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.
Fillings can be deceptively tricky. They should be neither cloying nor gummy, neither greasy nor mortar-like. And that’s a tall order — especially for a tall wedding cake. When I talked to the happy couple about flavors for the cakes and fillings, the bride immediately asked for a caramel icing. Caramel is my favorite, too — especially a good Southern caramel that’s on just this side of burnt, with a noticeable dose of salt for good measure. So I decided to layer the yellow cake, the largest tier, with caramel icing. I chose this recipe, mostly because it didn’t require caramelizing sugar to a certain temperature, and I was trying to reduce my workload in any way I could.
The groom was quick to respond with a request of his own: chocolate frosting. So I decided to layer a simple chocolate ganache between the cocoa-filled layers of the second tier. I wanted a thick, dense ganache, so I used equal parts chopped bittersweet chocolate and cream. I heated the two in a metal bowl over a pot of simmering water, whisking until the chocolate had melted and it all became a gloopy mess I wanted to bathe in. Done.
Lastly, I decided to layer the white cake (which I had already dubbed the “fairy cake” in my head) with a raspberry compote. I was hoping that the bright tang of the fruit would cut the airy sweetness of the almond-flavored cake — and would look really fancy, too. I melted down a few pints of raspberries with a quick pour of sugar, a slip of vanilla, the zest of two lemons, and a pinch of salt.
These fillings keep for a week in the fridge, so feel free to do this all several days in advance. Before assembling your cakes, take the fillings out of the fridge and let them come to room temperature. If need be, re-whip to nudge them towards a more spreadable texture.
Next, I tackled the frosting that would cover the entire cake and dictate the flavor profile for the whole project: Swiss Buttercream.
Its name alone is scary. Regular buttercream seems comforting, familiar — it’s the stuff that you licked off of grocery store sheet cakes of yore. But put “Swiss” in front of the name, and it becomes a whole different beast. It’s European, it’s fancy, it’s…got an incredible amount of butter in it. Perhaps scariest of all, you have to add the butter to hot egg whites and sugar, all while whipping frantically at high speeds.
A note: Do not attempt this if you don’t have an electric mixer; this is another “borrow it from a friend” situation. Or, do as I did, and make it all at your parents’ house.
Despite how intimidating it looks on paper, Swiss buttercream is actually quite simple in terms of ingredients — especially when you have Deb Perelman by your side to guide you. This frosting asks nothing more of you than sugar, egg whites (remember all those whites you saved from the cake?), a splash of vanilla, and so, so much softened, unsalted butter. I used 15 sticks (one and a half times Deb’s recipe) to make enough to frost a three-tiered cake.
There are two keys to making a successful Swiss buttercream: organization and patience. Make sure all of your ingredients are laid out, your butter softened, the water under your double boiler (or hacked double boiler) just simmering, and your mixer ready to go. Heat the egg whites and sugar in the top of the double boiler, stirring constantly just until the sugar dissolves — you don’t want to scramble the eggs. Pour them immediately into the mixer and flick it up to high. Pray that it won’t die on you.
Note: If you’re worried about salmonella, make sure to heat your egg whites to at least 160° F.
When your egg whites are whipped and glossy — this will take five to ten minutes — add in your vanilla. Start adding your softened butter one stick at a time, waiting a few seconds between each to make sure the whole stick has a chance to thoroughly incorporate.
Once all the butter is in, all you can do is be patient. At first your Swiss buttercream will look like a chunky, unappetizing mess. Don’t worry! It’s supposed to look like that. Just have some faith, maybe drink a glass of wine, do some downward-facing dog — whatever it takes to calm you down for the next fifteen minutes or so. Because slowly, ever so slowly, your buttercream will start to come together. It will become creamy, and fluffy, and pearly white, and will look like something you want to slather on your face like beauty cream. Stop the mixer, scrape it down, and whip it some more. When it’s solid, shiny, thick, and beginning to look like cream cheese, you’re ready.
If you’re not using the frosting immediately, store it in a container in the fridge. Before using, bring the frosting to room temperature and re-whip it until it’s light and spreadable.
When I started looking into the process behind building a wedding cake, it became clear that I came to this project extremely naive. Don’t be like me — get prepared ahead of time. Gather the following pieces of equipment and keep them at the ready. Then, when I walk you through the final assembly process (tomorrow!), you won’t be scrambling around trying to find your pastry tips.
I had assumed that the tiers of a wedding cake somehow hovered a centimeter over each other, as if on invisible magic carpets. In reality, tiered cakes require plastic or wooden rods, called dowels, to support them. You can find them at most craft stores, at specialty baking stores, or online.
Cardboard Cake Circles
Each layer cake is built upon a cardboard circle, cut to the exact circumference of the cake. I used designated cake circles for this, which I found at Michael’s — however, any (clean) piece of cardboard will work just fine. Trace your cake pans onto the circles, and cut them out with an X-acto knife or scissors.
This is the perfect tool for spreading and smoothing icing. The angle helps you keep your hands at a safe distance from the cake — so that you don’t smudge your handiwork — and gives you more leverage for spreading.
You’ll use this to even out the cake layers.
Rotating cake stand
This allows you to keep a constant angle when spreading on the icing and offers you a full range of motion. If you don’t want to invest in one, you can MacGyver one by placing a pie pan upside-down on top of a secure base.
Pastry bag and tips
If you’re going really old school (and low-tech), you can also use a zip-top bag, which I attempted here.
Make a small batch, just a cup or so, and store it in the fridge. You’ll use it to keep the cake moist during assembly.
Pieces of Flair
Finally, unless you’re a master cake decorator (and then why are you reading this article? Just for kicks?), you’ll need some accents that are naturally beautiful to jazz up the cake’s exterior. I used fresh flowers, but you could also use paper ones. If you want to go really over the top, or very personalized, you could also paint a customized bride and groom cake topper.
Now it’s time to assemble. Take a deep breath, rub your lucky rabbit’s foot, and let’s get started.
The band is warming up, the Champagne is chilling on ice, and the white doves are waiting patiently for their big moment — it’s the wedding day! If you’ve been following along with this series, you’ve already baked your cake, made your fillings and frfrostings, and assembled your equipment. So tie on your apron, take a deep breath, and put on some Enya — it’s time to assemble the cake.
First of all, make sure your frostings are all at room temperature; re-whip them if necessary so that they’re easy to spread. Grab the largest of the cake circles you purchased and place it atop your rotating cake stand. Spread a dab of buttercream on the largest cardboard circle, then place one of the largest cakes on top, flat side-down. Place it on the cake stand and, using your serrated knife, trim off the top so that the cake lies flat and even. When slicing and trimming cakes, I find it’s helpful to rotate the cake itself and keep the knife steady.
Brush some simple syrup onto the trimmed cake. This will keep it from drying out during the journey from your kitchen to the dessert table. Spread a layer of frosting or ganache almost to the edge of the cake, but not quite. Pipe a layer of Swiss buttercream around the edge of the filling. This will act as a dam, keeping the filling from mixing with the pure white of the Swiss buttercream. Repeat with the next two layers: trim each cake, layer on the filling, and pipe on buttercream.
Dollop a healthy amount of buttercream on top of the cake (yes, over the icing). Gently spread it over the top, then down over the sides. Make a very thin layer of frosting over the whole thing, concentrating on making it smooth. Don’t worry if you get some crumbs in it; this part is called the crumb layer, and it’s there to make sure the final icing layer is unblemished. Think of it as fly paper for cakes. Repeat with the other two cakes.
If you have room, refrigerate your cakes for an hour or so to firm up the icing. If you don’t have the time or the space, though, that’s okay. Drop a large heap of icing on top of the cake, and smooth it down over the sides, much as you did with the crumb layer. Spread the icing gingerly so as not to rustle up any crumbs stuck on the initial icing layer. Unless you’re a professional, you probably won’t be able to make a perfectly smooth wall of icing. I embraced imperfection, and used my spatula to make a stuccoed pattern. We’re also big fans of the swirl around here.
Repeat the same process with the next two tiers: Even out the cakes, layer on the filling, pipe Swiss buttercream around the edges, then frost the whole thing. Swirl, stucco, or otherwise decorate the exterior of the cake to your whim — just make sure the design stays consistent among all three layers. If possible, keep your cakes refrigerated until assembly time.
Before transporting your cakes to the venue, grab your dowels. Measure them to be a centimeter or so taller than the cake, mark them off with a Sharpie, and cut five of them to that exact height. I used a knife to saw through mine, then evened them off with a nail file. If you’re extra-handy and have a bandsaw, use that — otherwise, scissors or knives are the way to go.
Put a large tip on a pastry bag, and fill it with your re-whipped Swiss buttercream. Twist the end or secure it with a rubber band so none will leak during transport.
Pack everything up! Put your cakes inside inside sturdy boxes — we used empty drawers. Bring the pastry bag full of icing, the offset spatula, the dowels, and scissors. Think of it as the bag you pack before you head to the hospital to give birth — except instead of having a baby, you’re having a wedding cake.
Once you get to the venue, check with the caterers to see where you should assemble your masterpiece. Make sure everything on the surface is set up correctly, because you won’t want to move the cake after you’ve put it together. Carefully insert the dowels in the largest cake — one in the center, and four around it in a square — in an area that is just smaller than the next-largest cake. The dowels should all be visible, and of uniform height. You will then (with the help of a spatula and hopefully a friend or two) carefully, breathlessly, pick up the next-largest cake, center it over the largest one, and lower it down. You want the smaller cake to rest just above the larger one, but not touch it. Don’t worry about the gap — you’ll fill it in with icing.
Using the pastry bag, pipe icing into the gap between the cake tiers. Since the cake is already so large and eye-catching, it’s best to keep it simple. I advise practicing on a plate or some waxed paper before piping onto the cake, so you can make your icing as uniform as possible. If you’re not confident in your skills, you can just pipe small, consecutive rounds by pushing out icing, then releasing pressure and pulling away.
All that remains is decoration! The bride and groom wanted to limit the decoration to some fresh flowers, and I, having not piped a frosting rose in several years, was happy to oblige. Strategically arrange your blooms to cover up any imperfections, then use your pastry bag to make any final touch-ups. Then walk away. It’s time to put on your party outfit and chug a glass of Champagne, then prepare yourself for the waves of praise that will be lavished upon you.
You have made a wedding cake. And it was good.
Have you ever made a wedding cake? Any tips for novices? Let us know in the comments!
Photos of frosting and filling by Catherine Lamb; all other photos by James Ransom