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When I first started teaching, I wanted to be the best teach my students ever had. I wasn’t. It took years and years of experience to be a good teacher. Cake is lot like that. It takes years of practice to master. Sure it looks easy. Anything done well looks easy. I thought I’d be pretty good at soccer while I was watching the World Cup…those guys make it look so effortless! But we know in reality they are highly trained athletes, the best of the best who have been playing the game since they could walk and who spend more hours at practice than we spend at work.
There are things about wedding cakes that bakers know from years of experience, research, trial and error, and a few (but hopefully not too many) cake mishaps. Some of the information could be found in books or online, but some of it–how warm the butter should be when adding it to a bowl of meringue, how soft the fondant is when properly kneaded–are things no one can teach you. They come from years of working at the craft. Here are some of the things your baker knows, and just some of the reasons to not DIY your wedding cake.
1. How to bake a cake. From scratch. Bakers generally weight their ingredients for accuracy using a professional kitchen scale rather than measuring them with cups. Many, but not all, bakers have gone to culinary school. Those who haven’t (like me), might read a lot–books like The Cake Bible and Bakewise–to gain a solid understanding of the science of baking. Bakers know their ovens inside and out. They know the hot spots, and if their oven is slightly miscallibrated, so that to bake at 350° they actually have to set the oven to 325°. They know when to rotate, when a cake is finished baking, which recipes will continue to bake even after being removed from the oven, and which cakes tend to shrink more than others. Professional bakers have an arsenal of cake pans intended for commercial use which are different from pans the home baker uses. None of this makes baking foolproof–just last week I tripled the cocoa powder in my red velvet–but it does give bakers the tools to remedy things when they go wrong.
2. How to size a cake. There are lots of different cake cutting and serving guides out there, which can be confusing. To some degree, wedding cake serving sizes are regional. In areas of the country where portions are bigger in general, wedding cake slices are bigger as well. Your baker knows your guests’ expectations (thin slice or large wedge?) and will size your cake accordingly. I’ve always relied, with great success, on the Wilton guide, but then I’ve always lived in more metropolitan areas.
3. How to support a cake. Bakers have experience with cake support systems. Some use PVC pipe, others use straws. I use wooden dowels. I make sure that they are at a perfect 90° with a wood craft cutter, because I know that if my dowels aren’t perfectly level my cake won’t be level either. I learned that one the hard way. Bakers might use cardboard rounds for smaller tiers, but for larger, heavier tiers they use masonite boards or sturdy foamcore to support the weight. I learned that one the hard way too.
4. How to ice a cake. It’s generally pretty easy to ice a cake. It’s a whole different thing to ice it perfectly smooth with plumb sides, level tops, and tight edges. It took me years of practice–and discovering the hemming tool that I use as an icing blade–to get it right.
5. How much time is involved. Wedding cakes are extremely labor intensive. It can take a team of cake artists several days to create one cake, and that’s with commercial mixers, ovens, and fridges all equipped for multi-batch batters, fillings, and frostings. This article by Mountainside Bride really sheds some light on the time (and cost) involved.
6. How much it costs. Butter is expensive. Eggs are expensive. Shoot, it’s all expensive, and I buy my ingredients from a wholesale supplier. Buying supplies at a local supermarket is much pricier. Just ask Mountainside Bride. Now factor in your time for shopping, set up, clean up, plus the extra gas, electric, and supplies, not to mention the stress, and your DIY cake will likely end up costing you a lot more than you think.
7. How to transport a cake. Bakers have the professional equipment and knowledge to transport your cake safely. Whether they’ll assemble it beforehand or on site is something they’ve carefully considered. They know that driving a center dowel through your cake can be critically important. They’ve invested in a refrigerated vehicle or, at the very least, a commercial cooler that can keep cakes cool (and the fillings firm, thereby preventing them from squashing out the sides like a peanut butter and jelly sandwhich). They use non-slip shelf liner to prevent cakes from sliding around in the car and convoluted foam rubber under the cake to act as a shock absorber. And they drive like your grandmother when they have a cake in the car.
8. How to display a cake. I’ve seen your DIY cake stands, your vintage plates glued onto candlesticks, your flimsy bejeweled aluminum stands. Sure, they’re pretty. But can they support the weight of your cake? A three tier cake can weigh 100 pounds or more. Bakers know how heavy cakes can be, and they know how to best display them, whether it be a footed pedestal with a low center of gravity or a classic cake stand like our 18″ porcelain stand.
I hope this has given you some insight into all there is to know about wedding cakes. Should you decide to forge ahead, good for you! Please send pictures. I would love to see your DIY wedding cake.
Best of luck,
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