Taking the cake
The 2017 bridal season features a lineup of cakes in varying shapes, sizes and flavors. There are fondants deftly painted with watercolors, round layers decorated with hand-crafted sugar flowers, fluffy cakes with cream icing and tiers adorned with natural foliage. Some are even served "naked" with no frosting but with embellishments. And there's a keener focus on taste.
"Cakes can absolutely look great and taste great at the same time," says Melissa Samuels, chef/owner at Melissa's Fine Pastries. The custom cakes, frostings and fillings are made from scratch at the Mid-City bakery and are never frozen.
Wedding cakes not only are a sweet treat, but a trend is to commission a cake that replicates the overall aesthetic of the wedding and the personality of the couple. It is key to enlist a cake maker who has the skill and know-how to work within your budget and shows an interest in details about you and your partner's taste beyond what flavor of filling is preferred.
A skilled baker can mix mediums to make a cake symbolic of the day, and more than ever, brides are looking for aesthetics that match their ceremony. Even a bride planning a traditional wedding can find innovative ways to make a tiered white-on-white cake special.
Nikki Lefort launched Nikki's Frosted Fantasies five years ago after spending more than 14 years in the baking industry. She says a popular trend at her shop is cakes patterned after a bride's wedding gown.
"I do a lot of lace piping," Lefort says. "The bride sends me a snapshot of the lace detail, and then I mimic that."
At Chasing Wang, cake designer and owner Kieu Tran says her customers are looking for nontraditional cake styles.
"I specialize in sugar flowers (or gum paste flowers)," Tran says. "Each piece is made and molded by hand. There is more intricacy to it, so one of my statement flowers can cost between $20 and $25, but they make an excellent keepsake." Sugar flowers last for a long time.
Most of Tran's designs include fondant — an edible composition of confectioners' sugar, corn syrup and water that is formed into a clay-like substance excellent for molding and decorating. Fondant is easier to transport and tends to hold up better than buttercream frosting. Today, many shops ice cakes with buttercream, then top that with fondant. The key, Tran says, is making sure the decorated cake is fresh so it will be moist and delicious on the day of the reception — and will be pretty in pictures.
"Some of our cakes are partially foam and can be made farther in advance," she says. "With this method, [the couple] can do a bigger or more ornate wedding cake but have sheet cakes in the kitchen that are iced in buttercream" to serve guests.
The idea is to provide a statement cake that begs to be photographed — and eaten, too. This means if your favorite cake aesthetic has four tiers but you have 500 guests, bakers can supply what Lefort calls "kitchen cakes," or cakes that are sliced and plated to be distributed to guests. Because wedding cakes often are portioned in the back, away from guests, wedding attendees won't know they aren't getting a piece of the display cake.
"For brides working on a budget, kitchen cakes are great because if you want to add 50 servings but another tier would add 75, it makes more sense financially to skip the extra tier because the cost per slice is less," Lefort says.
Fresh flowers are making their way onto cakes and provide a great way to add a burst of color. They're also easy on the budget. Lefort says some brides order flowers from their florist to decorate their cake so the confection matches other components of the wedding. She also is versed in the perks of using fresh flowers and how they compare to handmade sugar flowers.
Chasing Wang recently made a cake featuring hand-painted florals with sugar flowers on the cake and fresh flowers on the display area. Watercolor for cakes is applied by mixing gel icing colors with vodka. The vodka evaporates and leaves the color behind without a wet residue.
A recent design by Melissa's Fine Pastries features a fondant-wrapped cake painted with pink watercolor and gold leaf with a gold gum paste ranunculus flower on top.
In a different vein, Nikki's Frosted Fantasies created a "naked" cake consisting of layers of unfrosted cake with a fruit filling separating the layers.
At a recent tasting at Frosted Fantasies, Lefort supplied a sampling with five rounds of cake flavors and 12 dollops of buttercream frosting or ganache flavors to mix and match.
"Most brides will pick a different flavor for each tier," Lefort says. "They like almond with white chocolate buttercream and strawberries, but couples seem to be happy to diversify with a lemon cake with raspberry icing. I also do a cookie dough filling without raw eggs and blend that with buttercream in vanilla or dark chocolate cake that is very popular."
Since leaving her post as executive pastry chef at Windsor Court Hotel before her own wedding in 2008, Samuels has built a successful bakery in Melissa's Fine Pastries.
"An expression of the client and extension of the event, to us, makes the perfect cake," she says. Her team finds an inspiration board with images of items from the wedding and the ideas they evoke is helpful. "It allows us a glimpse into their wedding style, a place to draw from for the cake design," Samuels says. "A color scheme, monogram, floral arrangement or invitation style can really help inspire the cake design."
The menu at Melissa's includes an olive oil carrot cake layered with cream cheese filling, devil's food cake layered with dark chocolate mousse, and chocolate chiffon cake soaked in Kahlua, with caramel and hazelnut jam and dark chocolate mousse.
Chasing Wang even offers vanilla chiffon for those who do not like the texture of cake. Tran says it helps the design process when a bridal couple can tell the baker something they like as well as something they don't like. "With my company, 98 percent of our clients prefer the buttercream (frosting) cakes, but they love the look of the prettier fondant cakes," she says. The combination of a couples' likes and dislikes helps her to find a balance.
An ideal wedding cake is more than a gorgeous centerpiece representing the aesthetic of the celebration and its honorees. If done correctly, the cake might become famous on Instagram and supply just the fuel guests need to keep them on the dance floor until the end of the reception.