Wedding Cakes

Never underestimate the power of a great piece of cake. If it seems like an afterthought compared to your gown, invitations, and main dish, remember that your wedding cake can top off a wonderful ceremony and reception. And don’t think that this decked-out dessert is just for the guests’ enjoyment. After the stress of the wedding day, many brides have told Gretchen Ellison, owner of Enchanted Wedding Cakes in Shrewsbury, “the one thing they were looking forward to was having a piece of cake.”

Finding a dessert that suits your event and personality—and inspires oohs and aahs—can be a sweet adventure. But before you begin your journey, learn how to choose the right baker, what to include in your contract, and how to keep that top tier all to yourselves.

Good Taste
People like to mix and match when it comes to picking a cake, says Ellyn Gimbel, owner and pastry chef of Sweetworks in Acton. If you have never sampled anything as decadent as tangerine sponge cake or hazelnut praline filling, take advantage of a tasting and try as many different flavors as you can, putting together the cake, filling, and icing you like best.

Tastings vary across the board. Ellison offers four pieces of cake that could include a lemon raspberry torte, strawberry sponge cake with Grand Marnier buttercream, a white cake with chocolate buttercream and raspberry preserves, and a chocolate cake with cappuccino buttercream and truffle filling. Couples can mix and match these flavors in layers for a one-of-a-kind taste sensation.

Gimbel sends couples her menu on CD, then offers a free “celebration cake” in their desired flavor for their consultation. Find out ahead of time if the tasting is offered without any commitment; although many tastings are free, some bakers may ask for a deposit on the day of the consultation.

Pièce de Résistance
Wedding cakes are meant to stand apart from the reception’s meal. “Flavorwise, the cake doesn’t have to go with whatever else is going on,” says Michele Stump, managing partner of East Meets West Catering in Boston. The company’s Tuscan wedding cake dresses vanilla sponge cake in mascarpone cream and tops it with seasonal fruit.

Think traditional white cake is ordinary when it comes to your wedding cake? Think again. “[White cake] can be fabulous and still carry many of the traditional elements,” says Rebecca Moesinger, co-owner of Konditor Meister in Braintree. For a formal affair, vanilla icing with an intricate scrolled design, perhaps matching the lace of your dress or the pattern of your china, can heighten a ceremonious tone.

For an event with a lighter feel, consider a basketweave or latticework design, and place a basket of hydrangea next to the cake to play off the theme. Any design you pick can evolve from layer to layer—a bow and swag can adorn the first layer, with a simple draping effect on the second tier. For continuity, use the wedding colors in your cake design with vibrant sugarpaste flowers, bows or hand-painted elements.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of the terrific taste creations, there are options. For a fall or winter wedding, “it’s nice to have chocolate or spice, something with a little oomph to it,” says Gimbel, who also offers gilding, sugar leaves, and acorns as decorations in colder months.

Or, choose a different flavor for each layer of the cake and ask your caterer to add more desserts, such as chocolate-covered strawberries, chocolate-mousse cups, truffles, ice cream, or sorbet. “Then people can choose if they want something chocolatey or fruity at the end of the evening,” says Kristen Repa, owner and pastry chef of Dessert Works in Norwood. These treats can be offered at each table or buffet-style, which several experienced bakers recommend. “We encourage people to do dessert buffets,” says Stump. Repa agrees, “It gets people up and moving around.”

Cake Matters
With so many options out there, how do you decide who will be baking your wedding cake? “Word-of-mouth is the best way,” says Gimbel. If you loved the dessert at the last wedding you went to, ask the bride for her baker’s number. Also, don’t settle for the first cake you see. “Shop around,” says Repa. Visit websites, look at pictures, and ask your reception coordinator for recommendations.

Begin your process no sooner than six to eight months in advance, says Repa. It’s helpful to know other wedding details, including the colors you want and an approximate guest count, before deciding on a cake. But don’t wait too long, says Gimbel, because the baker you want might already be booked.

Remember to ask about the very practical, albeit not so fun, details that will most likely be included in the vendor’s contract. That includes fees such as a delivery charge or intricate decorations, says Repa. If you want a different cake than the one your caterer is providing, you may receive a credit toward the main meal. You’ll also need to discuss when the cake will be delivered and who will be in charge of setting it up.

Knowing how much you’d like to spend and how many people you are anticipating at your event helps your baker know what size cake will work best. Prices can range from approximately $4 to $7 per slice; expect to order one slice per person, possibly less if you are serving other desserts. Often, if your guest count is large but you’d rather the cake not be, bakers can provide what’s known as a kitchen or utility cake: a sheet cake with your preferred flavor and icing that is kept in the kitchen until served to guests. This saves money, and you and your groom can still have a cake to smoosh in each other’s faces.

Take It Home
One of the most well-known wedding-cake traditions is saving the top tier for the bride and groom to enjoy on their first anniversary. Stump advises couples to discuss this idea with their caterer or baker ahead of time, so the top tier won’t be factored into the slice-per-person total. Every baker sends the cake home differently; some offer freezing instructions and a box for the couple to take with them. Others, including Enchanted Wedding Cakes, offer a smaller “anniversary cake,” a 6-inch round cake with buttercream icing made just before your one-year celebration, as part of the package.

But if a year seems too long to wait to indulge in the fruits of your labor, you can take Repa’s advice: “Eat it for breakfast the next morning.”