my favorite hint is to make sure the cake tastes good. So many people have had bad cakes that look pretty, that they will turn down a piece. When the other guests tell them how good it is, they change their minds and try it.
I am not sure if its true but I heard that Julia Child said that "a party without a cake is just a meeting".

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12 months ago Catherine Lamb

There were about 120 people at the wedding! I didn't serve the cake myself, but I think people chose which flavor they wanted and stuck with that. Or came back for a second piece! I hope.

Great tips on slicing a cake into layers! I'll have to try that next time.

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12 months ago Lena Meier

Do you know how many persons this beauty would serve?
Thank you :)

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12 months ago Catherine Lamb

It was intended to serve 120 people! It worked well, though I think in the future I would make an even bigger one just so there could be plenty of leftovers. :)

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12 months ago Nicole Small (Tsiporah Blog)

I love this! I agree with everything you've said in your first 2 posts :) I made my friends' wedding cake a few years ago, and quite a few layer cakes since then. http://bit.ly/1uu21Fs

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12 months ago Catherine Lamb

That is so impressive!

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12 months ago The Fiery Epicurean

I made my first wedding cake this past June for my sister. I was honored that she felt that my baking abilities was worthy for her special day. I couldn't agree more about cake testing and Catherine's other helpful hints!!!

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12 months ago RENEE

I've agreed to make wedding cake(s) for a friends wedding in the Spring sooooo this is incredibly useful!!! Can't wait for the rest of the series ;)

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12 months ago Abby

Yesss, I can't wait to see the rest of this!!

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12 months ago cynthia | two red bowls

I am SO. EXCITED. about this series!!!!

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12 months ago cynthia | two red bowls

and P.S. you rock!!

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12 months ago Catherine Lamb

Be still my heart! You just made my week.