November 1, 2013

A Wedding Cake For Friends

Photo credit: About The Day.

Last year, Mr. Buttercream and I were delighted to hear that a great friend from college was getting married to his awesome girlfriend. The couple initially asked me to help them with a dessert table for their wedding reception, but then decided they really wanted a tiered wedding cake.

I was nervous! Even though I've made many, many cakes in my day, I've never tried putting one cake on top of another (or made one this big). To prepare, I spent many weekends this summer planning, researching, and practicing. Ultimately, I learned a lot, the cake turned out well, and (most importantly) my friends loved their cake!

Photo credit: About The Day.

My first step on the long road to wedding cake completion was to work with my friends to decide on cake flavors and a design. My friends were expecting 100-120 guests, so I decided to do 3 round tiers with diameters of 14", 10", and 6". They decided on two flavors - chocolate for the bottom tier, and matcha with strawberries for the top two. Their wedding colors were white, yellow, and brown. I sketched up a couple ideas, but we ultimately landed on white buttercream (they quickly nixed fondant - thank goodness), chocolate brown ribbon, yellow gumpaste lilies, and a piped buttercream detail at the bottom of each tier.

One of my early design sketches - not the design they went with.

Finding the right ribbon color was probably the most difficult and stressful part of the design. This didn't seem like it should be hard - there are tons of chocolate brown ribbons to choose from at craft stores and online. The reason this was tricky was because there would be buttercream on both sides of the ribbon...which meant that it would absorb oil...which meant the color would darken a shade or two (I actually pre-soaked the ribbons in oil so that the color was even and not spotty). Chocolate brown ribbon that has been darkened a shade or two looks black, which was not not one of the couple's colors.

And so began my great ribbon quest of 2013. I traveled from craft store to craft store, armed with swatches of ribbon that were too dark, too light, or the wrong size so that I could compare them with ribbon at the store. Once, I found the Perfect Color, only to be dismayed that the 1.5" width looked funny on the 4" tall cake. Friends and family looked on, concerned, as I delved deeper and deeper into ribbon madness. Just when Mr. Buttercream was becoming genuinely worried for my sanity, I found a ribbon that I was happy (ish) with. Before being soaked with oil, it was a kind of copper color. Afterwards, it was as close to a chocolate brown as could be hoped for. As a result of my neurotic ribbon shopping spree, I now have approximately a lifetime's worth of brown ribbon. From now until forever, all gifts from me will be adorned with a big brown bow.

Warning: taking pictures of various ribbons on cakes and making friends and family choose "the least terrible ribbon" is a classic sign of ribbon madness.

A word of warning to anyone thinking of making a wedding cake for the first time: just making the cake is a solid week of hard work (also, if you don't already have the equipment, it's very expensive). I drew up a plan for the week before the wedding and stuck it on my refrigerator, determined to methodically cross off each task on time.

Almost immediately, I was woefully behind. In a previous post, I talked about the gumpaste lilies I made for the cake. The lilies were very time-consuming, so I initially had them done pretty early - about 3 weeks before the wedding. Unfortunately, I discovered the hard way that gumpaste and humidity do not mix. I had placed the lilies somewhat close to an open window. One humid (well, humid for Seattle) day, only a week before the wedding, they melted. After panic-crying for a while, I drew up a new plan and reconciled myself with just how little sleep I would be getting that week.

I think the reason these cakes take so much time for a home-baker is pure scale. All of my baking equipment - my Kitchenaid, my oven, even my bowls - are just not designed to make a 14" cake. This meant that each cake layer needed to be made separately. Additionally, the quantity of buttercream needed to fill and frost a cake of this size is staggering. I used an Italian Meringue Buttercream recipe that was designed to make maximal use of a standard stand mixer, and it still took 5 batches. My Kitchenaid is still mad at me for the hours of mixing I put it through.

Luckily, cake layers freeze surprisingly well (when wrapped in lots of plastic wrap) and buttercream can be kept in the refrigerator for several days, so I was able to spread out the work over the week. I still ended up taking part of Thursday and all of Friday off from work, but that was expected.

Stacking the cakes...this was the part I was most nervous about. Most books and websites that talked about stacking cakes suggested using dowels to provide support (you can't just flop one cake on top of another without some support because they are heavy and the bottom tiers will collapse). The idea of using dowels made me very nervous - it just seemed too easy to have dowels with slightly different heights, causing the cake to not be level. After some research, I decided to use the single plate system (SPS). With SPS, you basically buy a lightweight plastic "table" with four legs. The "table" legs get pressed into the lower cake tier, and the upper tier gets put on the table top. This seemed pretty foolproof and very stable, and the parts were not too expensive to buy (they're available in several places online, but I got mine from Global Sugar Art).

This actually worked very well. The night before the wedding, I carefully pressed the tables into the cake tiers. I transported the tiers unassembled to the venue, and then stacked them onsite. The trickiest part was to make sure the cake tiers were exactly 4" tall so that the tables would be flush with the top of the cake.

Transporting the cakes was a very stressful experience. To anyone planning on making their first wedding cake: I suggest getting a helper (or "cake minion") for the day. Unfortunately, Mr. Buttercream was not available because he had Best Man duties to attend to, so Justine was my cake minion for the day (thanks, Justine - sorry for bossing you around all day!). My cake minion helped me gather materials, prepare the "cake-mobile" (which basically consisted of sitting in a borrowed van while the air conditioning ran until it was as cold as a refrigerator), making sure I ate something so that I didn't collapse, and calming me down when I started stressing out.

My refrigerator is full of cakes. Photo credit: Justine.

Once at the venue, I stacked the tiers, piped the buttercream detail, and arranged the lilies on the cake. Then, I sat back and enjoyed my friends' beautiful wedding. The time came for the bride and groom to cut the cake. Together, they made the first slice and fed each other a piece. She plopped a bit of frosting on his nose and then lovingly wiped it off. It was wonderful, and I was so happy to be able to give them this gift.

It took two men to carry the fully assembled cake (wedding cakes are heavy) so that it could be cut. I definitely think this was one of the better-tasting wedding cakes I've ever eaten (it was much, much better than the cake served at Mr. Buttercream's and my wedding). The other guests seemed to agree, as did the bride and groom (yay!). I had used a moistening syrup in between each layer to keep the cake moist. Next time, I'll make sure to use more - because wedding cakes usually spend a night in the refrigerator, I think they tend to become a bit dry. Although this cake was good-tasting, I feel like a bit more moisture could have made it great.

I'm so happy that my friends liked their cake. Even though it was very stressful and time-consuming, I really enjoyed making it for them. I can't wait to do this again.

The first slice! Photo credit: About The Day.

Here are links to books, recipes, and equipment that I found useful:
  • Wedding Cakes You Can Make by Dede Wilson. I was recommended this book by a friend's mom, who also let me borrow her copy. It was incredibly useful and I also really liked the author's attitude towards wedding cakes. She maintained that the cake is supposed to look beautiful and appetizing, not necessarily "perfect". I also found her assertion that all cakes go through an "ugly phase" while frosting very reassuring. This is also where I got the Italian Meringue Buttercream recipe I used, which was very stable. This book is now at the top of my Christmas list.
  • Global Sugar Art. A really good online shop for specialty cake supplies.
  • Fat Daddio cake pans. Not super expensive and really good.
  • Cake strips. These are really necessary for the big cake sizes - they make the cake bake up a bit more evenly so you don't get a huge dome in the middle of the cake (which you'll then have to cut off to make it level).
  • Kitchen scale. When you scale up a recipe for a 14" cake, you don't want to be dealing with cups. Weights are much easier to deal with (and more accurate).
  • Rotating cake stand. This makes it much, much easier to evenly frost your cakes.
  • SPS pillars and plates. If you plan on using SPS.
  • Sweetopolita's One Bowl Chocolate Cake. I used this recipe for the bottom tier. It's my favorite chocolate cake recipe and impossible to mess up.
  • Green Tea Layer Cake. I used this recipe for the middle and top tiers. Delicious.
  • About The Day Photography. I was so stressed out the day of the wedding, I forgot my camera. Luckily, the wedding photographers let me use their photos in this post. Thank you Stephen and Sonia for the wonderful pictures!


  1. So glad you got to post this. The cake looks beautiful, really wonderful. I am so glad we got to see the professional photos, they did a great job as well.
    Your advice sounds really solid, well written.
    Beautiful work!

  2. So happy you got to post this. The cake looks delightful, truly eminent. I am so happy we got to see the expert photographs, they made an incredible showing also. if it will give online purchasing facility then definately i will to buy cake online.

  3. Thank you for this post. I have been considering attempting tiered cakes and really had no idea where to even begin... this post is so helpful and the cake you made looks absolutely amazing!

  4. Good information, It is so nice to be able to see a simple straight forward explanation on building a wedding cake.

  5. Beautiful cake! I am making my sister's wedding cake in May and your cake is very close to what I want to make!

    1. Good luck with your cake! Feel free to comment or contact me if you have questions about this cake.

  6. wow....I really like this post. I'm totally speechless! What a gorgeous cake and I can't imagine it to be anything less that absolutely scrumptious!Thanks for sharing.
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  7. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.
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