Erin Petersen

How to make your best friend’s wedding cake (and not screw it up)

By - Aug 21st, 2010 04:00 am
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Tomorrow, my best friend is getting married. I’m normally not much for weddings, but in her case I’m as giddy as a bridesmaid in a romantic comedy. From the start, this was to be a very non-traditional ceremony — no ridiculous outfits, no “Who gives this woman” stuff, no overly expensive pageantry in general.

While making preparations, she mentioned that she had no idea what to do about a cake. Wedding cakes are, as a rule, crazy expensive and usually not very tasty, what with all that fondant. The ceremony would be small — less than 15 people, and they just wanted something tactile to share with the rest of us on their special day.

I said I would do it. I really wanted to do it.

It is suspected that the wedding cake evolved from a Roman tradition upon which a groom would break a loaf of bread over his bride’s head and then eat it, symbolizing her soon-to-be broken virginal status and his manly dominance over it (shudder).

The cake has always been a symbol of fertility, and its traditional white icing a very Victorian representation of purity (and later, the whiter the icing = the more money you had for refined ingredients). In Medieval England, guests would pile sweet pastries at the feet of a newlywed couple to ensure that they would bear many children. In the 17th century, brides would pass small crumbs of the cake through their wedding rings and then hand them out to the unmarried women in attendance. The women would then sleep with the cake under their pillows at night, in the superstitious belief that it would reveal their future husbands.

Spice Cake, photo courtesy allrecipes.com

Most cakes are still white, and most tower high as a symbol of affluence. This cake would be neither of those things, and while I want it to be delicious, I would rather it not get my friend pregnant. It would be an offering that I made to my best friend as she entered this next part of her life, and something that they could enjoy together.

Of all the cake folklore I read about, my favorite was the meaning behind the cutting of the cake, in that it was the first act that a married couple would perform together: the act of breaking bread.

I started researching recipes, random DIY wedding sites and foodie magazines for inspiration. I thought about summery flavors and textures, exotic ingredients and of course, aesthetics. Sure, the cake could taste amazing, but if it looks like hell who wants to eat it? Also, there are pictures to consider.

Most wedding advice is crap. For all of the  do-it-yourself sites I found, they all seemed to be focused on mirroring the sort of ultra feminine “I’ve been dreaming about this day since I was a little girl” sort of weddings, only cheaper. There was no character and no useful information to be found. (Maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough?)

I had no intention of creating a three-tiered cake with light effects, not only because it just not my BFF’s style, I also couldn’t imagine how a  triple-decker dessert might stand up on a sailboat in the middle of Lake Michigan.

Did I mention that the wedding is on a boat?

Who doesn’t want a heart-shaped cake?

I love to cook, however “exact measurements” are not my forte. All of my pseudo-culinary training was passed from my maternal grandmother, an elegant woman and the daughter of Danish immigrants, who could make a feast out of the crumbs you find in the silverware drawer. Her methods were very organic — there were no cups of this or tablespoons of that, but measurements “to taste.” Even with baking, whose chemistry is so precise, her devil-may-care approach always turned up something magnificent.

For me, it’s a bit more trial and error. Too much butter made one cake dense and flat, too little baking powder took the fluff out of my fluffy buttermilk creation, and when a recipe calls for berries reduced in sherry, reduce the berries in sherry, not cheap vodka. But this is a labor of love, and I have been falling in love with my kitchen again.

First, I tried a Caribbean Spice Cake, a Grenadian recipe with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and lime zest. The result was hearty and extremely tasty. It just wasn’t wedding material though — my taste-testers and I started calling it “breakfast cake” because it would be dynamite with a little butter and a hot cup of coffee.

Next, I tried out another Caribbean-inspired recipe that I found on Epicurious.com. It was a Coconut Rum Cake, and  it. was. so. good. If you can forget what’s in it … seven large eggs, two sticks of butter and sweetened coconut milk (daaamn!). And then there’s icing : rum, cream cheese, confectioner’s sugar, heavy cream and more coconut milk. (Thank goodness I live next to a bar, since I was fresh out of rum. Lynn at the Polish Falcon was happy to send me on my way with a few shots of Meyer’s — one for the cake, and one for me!)

It was rich, but not overpowering and the coconut milk gave it a real depth of flavor. I topped it with tart blackberries to balance the sweetness. The cake was gone within an hour.

I wanted to try out another buttermilk recipe that caught my eye — this one was filled with mascarpone and topped with fresh fruit. It was fairly simple, and the ingredients were not as decadent as the rum cake (well, not quite: the filling calls for 8 oz. of mascarpone cheese, sugar and a cup of heavy whipping cream). The tricky part would be sawing the cake in half to put in the delicious filling. I made the mistake of baking in a ridiculous heart-shaped pan (I thought it would be cute), so it didn’t settle evenly and came out with a big hump in the middle.

I hope my cake looks as good as this one does.

In my excitement to put it together, I didn’t let the cake cool enough, so my cut was sloppy and asymmetrical and the top started to fall apart. Undeterred, I assembled the cake, covered it and put it in the fridge in hopes that it might stiffen up and hide the mess I made.

It looked like hell, but it was perfect. The cake was light and flavorful, but not too heavy and the mascarpone was velvety and sweet, and a little bit savory. This time around I topped it with blueberries, but I think juicier fruits would be a better compliment.

It got the green light and I promised to slow down and make the actual wedding day cake as beautiful as the one in the picture. As you read this,  I am most likely in my small, non-air conditioned kitchen delicately measuring everything, utilizing the cooling rack the way it’s supposed to be used and happily taking my time.

Next step: Don’t drop the cake, don’t drop the cake, don’t drop the cake…

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