Wedding Cake Basics
Check With Your Reception Venue
Before you begin your cake quest, inquire whether your venue has certain regulations regarding wedding cakes. Some require that you use particular bakers (in-house or otherwise), while others may charge a fee for using your own. Next, find out if the cake designer meets the requirements of the local health department. (Most reception sites will not allow a baker without a license to serve cake on the premises.) Ideally, you should start shopping for a cake designer at least four to six months before the wedding -- some of the country's best cake designers can be booked a year in advance. If you have your hopes set on a marquee name, get on his or her calendar as soon as possible.
Consider The Cost
The price of wedding cake is generally calculated per slice, or according to how labor-intensive the design is. Prices can range from a few dollars to $15 per slice. Consider your cake: Will it require numerous layers? How many tiers? Do you want intricate designs, or something plain and simple? Will it require an engineering degree to get it in the door? All of these things will affect the price of your cake.
When it comes to decoration, adornment costs run the gamut. The most inexpensive option is fresh fruits or flowers that, in some instances, can be applied by your florist for a minimal fee. On the high-end is gumpaste or sugarpaste flowers, which are handmade and extremely delicate, painstakingly constructed one petal at a time. But here's the bottom line: All add-ons -- including marzipan fruits, chocolate-molded flowers, and lace points -- will raise the rate.
Shipping is going to be an issue too. Most bakers will want to deliver the cake themselves, not trusting their masterpieces in the hands of anyone else. They'll include delivery cost in the price of the cake or charge an additional delivery fee. Either way, have your baker do the honors -- you'll be hard-pressed to find someone else with the same know-how and the right vehicle, specifically a refrigerated truck. (In other words, this would not be a good time to ask your cousin if she wouldn't mind picking up the cake for you.)
If you're ordering a cake from a city other than where your wedding will take place, things will get a little trickier and more expensive. You'll want to be sure that your baker has a sound way to transport your cake to your reception site (appropriate boxes, packing materials, and so on), and that the confection will be sufficiently insured in case of any mishaps. Some professionals will chose to buy the cake a plane ticket (at your expense, so be sure to inquire about this when working out your budget) and put it in a seat with the seatbelt fastened (we're not kidding).
Finally, few people know about the cutting fee. If you don't use an in-house baker, some venues will charge a fee for the cake cutting -- from $1.50 to $3 a slice to divvy up the cake. When it's all totaled, this can cost a pretty penny -- so be sure to check with your reception manager or caterer before finalizing the budget.
Browse Cake Pictures But Stay Realistic
Yes, looking at beautiful pictures of cakes online or in magazines can be a delicious experience. But what happens in magazine-land doesn't always work in the real world. Sadly, not all bakers can work the magic that you see whipped up in photos.
Magazines have food stylists, editors, and assistants working nonstop to keep the cakes looking perfect. These people spend hours fixing the sweating, dripping, leaning, or sagging that can happen to a cake after a while, or under hot lights. And if what they do doesn't work, they can fix it with PhotoShop. They also have the luxury of creating cakes from stuff that isn't edible -- most cakes in magazines are iced pieces of Styrofoam, which from what we can tell certainly doesn't taste very good.
The last thing that magazines don't have to think about is logistics. Our favorite falsely advertised tidbit is the whole idea of the mini-cake, where each guest gets his or her own little confection that doubles as a favor. Many bakers agree that this is a great idea -- in theory but not in practice. Not only does each cake require its own decoration (often as intricate, if not more, than one four times its size), each will require its own box. Unfortunately, boxes don't come in mini-cake sizes. Often the bakery must construct individual boxes in which to transport these cakes. Multiply by however many guests you'll be having, and you'll see what a costly, time-consuming feat this actually is -- very different from the one, five, or 10 little cakes that a magazine might produce for a shoot.
In the end, instead of finding something in print and aiming to replicate it in reality, choose elements of the cakes you love -- shape, color, details -- and let those elements simply inspire you, and your baker. Your cake designer will take it from there.
Meet With Cake Bakers
Once you've done your research and have a sense of cost and a rough idea of the type of cake you're looking for, meet with your top three favorite bakers in person to look at their portfolios. If you like what you see, sample a few varieties they have on hand. Many vendors will bake a requested flavor specifically for you, but don't demand this until you've chosen your baker (and unless they offer, of course).
Once you've chosen someone, start the inspiration process. Since the wedding cake is a centerpiece for the whole reception, you'll want yours to represent your wedding, from the inside (fillings) to the outside (icing and topper). Browse pictures in magazines, online, visit our Real Weddings channel for inspiration and ideas, and make notes of things that are important to you or that you would like to try to include. Everything from a tasty dessert you once had at a nice restaurant to Grandma's pecan pie can help you bring your dream cake to life.
Some bakers excel at taste but not at construction, while others create masterpieces that aren't so palatable. Really good bakers can do both, building a cake from the best of both worlds. You'll want to be able to sample a real wedding cake -- one with icing and other decoration -- to ensure you'll be getting a cake that tastes as good as it looks.
If you have your heart set on a specific taste sensation, ask whether the baker would be willing to work from a recipe. You may want an unusual flavor, or maybe one that's not part of the roster -- or perhaps you'd like a re-creation of a confection that your grandmother made when you were a child. Just be sure to ask for a test-run so that there are no surprises.
The other thing to keep in mind is how well the cake is going to last throughout the wedding. For example, buttercream frosting, while quite delicious, doesn't hold up well after sitting out --fondant is a much better option for cakes that need to withstand heat, humidity, or a lifetime without refrigeration.