I've never made a frosted cake that I didn't screw up.
It was never the fault of the recipes; I simply forgot key ingredients like salt or vanilla extract, which resulted in bland bases that even the most divine frosting couldn't salvage. I learned this the hard way when I stayed up until 4 a.m. trying to fix a no-salt sheet cake layer cake,
crying into whipping Italian buttercream. Another time, I went to a nearby Polish bakery, bought a few kremówka papieska (or cream-filled puff pastry cakes), mushed it all together with my sad green key lime cake, and called it a "birthday trifle." A friend kindly suggested I cover the whole thing in slivered strawberries to hide the alien green flecks. I took her advice. In the end it was all good and very Downton Abbey, but this was a birthday, not a costume party.
This kind of absentminded baking doesn't happen too often, especially when I'm making banana bread or cookies. But the pressure of a frosted cake makes me freak out and, more often than not, self-sabotage. That's why I'm far more inclined to make cakes that don't require anything more than a whisk. But frosted cakes are essentially gifts with edible wrapping paper, and when done well, nothing else says, "I love you, you're the best, thank you for existing," louder.
So when my friend Sophie told me about her wedding cake idea—to have nine close friends make cakes, rather than having the traditional tiered, fondant-covered cake—I was terrified but did not hesitate to say yes when she asked me to contribute. That's what friends are for! I asked her how she came up with this, and she replied:
It was actually Phillip's idea. We went to one cake tasting together, and the cakes were very good, but didn't blow us away. We both thought we had tasted homemade cakes that were just as tasty, and we have some friends who are great bakers, so Phillip suggested we just ask them. To be honest, I initially balked—I thought it would be imposing on people. But as we thought about it more, we liked that an integral part of the wedding would come from people that we love. We thought that this would be a simple way to keep the tradition of having a cake while sharing the day with our friends and family in a deeper way.
I had baked for Sophie once before, but I doubt I was one of these great baker friends she was referring to. She was cooking dinner and I was bringing dessert. I made key lime pie (maybe key lime is unlucky for me?) a few hours before our dinner, completely forgetting about how the pie needs to chill, so just brought it to her unchilled, put it in her fridge, and told her to eat it the next day. She, on the other hand, weaved in and out of her kitchen, a printout of a New York Times recipe stuck to her fridge. I couldn't pull those sorts of shenanigans this time.
While I have been to many weddings in my life, they've all been Indian weddings, where cake is more of an afterthought, so much so that I don't even remember there being a cake at my sister's wedding. (When I asked my family WhatsApp group, my brother-in-law said, "Yup." And then right after: "Wait, did we?")
I told my friend I would make Alice Medrich's Chocolate Eclair Sponge Cake. I had been eyeing it since it went up on our site last December, and it is more likely I'll wake up on Jupiter tomorrow than have an Alice Medrich recipe fail me. This was months before her wedding, and every weekend of those six months, I thought to myself, I'll test that cake this weekend.
And that's how I found myself, the weekend before my friend's wedding, without the required cake flour or skill to make a cake this technically advanced. Don't people spend years perfecting pastry cream? Surely there's a recipe I can use that doesn't require heating milk for the batter? I thought back to that 4 a.m. morning where I wished desperately for Italian buttercream to happen, and wondered if it was too late to shift gears and make my old faithful, Maialino's Olive Oil Cake—aka, the most beloved Genius dessert of all time—instead. But that's an everyday kind of cake, and my friend's wedding was not an everyday kind of event.
So I found an easier, similarly black-and-white, delectable-sounding cake with a much less intimidating name (Grown-Up Birthday Cake) and gave it a try. My coworker Katie Macdonald wrote about it for an article on how to fill jam cakes. It reminded me of the eclair cake mixed with a Victoria sponge, my favorite cake in the world. What makes the cake "grown-up" is a cup of white wine, which I very much enjoyed pouring myself a glass of after my tester cake went in the oven.
But I was quickly jolted awake from my daydream when I heard a sizzle about five minutes later. I had used two springform pans, because I did not have cake pans. One of the bottoms was a bit loose, so the batter leaked out the pan and basically cried hot cake tears onto my oven floor, which scorched them. The cake took care of itself, though, because it pretty much baked itself a seal to stop the leaking. You're one tough cookie, I said to the cake, and realized how wrong that sounded as soon as I said it.
And that's when I realized I forgot to buy whole milk for the frosting. I ran to the corner store to buy some while the cake cooled. It was so worth it; not only was the frosting a dream to work with, but it took a lot of self-control for me to not reserve a cup for myself, for dinner. (If you ever find yourself frosting a cake, and don't have an offset spatula, stop everything and get yourself one.) But the cake wasn't as good. My taste testers claimed to like it, but I didn't believe them for a second. I didn't like how, after a knife cut into it, the cake slice wouldn't pull away neatly; it took crumbs from a neighboring slice with it. And it tasted very cottony. I seriously considered frosting the Maialino cake and calling it a day.
Many internet minutes later, I realized the problem was probably overmixing: I had beaten the egg mixture on high when the recipe said medium, and because I didn't have a flour sifter, I added the flour in tiny batches and mixed vigorously each time, because, seriously, what does it even mean to fold?
Emma Laperruque, our Food Writer & Recipe Developer, shook her head in disappointment, and motioned how to actually "fold" batter: vertical line, curve back up to top, very gently. So the morning of the wedding, I woke up early, put on my best bandana, buttered the non-springform cake pans I had borrowed, and got to work. I folded the batter for what seemed like a million years, but I didn't mind. Not once did the usual questions pop into my mind: What if there's a hair in this? What if everyone gets food poisoning from eating this? What if people throw it on the floor and walk out? Making this cake again felt like greeting an old friend. Before I got to frosting, I reread bits of Erin McDowell's The Fearless Baker and followed her crumb coat instructions. I was genuinely surprised at how much fun I was having. Then I looked at the clock.
I refrigerated the cake as I got ready and prayed it would set enough to not completely melt on my way there. Without a box to carry my cake—why didn't I think of this sooner?!—I simply wrapped the cake in foil, put it on one of the platters Sophie loaned all the cake bakers, and wrapped the entire thing in foil again. It looked like I was carrying a small UFO. Miraculously, I did not fall down the stairs while wearing heels or stain my dress. I asked the cab driver to turn up the AC as high as it would go as we froze during the 25-minute drive. The ceremony had already started by the time I got there, but I was able to pass off the UFO to the catering staff and slip in under the curtain to a seat at the back. They were just beginning to exchange vows.
I knew my friend would forgive me if I made her a mediocre cake, but would she ever forgive me for missing seeing her walk down the aisle? At that point, though, it didn't matter; I was just happy to be there, seeing my friend marrying her partner of eight years, surrounded by people who adored them. Sophie and I met in college, but we became much better friends after college, when we worked together at a bookstore in Brooklyn. Often times we'd fawn over the new cookbooks that came in, pointing out recipes we'd want to make, shortly before closing up the shop and getting dollar pizza at 10:30 p.m. Now we cook from cookbooks and shop at farmers' markets more often than we get dollar pizza (we'll never give that up, though). Like the cake I made, we, too, were all grown up.
Sitting on the table with the other cakes, with labels handwritten by Sophie's grandmother, my cake looked rather lackluster on the outside. But I was pleased with the way it tasted and proud of myself, even though I personally like my cakes airy and less dense (Sophie is the opposite, so it worked out!). She told me that a couple of those great baker friends had commented on how much they enjoyed my cake, and asked the question that sounded like music to my ears: "What fat did she use?" Only people who really care about cakes would ask that question. (It was olive oil, folks.)
Overall, Sophie said she couldn't have been more delighted with the outcome. "I was worried about the logistics, but it ended up going very smoothly," she told me. "You could tell that everyone put a lot of thought and care into their cakes, and all the different shapes and colors looked great on a table together. And they all tasted so good. It was a highlight of the whole wedding that we'll always remember."
Consider it an idea if you're planning a wedding anytime soon. Trust me, your friends will thank you for making them better bakers.
Have you made a wedding cake before? Tell us all about it in the comments!