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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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