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One summer a few years back (okay, maybe 10 years back…) I worked in the kitchen at a hotel on Block Island, a nutty little pork chop-shaped island off the coast of Rhode Island. During the week, we churned out breakfast pastries and plated desserts for hotel guests, but on the weekends, the bridal parties would roll in. I helped with a lot of wedding cakes that summer, and gained a huge amount of respect for my pastry chef, who managed to pull off gorgeous cakes in a kitchen with no air-conditioning (albeit a lot of manic frosting sessions inside the walk-in refrigerator).
Flash forward a few years to me making my first wedding cake for a friend of a friend out of my apartment kitchen in Somewhere-Near-the-Lincoln-Tunnel, New Jersey. I had the know-how. I had the equipment. I even had two refrigerators. And it was still one of the hardest things I’ve ever pulled off. I learned a lot that first go around, and the cake, luckily, was a huge (literally huge, like 3 feet tall) success. Since then, I’ve made all manner of special occasion cakes. Last year, I even made my best friend Susie’s wedding cake in a rental house in Waco, Texas, while simultaneously going about my maid of honor duties.
If you’re going to DIY a wedding cake for a friend, family member, or whomever, here’s what you need to know.
First, a few caveats:
It’s not always cheaper.
Sometimes people think that having a friend make their cake will be much cheaper than ordering a cake from a bakery. That’s definitely the case if the whoever's getting married is dreaming of a huge, elaborate cake with tons of fancy décor—but my guess is that none of us are successfully pulling that off at home anyway.
The truth is, bakeries have a lot of benefits. They buy ingredients in bulk, which means a bakery cake often costs a lot less (this is especially noticeable with more expensive ingredients like chocolate). They have lots of equipment and (cheaper) access to fancy décor of all sorts. Plus, they have the proper storage facilities to hold the cake and (usually) a method of transportation to safely get the cake to the venue. This isn’t to say I think it’s a bad idea to DIY a wedding cake—I’ve done it myself several times. Just make sure to do the math for yourself and the bride or groom of time, and don’t forget to calculate the decorations, any equipment you may need to buy... It adds up fast!
Don’t do it if you’re IN the wedding.
Maybe this is just the pastry professional in me, but the wedding cake is a big deal. Being in the wedding party is also a big deal—and the two responsibilities can pull you in different directions. This didn’t stop me from offering to make Susie’s chocolate-Nutella-raspberry cake last spring, but it did cause some unnecessary stress for me. In the end, it turned out just fine, but I’m the first to say I’d shy away from doing it for someone that important to me again, especially when I’ve got plenty of other duties come wedding day.
Work out the logistics.
Is the wedding within (relatively short) driving distance from your house? If it’s not, you probably shouldn’t make the cake. You can always pull a me and check a suitcase full of pastry bags and cake pans and bake ferociously in the kitchen of your AirBnB, but let’s face it—that’s pretty rough! Also think about the weather: Most cakes (even once frosted), can be left at room temperature overnight. But if it’s summer or humid, it’s a whole different story.
It’s easy enough to say that it’s easier to make a wedding cake in November than it is in July, but it's still important that you're able to keep things chilled, which will make decorating much easier. Think about all those factors, and make a list of everything you’ll need. If it seems doable, then go for it—but if there are too many what-ifs, maybe rethink your plan.
Did I scare you off? I hope not—you can totally do it! Especially if you follow the rest of these tips below:
This probably goes without saying, but every good cake starts with a good plan. Find out what flavor your bride or groom wants, or offer a list of flavors you know you can pull off. Bake a single cake a few times for yourself or friends; don’t have the first time you’re making that particular cake recipe be during wedding week!
Once you’ve got your recipes, map out how many times you’ll need to make each. I think tall tiers are one of the things that make wedding cakes especially special, so I usually go for 6 layers of cake, which usually means I have to make 3 cakes in each size, level them off, and cut them into 2 layers. Use Alice Medrich’s genius guide to help you do the math and figure out how many times you’ll need to make the recipe.
Draw out a map of the cake for yourself, even if you’re bad at drawing (oh, I’m so bad). It helps keep you organized if things get crazy once frosting is flying.
Keep it simple.
Be honest about you can accomplish, especially décor-wise. A simple cake is going to look awesome, and it will look homemade! Usually, that’s what the bride is going for if she’s having someone DIY it, so embrace it—it’ll make everything go smoother.
Keep it small.
Many wedding cakes are intimidatingly tall, but they don’t have to be! One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to opt for a smaller cake—even just two tiers. You can decorate it all fancy for display, and then make a couple sheet cakes; once the cake gets cut, no one will know which cake their piece came from! Or you can opt for the ever-trendy dessert bar setup, where there’s a cute little cake for tradition, then lots of other deliciousness (I’m obviously a firm supporter of wedding pie) all around it for people to choose from.
A cake composed of two tiers—one 6-layer, 9-inch cake, and one 6-layer, 6-inch cake (the dimensions of the cake in the photo above)—should theoretically serve around 50 people. Keeping it small makes everything easier, from assembly to décor to storage to transport.
Keep baking and decorating separate.
Don’t attempt to make any component of the cake on the same day you plan to decorate—it’s a recipe for stress. Bake the cakes ahead of time; you can even wrap the layers tightly in plastic wrap and freeze them (just bring to room temperature before using or thaw overnight in the fridge). Make the frosting the day before, too. That way, on assembly day, all you have to think about is building that cake. It will help you breathe easier, and will allow plenty of time to do everything just right!
The refrigerator is your friend.
I’m the queen of impatience when it comes to filling and frosting cakes. I just want to pile it on and keep moving! But chilling the cake helps so much with assembly. Chill the assembled layers before applying the crumb coat of frosting; a cold cake won’t shift when you start frosting it (this can be a real problem with taller tiers). After the crumb coat, chill the cake again before you do the final frost. Then chill it for a while after, too—cold cakes are easier to stack!
Don’t be afraid of mistakes.
This is way easier said than done, but give yourself a break. If you make a mistake, I guarantee there’s an easy (and delicious) way to cover it up. If you stick your spatula into the side of the cake as you’re stacking the tiers, well, that’s where the flowers/fruit/chocolate/décor goes! If you know you have a tendency to not get smooth frosting, then plan on using a technique that will allow you to cover up that frosting (tuile cookies! chocolate shards! sprinkles!).
Remember when you’re building it not to be too hard on yourself. There’s always a point about halfway through decorating a cake where I think, “Oh gosh, this is not my best—it will never look pretty again!” But then 10 minutes later, it’s lovely! The cake is usually viewed from a greater distance than you see it from while you’re working on it, and there’s a decent chance that those tiny errors you can’t stop staring at will go totally unnoticed by everyone else. Just keep on trucking with confidence. It’ll come together!
Invest in cake circles and boxes.
Go to a cake supply store (or your favorite online supplier) and purchase cake circles that are the same size as the cake pans you’re using. The circles are so useful: You can use them like makeshift spatulas to transfer cake layers around while you’re building the cake. And, of course, use one as the base of each tier. It helps support the tier and also makes it easier to move around and (eventually) to slice.
The cake supply store also should sell boxes that are the same size as your cake pans. The benefit of using these boxes is that there’s nowhere for the cake to move once it’s inside, so it’s less likely to get a blemish during storage and transport!
Assemble them fully except the front part of the box. Place the box on your work surface, then slide the finished cake tier into the box where you left it open, and close the last part of the box around the cake. When you’re ready to remove it from the box, just cut the box with scissors and lift it right on out! If your box isn’t tall enough (a problem I have a lot), never fear! Just be sure to buy an extra one, and cut the tops off of both boxes. Once your cake is in the first box, fit the second (assembled) box on top, and use tape to secure it on the sides.
The safest way to transport a cake is to have someone hold it carefully and steadily in their lap. The next best thing is the floor of a car, if it's clean enough and has no obstructions (like sloped sides). My mom and dad used an interesting technique to transport a cake I made the last time I was home: They laid a towel in the trunk of their hatchback car, then placed a few silicone pot holders on top. They set the cake on top. It didn’t go anywhere!
Finish it onsite.
This part can sound a little scary, but it’s easiest to put the cake together once you arrive at your destination. This lessens the amount the cake has to be moved (which is a bigger factor the taller the cake gets). It also means (usually) the cake is in a temperature-controlled space, and you can breathe easy. If you’re decorating with fresh flowers, the ones the florist delivered will already be at the site (remember to tell the bride or groom to ask the florist to set aside a few matching blooms for the cake; you could also bring your own). Bring offset spatulas, pastry bags loaded with spare frosting, and anything else you might need—and get there in plenty of time to put it together so you don’t feel rushed!
Make sure it tastes good.
This is the most important thing. No matter how gorgeous your cake is, it won’t matter to anyone if it doesn’t taste good! And likewise, a less-than perfect décor job will go unnoticed if people love the flavor once it’s cut.
Real talk time: The aforementioned chocolate-Nutella-raspberry cake for my friend Susie? I built it at the wedding venue on the display table a few hours before the ceremony, then ran off to pop Champagne and get the bride dressed and perfect. When I got back to the venue, I noticed the cake was in a different spot. Someone had moved the table, and the cake was now sitting under a window in the hot Texas sun. The cake was leaning ever so slightly to the left. By the time the reception began, the cake was the leaning tower of devil’s food. Susie and her new husband even posed with it leaning off to the side for the photographer! But once that cake was cut, it was just moans from chocoholics all over the room. I’d like to think no one remembers the leaning cake, but even if they do, they also remember how bangarang it tasted.
No matter what, you made something homemade. Make it awesome. Make it delicious. Everyone will love it—I promise!
Would you ever make your own wedding cake? Have you made a wedding cake for someone else? Tell us about it in the comments.