NPR logo DIY Wedding Cake: Secret Ingredient Is Love

DIY Wedding Cake: Secret Ingredient Is Love

A three-tier round, white-frosted wedding cake with turquoise ribbon and red and pink flowers i
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
A three-tier round, white-frosted wedding cake with turquoise ribbon and red and pink flowers
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

On a cool morning in late June, the Maine skies threatening rain, I held my breath and carefully stacked heavy cake layers one on top of the other (they held). I smoothed out butter cream frosting and placed bright flowers here and there. I crossed my fingers, gave the cakes one final look, and set off along the green coast for a wedding.

Then for much of June 26, I held my breath, and not only because the U.S. was slated to play Ghana in the second round of the World Cup tournament. My younger brother was getting married that afternoon. And I had baked his wedding cake.

Cake-Baking Tips

Do your research. There are many wedding cake-baking books out there, and they will make the initial approach much less daunting. Do some small-scale practice attempts beforehand.

Keep it simple. Use a tried-and-true cake recipe that doesn't call for a lot of complicated ingredients. For example, I read a lot about using Swiss butter cream, but while trying it out found it difficult to spread and not particularly to my taste. I went with a very unfussy vanilla butter cream — and it received rave reviews.

Assemble everything before you start. Figure out what ingredients you need, and in what quantities, and have them ready to go.

Accept help. I was lucky to have the brief counsel of the bride's pastry chef friend who mediated my anxiety and promised that even if I couldn't see it in the moment, the cakes would all come together beautifully. This was an enormous help in terms of self-confidence. She also sliced the layers for me while I was making a large batch of ganache, saving me time (and stress).

Schedule enough time. It will take more time than you think. Trust me on this one. If you are able to, you may bake the cake a month in advance and freeze it.

Believe what you read. The moistening syrup, brushed on the cake layers before assembling, really does the trick. And those tiny dowels are essential to distribute the cake weight evenly so your creation doesn't collapse when you're stacking it up.

Believe in yourself. You can do it. It may seem overwhelming, but when the bride and groom gently feed each other bites of the homemade-with-love cake you created for them, it is absolutely worth it.

I'd always sort of wanted to bake a wedding cake. In addition to the challenge — and I am loath to avoid a baking challenge — doing it yourself can save hundreds of dollars and is a wonderful gift to give newlyweds. So when he and his fiancee asked me if I might like to bake their cake, I immediately said I do.

For months, my mind spun with possibilities. I spent hours debating the merits of butter cream over fondant. I thought about making strawberry jam in California and lugging it with me to New England (this was quickly abandoned in the interest of using blueberries in a nod to the locale, not to mention keeping the carbon footprint to a minimum). I agonized over whether the dowels would really work, and if not, would my cakes collapse into a sticky mess of crumbs and tears? And would it taste OK, never mind what it looked like?

Baking a wedding cake is mostly about planning. For the amateur baker — i.e., not a pastry chef — it also requires a book (in my case Dede Wilson's Wedding Cakes you Can Make, Wiley 2005) and a lot of ingredients, equipment not typically found in the home kitchen, cardboard, and too much butter to fully articulate. It also requires a lot of time and a leap of faith.

So I leapt, though not without a safety net. I recipe-tested for months, grilling my co-workers about the consistency of various types of butter cream and crumb tenderness (somehow they didn't seem to mind these assignments). I Googled. I pored over beautiful cake photos in wedding magazines. I reminded myself that I had baked for years, and even if I'd never baked a 12-inch round cake, certainly all my past experience would serve me well.

My brother, Kurt, and sister-in-law, Emily, love food. Oh, they're not really fussy about it, but they appreciate a good meal and are stellar cooks and gardeners (my brother is the one who steered me not-so-gently toward cooking in season from the farmers markets lo these many years ago). When I visit their house perched across the street from the Kennebec River, with a comfortable kitchen that affords a nightly view of the fiery New England sunset, I am treated not only to the pleasure of their company but also to the joy of their table.

I took my responsibilities very seriously. Baking a wedding cake for two people I adore and whose palates I admire is no small feat. I wanted their cake not just to taste good, but also to be special and something to be remembered long after the plates were cleared away — much like the two of them.

Mostly I wanted it to taste of love.

So after all those months of thinking, I finally tucked myself away in a kitchen in a little town in Maine and got to it. I baked for a solid seven-and-a-half hours. I frosted and assembled for about five more. I endured a nail bitingly slow five-minute car trip with the precious cargo in the back (it was fine). And I enjoyed nearly every minute of it.

I'd decided to make two cakes to serve the 120 or so guests expected. One was a yellow cake (Alice Waters' deliciously reliable 1-2-3-4 cake), its layers alternating with homemade blueberry jam from Maine, wild blueberries and lemon curd. The other — mostly because the groom had requested it — was a chocolate cake (also from an Alice Waters recipe) filled with chocolate ganache. Both cakes were frosted with a simple vanilla butter cream frosting.

About The Author

Nicole Spiridakis lives in San Francisco and writes about food, travel and her native state on her blog, cucinanicolina.com. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle chow.com and other publications.

If you're doing a tiered wedding cake, you basically look at each tier as its own cake. First you work out the sizing and how many servings you'll need. Then you figure out just how many batches of your preferred cake recipe are necessary. In my case, I needed to bake five batches of each flavor of cake.

I realized after the fact that I probably made too much cake — and indeed there were plentiful leftovers. But I was nervous about having too little; a lesson learned for the future.

I started with the baking part. I chose recipes that I knew were sturdy and would stand up to a bit of hauling around. The yellow cake I baked in 6-inch, 9-inch and 12-inch rounds, each two layers then further split, so each slice would have four layers of cake sandwiching the filling. The chocolate I baked in 8-inch, 10-inch and 12-inch squares just to change it up a little. (Round layers are easier and prettier to frost). I spent the first full day baking and making the lemon curd and jam, and froze the layers for easier cutting once it came time to frost them.

A few days later, I filled and frosted. This took a bit longer than I envisioned — a full three hours longer — and it was a hot day. Picture frantically making more batches of butter cream with rapidly softening butter and cursing your own existence. ("If I never see a bowl of butter cream again it will be too soon.") The final decorating took place in a mad rush early the morning of the wedding.

After the ceremony, which took place in a lush green field near the coast, I walked into the room where the reception was being held and finally let out that long-held breath. The bride and groom were glowing. The white sangria was cold and delicious. And the cakes looked great — not perfect, of course, but they were real and definitely were baked with a lot of love. They tasted very, very good, too.

In hindsight, I realize I wasn't completely cognizant of what I was getting myself into when I started out — eight hours of baking? How many batches of butter cream? Yet that night, as I looked around at the wedding guests cutting themselves enormous slices of chocolate cake and raving about the lemon curd, I felt a sense of joy no baked good I'd previously produced had elicited. I hoped I'd done my brother and sister-in-law proud. And then I went back for seconds.

1-2-3-4 Cake

I made two double batches of this cake, and one additional batch. It seems fine to make up double batches of batter, but I’d hesitate to do it in thirds. The recipe called for cake flour but I used all-purpose flour and it was just fine. The recipe is adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters (Clarkson Potter 2007).

1-2-3-4 Cake with blueberry filling i
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
1-2-3-4 Cake with blueberry filling
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Makes 1 nine-inch, two-layer cake

4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 cups cake flour or all-purpose flour (sift and then measure)

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

2 cups sugar

4 large eggs, separated

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup whole milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter two 9-inch baking pans and line the bottom of each with parchment paper. Butter the paper and dust the pans with flour, tapping out the excess.

Stir baking powder and salt into cake flour.

In another bowl, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time. Add the vanilla to the mixture.

Add the flour mixture and milk alternately, starting and ending with one third of the flour. Stir just until the flour is incorporated.

In another bowl, whisk egg whites to soft peaks. Stir one-third of the egg whites into the batter, then gently fold in the rest. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 to 40 minutes.

The recipe can be divided among 3 cake pans for a 3-layer cake. It also makes 24 to 30 cupcakes or it can be baked in a 12-by-18-inch sheet cake pan. Bake cupcakes or sheet cake for about 20 minutes.

Chocolate Cake

I also made 5 batches of this cake, which is my favorite chocolate cake recipe. I think the secret is the brown sugar — it gives it that little extra something. The recipe is adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters (Clarkson Potter 2007).

Chocolate Cake i
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Chocolate Cake
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Makes 12 generous servings

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped

2 cups cake or all-purpose fflour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons cocoa powder

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, softened

2 1/2 cups dark brown sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 large eggs, room temperature

1/2 cup buttermilk

1 1/4 cups boiling water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Butter a 9-inch cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Butter the parchment and dust the pan with a little cocoa powder. Shake out the excess.

Melt the chocolate. Set aside.

Sift the dry ingredients together.

In a large bowl, cream butter in mixer. Add the brown sugar and vanilla, and mix until fluffy.

Add the eggs one at a time and mix well to incorporate.

Stir in melted chocolate. Add half the dry ingredients and combine. Add the buttermilk and the rest of the dry ingredients and combine. Add the boiling water on low speed until just incorporated.

Pour batter into pan and bake for 30-35 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Lemon Curd

For the yellow cake, I made three batches of lemon curd, and ended up with a bit leftover. It's perfect for spreading on toast, muffins, fruit, etc.

Makes 1 1/2 cups

3 large eggs

3/4 cup granulated white sugar

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (2-3 lemons)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon finely shredded lemon zest

In a stainless steel bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water, whisk together the eggs, sugar and lemon juice until blended.

Cook, stirring constantly to prevent from curdling, until the mixture becomes thick (like sour cream or hollandaise sauce), about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and immediately pour through a fine strainer to remove any lumps.

Cut the butter into small pieces and whisk into the mixture until the butter has melted. Add the lemon zest and let cool.

The lemon curd will continue to thicken as it cools. Cover immediately (so a skin doesn't form) and refrigerate for up to a week.

Vanilla Butter Cream

For frosting the cake, the butter cream should be pretty stiff — not too goopy or, as I learned, it will be more difficult to smooth out. I made a lot of batches of this. I lost count after five. If you can, use good-quality butter and vanilla to give this extra-delicious flavor.

Makes about 4 cups

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter

6 cups confectioners’ sugar

2 tablespoons whole milk, plus more, if needed

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Have all the ingredients at room temperature.

In a large bowl, combine the butter, confectioners’ sugar, milk and vanilla and beat on low speed until combined, about 1 minute. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Increase the speed to medium and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes.

If the frosting is dry, add more milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, until it is creamy but still holds peaks.

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