I’m not sure I really thought things through when I offered to make my brother’s wedding cake. I’ve never made a wedding cake before, or even anything that required more than one cake pan, and I was also pregnant at the time so was quite oblivious to what making a wedding cake would be like with a ten month old baby in tow. I’d also offered to do the wedding photos. I know, two massive projects in themselves, which meant I literally had to be in two places at once on the day. But I was so excited at the news and wanted to be part of it somehow, to make a contribution that would help out the lovebirds and hopefully also create something memorable in the process.
It turns out it was certainly memorable, it was also equally stressful and I’m not sure the baby’s forgiven me for taking on such a huge project the same week that she was teething and had a cold, but as a first time wedding cake experience I learned so much and this I believe is worth sharing, particularly with any other first timers thinking about making a cake for a special occasion.
Back in March I posted the recipe for the cake I had chosen to make for the wedding, a chocolate cake, made dense with buttermilk and olive oil, layered with a grappa-spiked apricot marmellata and ricotta buttercream, which is surprisingly light tasting. I found in the cheeky, chef-y magazine, Lucky Peach, where Brooks Headly, the pastry chef and author of the recipe, described it as “fool proof”. I love baking cakes and am willing to take on the most challenging but fool proof sounded like a good idea for a wedding cake – why not?
The chocolate and olive oil cake made a wonderful dense, rich but not overly sweet cake that only became more moist and delicious when a few days old. Perfect — I wanted to start it a few days before the wedding to avoid last-minute mayhem and leave room for any eventual issues. And oh, there were issues, even after so many practice runs.
It’s a good recipe. After many tests and practice runs of the cake, I grew more and more certain of this. It’s just so easy – no separate whipping, careful folding or worrying about lumps. It’s literally a one bowl cake, ingredients go in all at once and it whips up in literally no time.
With the ideal cake chosen, there were only a few requirements I had to consider: It had to feed 60 people and the bride was keen on the look of a naked wedding cake – that is, an un-iced wedding cake. I began collecting images of naked wedding cakes, gathering ideas, testing decorations and soon became obsessed with the look.
I do think there’s something to be said about a naked cake. The major pro is that it is in many ways a simpler cake – it requires less icing, it doesn’t need all a crumb coating and you don’t have to worry about any of the problems that arise with icing an entire cake. The major con is that, like anything naked, there’s nowhere to hide blemishes.
The first thing I did was research baking forums and find out what equipment I needed. I bought new cake pans, I considered cake strips (used to help create a more even bake, especially for larger cakes), but eventually decided to go with a cake leveller – decidedly becoming one of my favourite kitchen contraptions. A palette knife came in handy for smoothing out jam and icing. I bought cake boards to fit the size of the cakes (in hind sight I should have had more of these, they only cost about $1 each and are extremely handy for flipping cakes over or moving them from one place to another. They are also essential in the assembly of the final cake, as the bottom of the tier). Finally, I bought dowels to help keep the cake tiers together and add stability. Wooden ones, instead of the plastic ones. They just felt nicer, more natural. But again, in hind sight, the plastic ones may have cut more evenly as I ended up with a slightly wonky top tier.
Once I had the equipment, I set about doing some test runs, first making a half recipe and building half of the cake to get an idea of how it could look. A photo taken from directly front on could fool you into thinking it’s an entire cake! I read a post by a cake baker who, when testing wedding cakes for her clients, bakes just one pan of the cake, then cuts it into thirds to produce a good sized wedge of a three-layer cake.
After a couple of tests, the bride decide she wanted some extra height to the cake so we added a full layer to the bottom of the cake in the form of roses. I simply constructed a tier out of floral green foam (also known as an oasis), which has to be soaked completely in water before being cut and shaped. It ended up being extremely heavy, which was a problem for moving the cake later but it created a beautiful floral layer for the base of the cake. Pink and white roses to match the flowers in her hair filled it out and the same flowers decorated the top and some edges of the cake.
Another test run of the cake was done to figure out portions. We studied the cake cutting charts like this one, and based on that, decided to go with two tiers of 8 and 10 inches widths (for anyone interested in portions, a double recipe of the cake with 3 1/2 cups of batter in each 10 inch pan and just under 3 cups of batter in the 8 inch ones was just right). It didn’t sound like it would feed 60 people, so I suggested making each tier a three-layer cake, rather than just a two-layer cake. It turns out that there was more than enough to feed 60 people in the end – but leftovers are good if you ask me, there’s something wonderfully decadent and romantic about eating wedding cake for breakfast the next day.
For me, the most important part of the cake making process was getting each layer of cake right. They really had to be perfect for a naked cake. I made a few mistakes with the first batch of cakes I made, which didn’t happen during the tests. I was careful to line the cake tins before putting batter in, as I was afraid of the cake sticking.
Removing the cakes went well, but in some cases, I removed them while they were too warm and soft, and several otherwise perfect cakes cracked in my hands or when they were flipped. After that, I impatiently left them to cool in their tins completely before turning – problem solved. Once cooled completely, I wrapped the cakes in plastic wrap and stored them on top of cake boards in the fridge for 24 hours before attempting to level them. Cutting them before this led to problems such as chunks of the edges coming off but also, letting the cakes rest and settle for a day means they are easier to work with and reveals a completely different texture – more compact, rather than crumbly and light.
At one point, after I had cracked one too many cakes, I realised I needed to bake another batch. I had run out of cocoa and had to buy some more but couldn’t find the same brand and ended up with a different tin of cocoa. It was several shades lighter than the rest of my cakes – not a good look for this naked cake. So that entire batch of batter was turned into cupcakes for the bridal party to feast on as they set up the venue.
Once the layers were baked, wrapped and stored in the fridge, I could relax until the morning of the wedding, which is when the ricotta cream was made. Here ensued another learning curve. The batch of ricotta cream came out as runny as a smoothie, due to a very soft, watery ricotta. Letting it sit in the fridge to chill didn’t change much and time was still ticking. There was no way I could layer a cake with a smoothie. So we made an emergency trip to the supermarket to change ricotta and try again. In hind sight, I should have let the ricotta drain even overnight to get a nice, stiff icing for this cake. It simply involves layering a sieve with a few layers of muslin and sitting the ricotta in it, the whole thing over a bowl in the fridge.
In the meantime, the cakes were prepped with apricot marmellata. I wanted to put the jam directly on the cakes to let it seep in to the cake as during the taste tests, this was one of my brother’s favourite parts of the cake when it was a day or two old and had had time to soak – the jam not only adds to the moisture in the cake but also prevents seeping of freshly applied jam down the sides or sliding of the icing. The cakes sat in the fridge, chilling, with jam for about an hour before the ricotta was ready.
The second batch of ricotta cream was much better, though still not as thick as I would have liked so I applied it with a little less of a heavy hand than I would have liked for fear of it spilling. I should have put a bit more.
Once the middle layers were buttered up and arranged, wooden dowels were inserted in the central part of the cake to hold the layers together and to serve as columns that hold up the top tier. The wood has probably not broken off perfectly the same each time so the top tier was a little bit wonky. Even the cake board began to warp a little because of the moisture of the bottom tier – next time, I’d cover the cake board in more foil to make sure this doesn’t happen. I managed to get the top tier pierced with a dowel and carefully put back in the fridge just in time to join the bridal party on their way up to the church for the ceremony – talk about last minute!
The final arrangements and last touches were made to the cake as the speeches were given. I arranged tier upon tier and wrapped the ends of a few little perfumed roses with foil before poking them into the sides and top of the cake. It was done. Not perfect – some of the ricotta filling had spilled out here, other parts had it missing. But if there’s one thing I can say, it was made with a lot of love and the cake was certainly delicious — a fool proof recipe indeed.