Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Wedding Cake Chronicles: The Finale

Photo by Kyle Hepp

I did it! I made a wedding cake. Even better, I made a wedding cake for one of the most amazing weddings I've ever been to. Emma and Bobby's farm love fest was pure magic. Friends and family came from all over the world to share in the celebration. Everyone was beaming with happiness all day long, including me! Not even the stress of assembling a 3-tiered cake in 90% humidity could keep the smile off my face. 

So my timeline worked out like this:

Wednesday: Baked all cakes and made the lemon syrup (4 hours)

Thursday: Made lemon cream filling (1 hour)
Friday: Made berry filling, espresso syrup, mascarpone filling, first double batch of buttercream, filled and frosted the 6" and 12" tiramisu cakes. (6 hours)
Saturday: Made two more double batches of buttercream, filled and frosted 9" round and 9x13" lemon berry cakes, picked flowers for decorating, assembled/stacked the cakes, decorated, prayed. (5 hours+)

My suggestion is, do as much as possible beforehand. Especially if you plan on attending the wedding. And make sure to give yourself a few buffer hours incase you find yourself with thinner-than-expected-lemon-cream-filling-that-results-in-an-entire-4-layered-cake-strewn-all-over-the-refrigerator... Hot humid weather is a bitch.

Alas, I was able to pick up all the pieces (or layers in this case), clean them up and start fresh. Once the cakes were frosted and chilling safely in the refrigerator, I took a nice calming walk around the breathtaking Millstone Farm to collect flowers. I gathered sunflowers, dill flower, borage, chrysanthemums, calendula, clover flowers, magenta lambs quarters, and lots more. It was just me and the bees.

Photo by Kyle Hepp


The base of the entire cake was chiffon. I chose chiffon cake because it's light, not too sweet, and it doesn't dry out like most wedding butter cakes. You can find my favorite chiffon recipe on my last 'Love Party' post.

I used Italian Buttercream because out of all the varieties I tested, it had the best texture, best taste, was the nicest to work with, chilled and stayed hardened the best, looked beautiful, and just worked the best for me. Yes I'm aware I wrote "best" four times in the last sentence. That should tell you how strongly I feel about this particular buttercream. It's the standard recipe, which makes 6 cups. America's Test Kitchen says to make it 3 times in order to have enough to fill and decorate a 3-tiered wedding cake. I made it 6 times.. Well actually 3 double batches. True I had an extra 9" x 13" sheet cake to frost. Also true that I used up quite a bit extra during my cake slip crisis. In the end, I had about 1 1/2 quarts of buttercream left over which is much better than being 1 1/2 quarts short. Make more than you think you'll need or at least have the ingredients on hand.

3/4 c egg whites, room temp

1 c sugar
1/4 c water
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp salt
2 c butter, cut into chunks and softened
Pinch of cream of tartar

1. Whip the egg whites with an electric mixer on medium speed until frothy, about 1 minute. Cook the sugar and water together in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring often, until the sugar has dissolved and the syrup registers 238 degrees on a candy thermometer, about 5 minutes.

2. Without letting the hot sugar mixture cool off, turn the mixer on low and slowly pour the sugar syrup into the egg whites without hitting the side of the bowl or the beaters. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and whip the mixture until it is light and fluffy and the bowl is no longer warm, 5 to 10 minutes.

3. Reduce the mixer speed to medium-low and add the vanilla and salt. Gradually add the butter, one piece at a time, until completely incorporated, about 2 minutes. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and whip until smooth and silky, about 2 minutes. (If the mixture looks curdled, wrap a hot, wet towel around the bowl and continue to whip until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes.)

4. Use the buttercream immediately or transfer it to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 1 month. If frozen, let the buttercream thaw in the refrigerator overnight. Before using the refrigerated buttercream, scrape it into a large bowl and set it over a saucepan of barely simmering water, making sure the water does not touch the bottom of the bowl. Heat the buttercream, breaking up the clumps with a whisk, until it is half melted with small curds (like wet cottage cheese), 5 to 10 minutes, then whip together with an electric mixer on low speed until smooth and stiff, 2 to 5 minutes.

Photo by Kyle Hepp
Espresso Syrup:
makes about 4 1/2 cups

1 1/2 c espresso

1 1/2 c water
1 1/2 c sugar
1/4 c dark rum (or to taste)

In a nonreactive saucepan, combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil over medium heat. Transfer to a cool bowl, let cool for a bit, then chill for half an hour. Stir in espresso and rum.

Mascarpone Filling (adapted from Smitten Kitchen):
makes 6 cups 

I made 4 batches of this recipe which was way more than I needed to fill the 6" and 12" cakes. Two would probably have been plenty..

2 8 oz containers of mascarpone

1 c confectioners sugar (10x)
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
2 Tbsp dark rum
2 c cold heavy cream

5 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped/shaved

Put the mascarpone, sugar, vanilla, and rum in a large bowl and whisk until blended and smooth. Working with the stand mixer with the whisk attachment or a hand mixer, whip the heavy cream until it holds firm peaks. Switch to a rubber spatula and stir about one quarter of the whipped cream into the mascarpone. Fold in the rest of the whipped cream with a light touch.

Photo by Kyle Hepp

Lemon Syrup:
makes 3 cups 

1 c water
1 c sugar
1 c lemon juice
1 Tbsp ground cardamom plus pods

In a nonreactive saucepan, combine the sugar, water, and cardamom and bring to a boil over medium heat. Strain and transfer to a cool bowl, let cool for a bit, then chill for half an hour. Stir in the lemon juice.

Lemon Cream (adapted from Tartine):
makes about 4 cups 

1 1/4 c lemon juice
6 large eggs
2 egg yolk
1 1/2 c sugar
1 tsp sea salt
1 c unsalted butter

In a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, combine the lemon juice, eggs, yolk, sugar, and sea salt (make sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water). Whisk them together constantly until very thick, or 180°F on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from the heat and let it cool down until warm to touch, or 140°F on a thermometer. Place the lemon cream in a blender and with the motor running, add the butter in small pieces. Allow to cool completely.

I must admit, this lemon cream gave me some trouble. On the hot summer morning, it seemed to almost liquify causing some heart wrenching cake slippage. I ended up switching the filling ratio for the lemon berry cake and doing two layers of berry with only one thin layer of lemon cream. 

Photo by Kyle Hepp

Berry Filling:
makes about 2 1/2 quarts 

5 c fresh raspberries
6 c fresh blueberries
2 c cane sugar
Zest from 2 lemons
1 tsp salt
5 Tbsp arrowroot

Bring berries, sugar, lemon zest, salt, and arrowroot mixture to boil, stirring occasionally, in medium saucepan over medium heat. Continue boiling, stirring constantly, until mixture is thick and shiny, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Scrape mixture into small bowl, cover, and chill thoroughly before using. (Can be refrigerated in an airtight container up to 3 days.)

Photo by Kyle Hepp



I recommend starting with the base tier so that it has the longest amount of time to cool. Save the back-up sheet cakes for last since they don't get displayed at the reception. If the tops of the cakes have crowned, use a long serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion to even them up. Split the two largest chiffon cakes horizontally into four equal layers. Place one layer on a cake board and moisten evenly with syrup (in my case, the 12" base tier was tiramisu so I used the espresso syrup. a lot of it.). Spread a thick layer of mascarpone over the cake, then scatter with chocolate shavings. Repeat with 2 more layers. Top with the fourth cake layer and moisten with the remaining espresso syrup. Place cake in the refrigerator to chill while you repeat this process for other tiers of the same flavor (in my case, the 6"). 

Repeat this process for any other cake flavors you're making. For the lemon berry cakes I made, I moistened each layer evenly with the lemon syrup and filled with alternating berry, then lemon cream, then berry. To solve the cake slippage fiasco, not only did I switch up the berry to lemon filling ratios, but I also piped a border of buttercream to seal in the filling. Saved my bum. Chill immediately (even in between filling each layer if necessary.)

With your offset spatula, smooth the buttercream around the sides of each cake and over the top. It's going to take practice to achieve the type of texture you want. Click here to watch a helpful youtube video on frosting technique. Just note that she's using buttercream to fill and frost the cake, while I use specially made fillings to fill and buttercream only to frost. Once you're happy with the look, refrigerate the cakes for ideally 3 hours (or up to 1 day) before stacking. 

In my case, I finished frosting at 3pm the day of the wedding, at which point my friend came to pry me from the farm kitchen and drive me back to hotel to get ready. I had less than one hour...


Instead of writing out these step by step instructions I'm just going to direct you to this helpful video on tiered cake assembly. Do not try to stack a tiered cake without dowels. Disaster will strike. Thank God for youtube. 

Once your beautiful tiered creation is stacked, get out that pastry bag and pipe around the base of each tier to conceal gaps and visible cake boards. I chose to pipe simple small pearls. Then, kneeling in the farm's walk-in cooler while everyone else was at the reception, I took my time laying out the flowers. This was one of my favorite parts of the process. It was very meditative. 

Not to get all oscar acceptance speech on you, but I must give a humungous gigantic thank you to Steve, for insisting that I start everything sooner; Kate, for being my crisis control management; and Dolores, for making sure that I actually got myself to the wedding. Also, big thanks to the cake pros Ruben, Meryl, and Elizabeth for taking the time to answer my never ending list of questions. 

Yes, making your first wedding cake will be stressful. It might also be one of the most gratifying accomplishments ever. Especially if it's for a very special couple that you love dearly, as I do Emma and Bobby. I am truly looking forward to my next wedding cake. I'll just cross my fingers that it takes place in winter...

Photo by Kyle Hepp
Photo by Kyle Hepp
Photo by Kyle Hepp

Supplies List

Figuring out what supplies I needed was one of the most tedious parts of the job so I really wanted to .

  • Cake pans - I purchased (2) 6"x2", (2) 9"x2", (1) 12"x3", and (1) 9"x13"x3". I only got one each of the larger cake pans because they're more expensive and I figured I'd only want to bake off one at a time anyways. I got the smaller pans with 2" walls and the larger pans with 3" walls based on the recommendation of an experienced cake baker. It worked well for me. I think the larger cakes can benefit from more insulation, hence the taller pans.
  • Parchment paper
  • Plastic wrap
  • Scissors - to cut parchment and wooden dowels
  • Pastry brush - to brush cake layers with syrups
  • Stand mixer
  • Mixing bowls
  • Whisk - used for the mascarpone filling
  • Thermometer - used for the lemon cream and the buttercream
  • 4" spatula
  • 6" offset spatula
  • Pairing knife
  • Rotating cake stand - this will make your life so much easier when it comes to icing
  • Pastry bag + tips
  • Wooden dowels - you will need to cut them to size (
  • Cake boards - try to have a few on hand for each tier size. I couldn't find 9" boards so I cut them out of the 12" rounds
  • Heat proof rubber spatula 
  • Magi-strips - purchase or make yourself by cutting an old towel 5" longer than circumfrence of pan and 1/4" shorter than the height
  • T-pins - to hold strips in place
  • Cake base - check with the caterer for this, usually they'll have something you can put the cake on

I think that's it. Aside from this stuff you'll need lots of cooler space, whatever you're decorating with, and your ingredients. Good luck! 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Wedding Cake Chronicles: The Bake

Cakes are baked! It feels so good to have that first step done. I baked all eight cakes last night from 7-11pm. Luckily, I was able to use the Saltie kitchen after closing, which cut my baking time in half. If you're using your home oven, you might want to split the baking up over the course of 2-3 days. Don't overcrowd your oven. You need good airflow so the cakes bake evenly. 

My strategy was to first make a double batch of batter for one 12" round cake and one 9" x 13" sheet cake. Once I got those in the oven, I made a one in a half batch for the two 6" rounds and two 9" rounds. And then made a final double batch for one more 12" round and 9" x 13" sheet. With me?

Chiffon Cake (by Tartine)
Makes two 9" cakes (Or one 12" cake. Half the recipe for two 6" cakes.)

2 1/4 c all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 c sugar
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 c vegetable oil
6 egg yolks
3/4 c water 
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp lemon zest
10 egg whites, room temp
1/4 tsp cream of tartar


Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottom of cake pans with parchment paper rounds. Do not grease pans. Chiffon cakes actually need to cling to the pans while baking for support. Wrap soaked towel strips around the pans and secure with T pins. When a cake pan is wrapped with a wet strip, the baking process is equalized to control the heat, so that the cake bakes evenly. Helps with doming, cracked tops, and overdone edges. You can either purchase commercial agi-strips or make your own by cutting up an old towel 5" longer than the circumference of you pan and 1/4" shorter than the height. 

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, 1 1/4 cups of the sugar, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil, egg yolks, water, vanilla, and lemon zest. Make a well in the flour, add the yolk mixture, and whisk thoroughly and quickly for about 1 minutes until very smooth.

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a medium size mixing bowl with a hand mixer), beat the egg whites with the whisk attachment until frothy, then add the cream of tartar and beat on medium-high speed until it holds soft peaks. Add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar slowly while beating on medium-high speed until the whites hold firm, shiny peaks. Add a third of the egg whites and fold into the flour/yolk mixture to lighten, then fold in the rest of the whites until just combined.


Pour the batter into the prepared pans, smoothing the top if necessary. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 35-55 minutes. Start checking after 30 min. Another way to check (if you don't want to keep stabbing your cakes) is to press the top of the cake with your finger and see if it springs back up. If it doesn't, that means there is still moisture in your cake that needs to be baked out. 


There are plenty of mixed opinions on the cooling of chiffon cakes. Some say to let them cool completely in the pan. Others say to let them cool in the pan but inverted. And some say to remove the cakes from the pans almost immediately and let cool on a wire rack. 

I tried them all. For the larger cakes (12" round and the 9" x 13"sheet) it worked well to let them cool in the pan for 10 minutes before using a pairing knife to loosen them from the sides of the pans and then flipping them out onto a wire rack to cool completely.  Peel parchment off as soon as you flip them out of the pans. 

For the smaller cakes (6" and 9") it worked better to invert them onto a wire rack immediately and let them partially cool inside the pan. After 30 minutes or so I turned them again, ran a thin knife around the sides of the pan to loosen the cake, and then flipped it back onto the wire rack to cool completely. 


I've read that chiffon cakes freeze fine for up to 3 months. I've also read that they never taste quite as  good after they've been frozen. I don't want to take any chances so I'm refrigerating the cakes in triple plastic wrap until Friday. I've had plenty a refrigerated chiffon cakes and they always hold up extremely well. I almost prefer them after being refrigerated overnight. So. There they sit, safely stacked in my already overcrowded refrigerator. I will be transporting them (in a cooler) up to CT tomorrow morning where they will go back into the farm's cooler while I prep the fillings, syrups, and buttercream. 

Wish me luck! I will give a full report including filling recipes, step by step assembly instructions, and a supplies checklist.   

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Wedding Cake Chronicles: The Cake Tasting

Hello! It's been while since my overly excited announcement that I'm baking my friend's wedding cake. Since then, I've baked over a dozen cakes, tested fillings, practiced my Italian buttercream skills over and over, watched endless cake decorating youtube videos, researched the toxicity of some flowers, coordinated with moms and planners, and stocked up on almost all the equipment needed to make sure this cake goes off without a hitch.  We are four days out until Emma and Bobby's (E+B) big day!

In my first post of this little Love Party Cake series, I gave a list of initial questions to ask when one decides to make a DIY wedding cake. I recommend talking these over with the bride at the very beginning and then referring back to them throughout the planning process. The guest count will help you determine the size of cake you'll need. There's a lot of conflicting information out there so stay cool. Rose Levy's Cake Bible says that a classic 3-tiered cake (12", 9", 6") is enough to feed 150 guests. The Wilton Cake Cutting Guide says that the same cake serves 100 people. Since I'd rather have too much cake than too little, and since E+B won't be cutting into the top tier (many couples like to reserve for their one year anniversary), I will be making a 3-tiered cake plus back-up 9" x 13" sheet cake. This is a nice alternative when a towering four-tiered cake might not be appropriate for the vibe of the wedding. There are always ways to achieve the exact scale your couple wants to see while also satisfying serving requirements. 

Whether the wedding is indoor or outdoor might steer you towards a certain icing choice. Fondant is a play dough like sugar paste that can be rolled our and draped over a cake. It's easy to work with when decorating and hold up extremely well to heat. The downside is that fondant has a very sweet taste and funny gummy texture that some people find unpleasant. Buttercream is your other, more tastier option and it has many variations. American is the simplest but it's also the sweetest and it doesn't hold up the best in warm weather. Meringue-based butter creams are a little more difficult to make but they have a far superior taste, rich and not too sweet, they're easier to work with, and they hold up pretty well in warm weather conditions. The two most popular meringue-based buttercreams are Italian and Swiss, which are mainly the same except for the technique. I am going with Italian because I've had the best results. It does take a little practice so I recommend making a few half batches until you get the hang of it.

Now on to the tasting. I was able to drive up to Ithaca last week-ish to do a cake tasting with Emma. It was such a great experience to finally show her everything we've been talking about over the last few months, and go through each step of making the cake. I'm sure not all brides care to be this involved in the making of the cake but for Emma, someone who is so passionate about cooking, it was perfect. We ended the weekend with a lavish cake eating party with some of her friends. 

We chose to make the lemon berry cake because I wanted to test the differences between using cornstarch and arrowroot in the berry filling, and I also wanted to try out using fresh ground cardamom in the lemon syrup. I choose not to use cornstarch because A- it's hard for our bodies to digest and B- we are so overly dependent on corn in the US, it is in one-forth of everything on our supermarket shelves, and 99% of the crops are modified, chemically treated, and synthetically fertilized. I'm VERY happy to report that cornstarch did not work any better than arrowroot in the thickening of my berry filling. In fact, arrowroot has a more neutral flavor, works at a lower temperature, and tolerates acidic ingredients and prolonged cooking better. The only downside is that arrowroot is pricier than cornstarch.

This is the last of my lead-up posts. Next up I'll be sharing the actual baking of the cakes, and all my learned tips and tricks for chiffon cakes. 

The nice thing about wedding cakes is you can outline a baking schedule that works within your timeframe. I'm baking the cakes on Wednesday night, making the fillings and syrups on Friday morning, and making the buttercream and assembling on the Saturday morning of the wedding.