The science of culinary arts is exactly that – art. Radiant colors, dramatic expression, meticulous design and painstaking detail all come together in a vision of lush beauty; messing with perfectly placed food is fast becoming sacrilege; eating it akin to desecration of a masterpiece.
At weddings, the focal point of the reception has long endured this defilement at the hands of the masses, a victim of ravenous devouring by eyes and mouths alike. The wedding cake is the ultimate shooting star, made with love and labor to emerge in a blaze of glory before disappearing fast.
But there’s more to the life of a wedding cake than what meets the eye. Like any grand production, so much happens behind the scenes to create that magical moment that we as readers – and eaters – just don’t know about. We appreciate our part in making it happen as we walk the steps to dream the dream, but only the pros know how it all comes together.
No longer! Unveiling (almost) all secrets today, the experienced creatives at Gambino’s Bakery take us behind the scenes and into the diary of a wedding cake.
picking makes perfect
Although many brides start out with a vague idea of the cake they’ve always wanted, they don’t necessarily start
with a style – here, it’s substance first. A couple is expected to schedule a tasting to give potential bakeries an opportunity to showcase their many flavors. Some appointments are private, whereas other places do open tastings during certain dates and times. Still others give couples the freedom to take home samples for savoring and sharing, which is fun and convenient. The benefit of on-site tasting, however, is the presence of a knowledgeable staff member to guide the bride, groom and their entourage on their sweet mission.
There are a few staples that always make their way to the sample tray, primary the overwhelmingly popular – and traditional – white almond cake. Fluffy, light and a virginal shade of white, this cake variety comes with general appeal. It is made without egg yolks for its signature gorgeous color, and has a smooth crumb texture, making it a dream to decorate.
Just as classic is old-fashioned butter cake, which is also normally thrown into the mix for its timelessness and overall likability. This familiar flavor is comforting and its appearance is also a blank slate to ice upon.
More contemporary couples may want to go to their happy cake place by way of chocolate, and many bakeries are happy to comply with an arsenal of combinations.
Other signature flavors may be found depending on where you go, and bakeries will often mix and match fillings for endless possibilities. For instance, in Acadiana fruit fillings such as pineapple, lemon or strawberry dominate, while closer to Baton Rouge the opposite is true: white buttercream takes the lead in popularity, with strawberry and cream cheese coming in second.
With so many stunning designs floating out there – especially with the growing popularity of cake shows on television and the international database known as the Internet – choosing a cake is a challenging task. Many bakeries have an inventory book of designs for you to choose from, and these can form the base for customization. To help make the process a bit less daunting, many also offer a consultation.
In order to make the best recommendation, the baker and bride must hash out serving size and servings per guest to ensure that the cake is large enough to feed everyone … and then some. Senior decorator Angella St. Romain of Gambino’s Bakery emphasizes the importance of obtaining this individual-specific information, since actual serving sizes vary within the cake industry; the savvy bride should know the actual size of the tiers when comparing prices to best determine fair value.
Budget must also be considered. The materials to build a wedding cake are not necessarily exorbitantly expensive, but the labor involved is extensive. Highly skilled pastry veterans are usually in charge of wedding cakes at bakeries, and the cost of leaving your reception centerpiece to the pros is one well worth paying. Details for cakes are all hand-made and meticulous, which is extremely time-consuming. Every option is customized, so most bakeries only accept a certain amount of wedding cake assignments at any given time and require a non-refundable deposit at order submission.
After the logistics have been figured out, the creative part begins. Many brides come armed to the teeth with stacks of photos of cakes that inspire them and clear ideas of design direction based on their décor; just as many haven’t a clue and are hoping the designers at the bakery can guide their decision in the right direction. For the latter, St. Romain will usually ask these ladies to describe their wedding dress. Not only does that help her understand the personal style of the bride, it also helps her to understand the tone of the event, be it cute and casual, ultra-formal or somewhere in between.
Wedding cake consultants then work with the bride to propose a design within their parameters, finalizing tier numbers, dimensions and any decorations. Once a design has been settled upon and the deposit paid, all the bride needs to do is count down the days. Meanwhile, the magic behind the scenes is just beginning.
the making of a fantasy
Creating the world-class wedding cake every bride dreams of is no easy task. The first thing pastry experts must do is ready the decorations. Flowers are one of the most common elements in wedding cakes, and they can be incorporated through sugar or nature. The first artificial means is through basic buttercream frosting techniques, using a bag and special tips designed for different cake decorating tasks. This is often the way scrollwork detail, monograms, vines, pearl drops and other accents are added, but since the frosting has a tendency to melt, a cake that’s decorated this way cannot be decorated until the very end.
On the other hand, gum paste flowers (lifelike, hand-crafted pieces made of sugar-based materials) are usually handled well in advance since they’re almost always custom-made and require much effort. Each petal is individually rolled, cut and placed together to create finished flowers or bouquets for the cake. They can even be wired together if needed to create large flowers like rhubrum lilies or orchids, then stored for later use while the cake is being built.
If a bride opts for a more natural effect, the baker will contact the bride’s florist to determine the flower arrangements and an appropriate delivery time, “so that they may do their part of the wedding cake without interfering with their servicing the wedding,” St. Romain says. Florists usually only book a certain amount of weddings at a time too, so coordination between both teams is important to ensure all goes smoothly.
Some time will elapse before the next step, but that’s because cakes are typically ordered well in advance of the wedding and it’s best to bake to the date to guarantee the cake’s freshness. The layers are generally baked the morning prior to the event, and large bakeries like Gambino’s use oversized ovens so that all layers can be baked together for consistency most effective use of time. Each piece is set to cool, and sometimes briefly placed in a freezer to expedite the process or create better ease of handing. Filling gets added to the cake pieces, which are then cut and stacked into tiers, each of which are crumb-iced to seal in loose pieces.
After being allowed to settle for a bit, the actual work of cake building begins. The tiers are stacked or set up with separators according to the cake design, and supports are often added to avoid any part collapsing in transit or on the reception table. “Supports need to be placed far enough apart to avoid cracking the cake, yet close enough to support the cake that will be sitting on top of each tier,” says St. Romain, who also warns that “more is not always better; four to five well-placed supports are sufficient – this is where experience comes into play.”
The final layer of icing depends on the type of cake selected by the bride. Buttercream is the Old Faithful of wedding cake frosting for its soft flavor and smooth appearance. It can accommodate many different looks and decorating techniques, from creating a beautiful blank palette to precise fleurs-de-lis, cherry blossoms, leaves, branches and, of course, roses.
Rolled fondant has been rising in popularity due to its even more versatile nature. A sugar-based, dough-like ingredient, fondant gives a gorgeous matte finish, flawlessly smooth base, and is found on cakes with beautiful artificial ribbons, harlequin and geometric patterns, giant perky bows and flowing fabric-like effects. It creates a modern, upscale look and is prized for an appearance that buttercream cannot match.
However, covering a cake with fondant is a technique for extremely skilled professionals only. In the hands of novices, fondant has gained a reputation for having a paste-like taste, chewy texture and for being difficult to cut through. This occurs when the fondant is rolled too thick. In actuality, it has to be very thin – it’s there for appearance only, and is placed atop a layer of buttercream icing, anyway.
After the final coat of icing, all accents are added and the edible masterpiece gets placed on plywood bigger than the cake to avoid early contact, which then gets placed on the level floorboards of a large vehicle. At the destination, it’s brought into the reception venue at least an hour before the ceremony, and slid off the wooden base onto the wedding cake table, where finishing touches are applied. Toppers like bride and groom figurines, monograms, gum paste ribbons or bows, fresh flowers, small sculptures and artwork are added.
The cake is then ready for its grand debut, and to usher in a lifetime of teamwork and partnership for the happy couple as the diary of a wedding cake draws to a close.