I MADE A WEDDING CAKE! FOR REALS! PLS ADMIRE MY TRIUMPH!
And the general wedding splendor 🙂 When one makes the wedding cake, one also gets a backstage pass to all the wedding setup festivities. Prime twinkly light prep was taking when I took the photograph below.
Let’s rewind. I have written a NOVEL about my process. It is as much for my records as yours. But I did learn a lot in this experience and perhaps you, dear reader, will benefit.
This process began when I spent 10,000 hours researching recipes/practicing recipes.
I admit I had a real ace up my sleeve in the form of my cousin Rachel, who just happens to have worked as a PASTRY CHEF. Most of the recipes and techniques I ended up using were hers. She’s the best.
It turns out that practicing recipes, and planning recipes for the actual making of this actual huge amount of cake, involved doing an exorbitant amount of math.
To scale the recipes my cousin gave me to various pan sizes, I did the calculations based on Smitten Kitchen’s advice, at the end of this blog post, to use surface area of the pan rather than batter volume. In other words, a 9 inch pan has an area of about 64 inches. Its radius is 4.5 inches, and you use pi r squared to get the area. WHO SAID YOU DON’T USE MATH IN REAL LIFE?! Meanwhile, a 12 inch pan has an area of about 113 inches. Let’s say I wanted to convert a recipe for a cake that fits in a nine inch pan to fitting in a 12 inch pan- I’d multiply each ingredient (preferably in ounces or grams) by 113/64. For eggs, you obviously just end up rounding up or down.
What I ended up making were three separate cakes: a 6 inch, a 9 inch, and a 12 inch. I came up with those numbers using the Wilton diagrams. I will say I actually only ended up making approximately 108 servings, per the guidance of the bride and groom, and I was distraught by that because there were 160 wedding guests. And though there was also pie, the thought of someone going away hungry for dessert was devastating to me. Well, friends, this was NOT a realistic concern. Lots of people don’t eat cake. The bride and groom now have a freezer full of it.
Okay so the aforementioned 6″, 9″ and 12″ cakes could’ve been stacked on each other, but my friends weren’t interested in that aesthetic. Frankly, thank God. The thought of stacking and doweling cakes makes me a bit lightheaded.
So, I had three separate cakes. But secretly, I had nine cakes, since each cake had three layers. Furthermore, each layer was cut in half and then filled with filling. So each cake, from the bottom up, went: cake, filling, cake, icing; cake, filling, cake, icing; cake, filling, cake, icing. As seen below!
As for the recipes themselves, please note that my fancy pastry chef cousin’s recipes are sparse on details because she’s such a friggin fantastic baker that she doesn’t need to include much in her recipes. I’ve done my best to make notes below.
The recipes I used were:
- Chocolate genoise:
- For one 12 inch round pan: Whisk 8 eggs and 8.4 oz sugar over double boiler until sugar dissolves/eggs are slightly warm to the touch Then move to mixer and whip until 3x volume and very pale yellow. Meanwhile, sift together 6.4 oz flour and 1.2 oz cocoa powder. Remove eggs from mixer, fold in flour mix. Use your hand to fold to lessen chance of deflating [Ileana note: I interpreted this to mean use your hand and a spatula, rather than the mixer. I didn’t literally stick my hand in batter. Though honestly that may’ve been what my cousin meant, since I know she always uses her hands to separate eggs]. Bake @350 in buttered/floured tin (I always put parchment on the bottom too) [Ileana note: OMG YES ADD THE PARCHMENT. It removes all stress from the process]. Cook until they smell good and have just separated from side of pan. [Ileana note: I was wracked with anxiety about the cooking time. While it is 100% true that baked goods really do start to smell extra good when they are done (thus my cousin’s “cook until they smell good”), my nose was also sort of broken at a certain point in the baking process. I also had multiple cakes in various stages all in my kitchen at the same time. You could bake for maybe 15 minutes and evaluate at that time and that might be a good starting point for baking time.]
- I learned that the maximum capacity of my Kitchenaid mixer (standard size, not industrial size, which is what my pastry chef cousin has!) is 4 or 5 eggs’ worth of genoise. So, to make enough batter for one 12 inch cake layer, I had to do it in two batches.
- Plain genoise
- To make one 9 inch round pan, Whisk 4 eggs + 4.2 oz sugar over double boiler until sugar dissolves/eggs are slightly warm to the touch. Then move to mixer [Ileana note: I added about 1/2 teaspoon vanilla at this point] and whip until 3x volume and very pale yellow. Meanwhile, sift together just shy of 4 oz flour. Remove eggs from mixer, fold in flour. Use your hand to fold to lessen chance of deflating [Ileana note: I interpreted this to mean use your hand and a spatula, rather than the mixer. I didn’t literally stick my hand in batter. Though honestly that may’ve been what my cousin meant, since I know she always uses her hands to separate eggs]. Bake @350 in buttered/floured tin (I always put parchment on the bottom too) [Ileana note: OMG YES ADD THE PARCHMENT. It removes all stress from the process]. Cook until they smell good and have just separated from side of pan. [Ileana note: I was wracked with anxiety about the cooking time. While it is 100% true that baked goods really do start to smell extra good when they are done (thus my cousin’s “cook until they smell good”), my nose was also sort of broken at a certain point in the baking process. I also had multiple cakes in various stages all in my kitchen at the same time. You could bake for maybe 15 minutes and evaluate at that time and that might be a good starting point for baking time.]
- Smitten Kitchen’s swiss buttercream
- Note: a batch made with 5 sticks of butter (half her “big” recipe) maxed out the capacity of my Kitchenaid mixer.
- To ice my three cakes- a 6 inch, a 9 inch, and a 12 inch diameter cake; each about 4-5 inches tall; each with icing between layers and icing around the diameter of the fillings; it took 1.5 “big” batches of the Smitten Kitchen swiss buttercream.
- I have nothing to add to her instructions, which are invaluable. I had the exact same experience of flipping out that I was making frosting soup and then somehow it magically turns into icing after about 20 minutes of whipping. I also observed that the finished icing indeed has the texture of mayonnaise and indeed is wonderful to work with.
- My fancy pastry chef cousin’s ganache “recipe”: measure equal amounts of bittersweet chocolate and cream. Heat up the cream (she uses a stove, I used the microwave). Mix them together with a whisk, leaving no lumps. Let them cool.
- Strawberry filling which I cobbled together (initially I used a food network recipe for strawberry sauce but then that ended up being way too thin so I added a few bags of frozen strawberries and immersion blended it with that so it ended up being super concentrated strawberry bliss. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to recreate it, hahaha)
So I did all my cake math and successfully made all of those bad boys approximately 1-2 weeks in advance of the wedding, and they invaded my freezer:
And then I thawed them in my fridge:
And then I made my fillings and frostings.
it was assembly time.
I’m not going to lie to you, this was the most intense part of the experience.
Cutting cake layers in half is not for the faint of heart. It doesn’t help when you have crappy serrated knives (me). It doesn’t help when your cake layers are very large. It doesn’t help when you’re not particularly spatial. It is what it is. Do it, suck it up.
A key tip that I highly recommend is doing a perimeter of icing. That helps hold in the ganache (or whatever other filling) and keep it from spilling out and mucking up the outer layer of icing on the cake.
When the assembly was done, each of the three separate cakes looked something like this:
And then it was time for the crumb coat! My love of the crumb coat is discussed below and it is included in any cake tutorial worth its salt. Befriend the crumb coat, baker friends.
Okay so those were the basic preliminary cake assembly steps. I think this is a good time for an interlude on essential supplies.
I made this list assuming at least a basic knowledge of baking- obviously you’ll need bowls and whisks and spatulas and all the normal baking things. But the things below are not necessarily mandatory for regular cake baking but are either extremely convenient or just absolutely essential for wedding cake baking.
- Pasteurized egg whites, if one is using Swiss buttercream icing. Maybe the egg whites get hot enough in the double boiler, maybe they don’t. As a dietitian I know too much about food safety, and why chance it?! Plus it’s easier buying the packaged stuff than separating that many eggs.
- Big cake pans, which I purchased at Michael’s craft store. Honestly I wish I had bought more pans because with my triple cake layers (to make tall cakes) I ended up making nine individual cakes- three six inch, three nine inch, and three twelve inch. I had two nine inch pans but only one six inch pan and only one twelve inch pan. I wish I had just sprung for extra pans.
- Parchment paper for lining the cake pans. It removes 100% of the anxiety. In some of my test runs I didn’t do this and was also a bit impatient about taking the cake out of the pan maybe before it had cooled enough and dealt with cake breaking in half and making me really really angry. The parchment avoids this situation!
- DIGITAL SCALE. Seriously large scale baking is impossible if you have to deal with measuring cups. Weights are the way to go. The difference is absurd. Your workflow simply consists of dumping an ingredient in a bowl til the scale says the number you want-> zero the scale-> add the next ingredient til the scale says the number you want-> zero the scale. I would’ve gone insane if I’d had to measure individual cups of flour, sugar, etc. Plus my fancy pastry chef cousin didn’t give me any recipes in cups hahaha. Real bakers use weights!
- Stand mixer. The kind of aeration that needs to happen for the genoise and, dear God, the Swiss buttercream, would take literally hours of hand mixing. My arm would’ve fallen off- the whisking I had to do in the initial step of the Swiss buttercream was quite enough.
- Double boiler or a metal bowl that fits over a large saucepan/large pot- that’s necessary for getting eggs to behave themselves both in the genoise and in the Swiss buttercream.
- Offset spatula for putting on the icing. Makes it so much easier. Lots of cooking videos demonstrating this.
- Pastry bags and icing tips. I didn’t do anything fancy but they’re great for doing the perimeter around the filling, as pictured above, and for doing touch ups once the cake is iced on the outer layer.
- Cake boxes. This is easier said than done, actually. Apparently the larger Michael’s craft stores have cake boxes but the smaller ones, though they have literally every other item having to do with cake, do not. Weird. I ended up getting some for free at Whole Foods in the bakery section (hurray!) However, they only have them in some sizes and most were either slightly too big or slightly too small for my finished cakes. This ended up being a bit of a kerfuffle, but since as we’ll note later on, buttercream fixes everything, it’s not an insurmountable kerfuffle.
- Cake boards
- Big plates to display your cakes. This is not typically something one just has around the house so it’s worth thinking about. We ended up using my small cake stand for the 6″ cake, Shaylen’s pretty family antique plate for the 9″ cake, and, honestly, I know this is kind of not classy, we used my 16 inch cake pan that I’d already bought but not ended up using, flipped upside down and covered in fabric, for the 12′ cake.
- This isn’t equipment per se, but let it be known to CLEAR OUT SPACE IN YOUR FREEZER! Because as we’ve discussed, when one is making NINE SEPARATE CAKES, it takes up space.
- Also then CLEAR UP SPACE IN YOUR REFRIGERATOR. Or have refrigerator space somewhere else (i.e. the venue or, in my case, the wedding planner’s house which thank God is around the corner from mine) to put the assembled cake.
- There is an online video tutorial of virtually every step in the cake icing and assembly process. Take advantage of this. Some things look easier in the videos (DUH) but I will say that putting down a crumb coat while frosting a cake is a freaking revelation and I’m so glad I learned that technique online.
- Get more ingredients than you need. Running out of eggs or butter is so frustrating. I bought butter at COSTCO- THREE POUNDS OF IT- and it still wasn’t enough. Get more than you think you need. Of everything.
- Straight up, making a wedding cake is quiiiiite expensive. I used 15 sticks of butter in the frosting. I used 44 eggs in the cake layers. IT IS EXPENSIVE. Only make it for friends you really love (for the record, I do). And it 100% counts as your wedding gift.
- The process will take 1000 years. You will be either baking or doing dishes for 1000 years. I watched all of The Staircase on Netflix whilst baking and doing dishes for 1000 years. Just expect that. Have a diverting true crime program to give you soothing background noise.
- As said, assembling the cake is by far the most stressful part. Cutting cake layers in half is *@#%ing difficult. Fortunately…
- Buttercream hides almost anything. GOD BLESS BUTTERCREAM. Even if a little filling leaks out from in between the layers, even if things look a little crooked, even if one side is sticking out in a wonky way, a slightly thicker layer of buttercream in a particular section can disguise any manner of ills.
- Also, when in doubt, just display the cake from its best angle.
I.e. go from this:
After the crumb coat had cooled, I put on the final layer of buttercream, then packed my cake into my boxes, refrigerated them overnight, and brought them to the venue the morning of the wedding.
Our wedding planner/flower genius set aside some of the (beautiful!) sunflowers and green bits of foliage to adorn the cakes and we kept it super simple.
Then, on the smallest layer, which was the layer that Kyle and Shaylen cut, Shaylen put her HANDMADE WEDDING CAKE TOPPERS! Little lovebirds she made in her pottery class. Ugh she’s so cute.
And this is how it looked!
Thank GOD I had absolutely nothing to do with the cake cutting process, so once Shaylen and Kyle had done their slicing and took their first bite and the cake didn’t explode or collapse or do anything awful, I heaved a sigh of relief and got to become a cake admirer/cake eater just like the rest of the wedding guests.
Here are the finished chocolate and vanilla layers! (The caterers sliced different sizes of the chocolate cake which I think was actually a great idea so people had options on portion size).
Oh and as I briefly mentioned, IT’S NOT LIKE THERE WAS JUST CAKE, EITHER. There were also pies! Delicious key lime and peach pies! Ugh what a great evening of dessert.
So will I ever do it again?
Well, NEVER for money. That’d be way too much pressure. I’m in no danger of becoming a professional cake baker.
Maaaaaaaybe for other friends in the same tier as Kyle and Shaylen (though that’s, uh, not many of them 😀 )
While I was ultimately exhausted at the end of this project, I’m also astonished at how much I learned (as you, uh, may have guessed from the 3000 words or so I just wrote). It’s nice to learn new things as an adult. It’s also nice to have a super physical experience when your day to day work involves being in your head a lot.
And finally, it’s nice to have your house spend about four weeks constantly smelling like cake.
That’s all I’ve got!