Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Wedding Cake

I wrote this post about a year and a half ago, and didn’t post it because I’m rubbish. Here, at last, is the wedding cake, my most ambitious cooking project ever!

The brief

My friend Ellie got married a few weeks months (well, there’s now a baby.. so quite some time) ago, and almost as soon as she'd announced her engagement I found myself offering to make her wedding cake. I'd never done anything on this scale before but I do like baking - although the decorating part scared me a bit - so I thought I could do a passable job. Following discussions with the bride, the format of the cake was decided - 3 tiers, round, at 6, 9 and 12 inches, each a different cake: traditional fruit, vanilla, and chocolate respectively. The fruit cake was to be one single cake, but the vanilla and chocolate would be triple layer cakes, filled with vanilla buttercream and chocolate ganache respectively, and all cakes would be covered with white fondant icing. We argued about the icing a bit - I thought fondant icing wouldn't taste as nice as, for example, a swiss or italian buttercream, but Ellie wanted the smooth look of fondant. And what the bride wants..

Before I start, I should say that I simply couldn't have done this if it hadn't been for the internet, and one blog in particular - Smitten Kitchen's fabulous wedding cake blog and all the incredibly helpful comments posted on it by other bakers. On Smitten Kitchen's recommendation, I also bought Sky High, which I used for the chocolate cake, vanilla cake, and the chocolate ganache.

I should also add that during the run up to the wedding I was leaving my old job, starting my new one, and on holiday for a few days. So the final decorating part took me until 3am on the morning of the wedding - but it was worth it!

About 2 months before the wedding, I made the fruitcake - this was the smallest cake, at 6 inches. I'd never made a fruitcake before, and was surprised at how, well, fruity it was. It is really more fruit than cake - tons of fruit, with just a bit of cake mix binding it together. I used Delia's recipe, unedited, which I will reproduce here. You make it as far in advance as you can, and then keep it wrapped in greaseproof paper in a cake tin, and feed it with brandy whenever you remember (I did it about once a week). (Feeding just means poking it all over with a large needle or toothpick, and then dribbling brandy over it.) Delia's site also has a helpful page which scales up the recipe for different sized tins.

General tips about wedding cake making

Most of these were gleaned before I started from the blogs, books and comments mentioned above, but these all served me very well and so I am passing them on.

· Bake the cakes well in advance and, with the exception of the fruitcake, freeze them. To freeze, when cool, simply wrap in loads and loads of clingfilm (leave no air gaps at all) and place each layer on a board (I just cut circles out of cardboard) and you can then stack them on top of each other in the freezer. The cakes are also easier to work with when frozen, and they defrost quite quickly, so no need to take them out of the freezer until you are ready to use them.

· There was a lot of advice around about how to bake the cakes so that they were level. Keeping the cakes level is important because when you stack them and ice them you need them to be completely flat and you don't want any domes in the middle. Of course, you can cut off any domes (a long serrated knife is best, and it's easiest when the cake is frozen), but it's easier still not to have any domes. The best way to ensure this is firstly to evenly spread the batter in the cake tin - easily done with the cakes I baked as they are quite liquidy - and secondly to bake the cake at a lower temperature than normal, for longer. I don't know why this works, but it does - I had very flat cakes. At the same time, if you are not stacking the cakes on top of each other, as I wasn't, you don't have to go mental about levelling the cakes and using spirit levels. In fact, we used a cake stand with three levels, so all we had to do was plonk the cakes on top of the levels and avoid the whole dowelling, stacking question.

· When rolling out the icing, do it on a large (or several large) sheet of clingfilm. Then you can easily pick up the clingfilm-icing and slap it on the cake, peel off the clingfilm and the icing will be smoothly in one piece on your cake.

· It will take hours to decorate. This isn't really a tip, it's a warning. It took me about 7 hours (with a few disasters on the way) to fill and ice all the cakes and make them look presentable. It might take me a bit less time if I were to do it again, but probably not much less. Also, you need an assistant. You could manage without, but it will be a lot easier if you don't try. Blondini was good at rolling out icing (harder work than it looks), smoothing icing, attaching ribbons, lifting heavy cakes, and buying new ingredients when there were last minute disasters

· For the large layer cakes, I would not recommend using your regular chocolate/vanilla sponge cakes. I have a stand-by chocolate cake recipe that I use all the time, which is light, fluffy, chocolatey and not too sweet - in short, perfect for birthday cakes, fairy cakes, etc. But it is not right for this - these layer cakes have to be really sturdy, because each layer has to be strong enough not to be squashed by the layers on top of it, with icing in between the layers, and then some heavy icing on top of the cake. The 12 inch chocolate cake weighed a ton. I don't know exactly how much, but I know that I used nearly 2 kg of icing sugar in the icing that covered that cake.

· You need a turntable, a smoother, and a non-stick rolling pin at minimum. You also need an electric mixer, like a KitchenAid - it's doable without, I guess, but it would be a horrific nightmare. If you have 3 tins of each size, this would also speed things up, since I had to bake 3 separate cakes for each of the chocolate and vanilla cakes, leaving time for them to cool in between as well. Having said that, you'll find it hard to fit cake mix for more than one layer at a time in your mixer, so perhaps it's not such a big deal.

6 inch fruitcake

8 oz currants

3 oz sultanas

3 oz raisins

1.5 oz glace cherries, rinsed and finely chopped

1.5 oz mixed peel, finely chopped

3 tbsp brandy

4 oz plain flour

0.5 tsp salt

0.25 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

0.25 tsp mixed spice

1.5 oz chopped almonds

4 oz soft brown sugar (I used muscovado)

1 rounded tsp black treacle

4 oz unsalted butter

2 eggs

Grated rind of half lemon

Grated rind of half orange

At least 12 hours before you start, put the currants, sultanas, raisins, glace cherries and mixed peel in a bowl and cover with the brandy.

Grease the tin and line with baking paper. Preheat the oven to 140C/275F.

Cream the butter and sugar together and it is light and fluffy. In a separate bowl, sieve the flour, salt and spices. Beat the eggs in another bowl, and then add them a spoon at a time to the butter/sugar mixture. If it looks like it might start to curdle, add a little flour to prevent it. When all the egg has been added, fold the flour mixture in, and then stir in the soaked fruit, the nuts, the fresh peel and the treacle. Spoon the mixture into the cake tin and spread it evenly, as the cake doesn't really rise so needs to start off evenly. Tie a band of brown paper around the outside of the tin (I didn't have any and used more baking paper - worked out fine for me) and cover the top with a square of greaseproof/baking paper with a hole in the middle about the size of a 50p piece. Bake the cake on the lower shelf of the oven for 3.5 hours, and don't open the oven for at least 3 hours. When cold, wrap it well in lots of greaseproof paper and put it in a tin.

Covering the fruitcake

Although I only did this the night before the wedding, I am putting it here for ease of reading. Confession: the only part of the cakes that I didn't make from scratch was the marzipan I used to cover the fruitcake. I did think about it, but decided I may not be able to get the desired smoothness of marzipan without some easy way of grinding the ground almonds. Here is a recipe that I may have used, if I hadn't just gone and bought a block. You need about 500g (I allowed myself 750g because I was buying it) to cover a 6 inch fruit cake. This recipe makes enough for 700g.

Before rolling the marzipan, take part of it and roll it into a long thin sausage that will fit all the way around the cake. Push this sausage onto the base of the cake, evening out the gap at the bottom of the cake between cake and board, and smooth the marzipan onto the cake. Then simply roll out the rest of the marzipan into a circle about 12 inches in diameter (enough for the top of the cake, the sides and the board that shows under the cake), spread a thin amount of apricot jam onto the cake, and put the marzipan on top. Use the smoother, and with one hand on top of the cake, work around the cake with the smoother to flatten down the marzipan and smooth any air out.

9 inch vanilla cake

This recipe is from Sky High. I edited it simply because I couldn't easily find one of the recommended ingredients, buttermilk. I decided it would be fine with regular milk - I think the buttermilk one would probably have had a very nice taste too, but with normal milk it worked out fine. I only have one 9 inch tin, so I had to divide this into 3 and bake it 3 times:

3 3/4 cups plain flour

2 1/2 cups caster sugar

1 tablespoon plus 2 3/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

10 ounces unsalted butter

1 1/4 cups plus 1/3 cup buttermilk (or just milk)

5 large eggs

2 egg yolks

2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Grease and line the tin. Preheat the oven to slightly lower than your normal cake-baking temperature (for me 150 on the fan oven).

Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt, and then gently beat in the butter and 1 1/4 cup of buttermilk/milk.

In a smaller bowl, whisk all the eggs, remaining buttermilk/milk and vanilla, and pour this into the rest of the mix a third at a time, thoroughly beating it each time. Pour a third of the batter into the tin and bake for around 30 mins, testing to see if done with a fork or thin pricking device.

Vanilla buttercream

This buttercream was used between the layers, and then all over the top and round the sides, underneath the fondant icing. I adapted a recipe from Nigella and scaled it up quite a lot, to which I added, instead of plain old vanilla essence, vanilla seeds scraped from a vanilla pod - I think it made all the difference. This buttercream, simple though it is, was the only real disaster of the decorating process, as I opened some milk from the fridge and chucked it into the bowl without looking or smelling first, and it was disgusting, lumpy, and off. Luckily I hadn't added £8 worth of vanilla seeds yet, but I had ruined an entire bowl of icing, and was out of butter (and milk). Blondini had to rush out to buy emergency supplies.

5oz butter

10 oz icing sugar

2 tablespoons milk

Seeds from 1 vanilla pod

12 inch chocolate cake

This recipe is also from Sky High. I had to scale this one up, because none of the sizes in the book fitted what I needed - a round 12 inches. Finally, I found a use for my GCSE maths - I used πr2 to work out how much cake mix I needed to get my 3 12 inch layers. This is a nice recipe - I probably wouldn't use it instead of my normal chocolate cake for a regular cake, but it is very chocolatey, with a nice slightly spicy hint, and it still feels light and moist, though not too airy and crumbly. Perfect for a wedding cake.

This recipe makes a 8 inch round 3 layer version:

3 cups plain flour

3 cups caster sugar

1 1/2 cups cocoa powder

3 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon salt

12 ounces butter

1 1/2 cups milk/buttermilk

3 eggs

1 1/5 cups freshly brewed coffee, cooled

Grease and line the tin and preheat the oven to a bit lower than your normal baking temperature (150 for me on a fan oven).

Mix all the dry ingredients together, and then beat in the butter and buttermilk until fluffy. Then whisk the eggs and coffee together and add to the rest of the batter in batches, beating thoroughly after each addition. Put a third of the batter into the tin and then bake for about 40 mins, or until done, testing with a fork or thin pricking device.

Chocolate ganache

This is also from the Sky High book. It was immensely chocolatey (with about 6 bars of 70% Lindt in it), perhaps even too rich for my customers - I made this as a test cake, in 9 inch version, and took it to work - people loved it but it was really really rich - it was hard to eat more than a very small amount. Which was also good because there were about 120 people at the wedding and most wanted to try more than one type of cake. This recipe makes about 4 cups, which was enough for the whole 12 inch cake.

24 ounces dark chocolate

6 ounces butter

1.5 cups of heavy cream (not freezing cold)

1/3 cup brandy or cognac

Melt the chocolate and butter over a pan of simmering water. When completely melted, whisk in the cream and then the brandy, scraping down the sides all the time. Allow to cool and thicken to a mayonnaise-like consistency (but don't cool too much as it will harden and become unspreadable).

Fondant icing

I sort of made this recipe up, after looking around in books and online for a recipe. Essentially most recipes seemed to call for egg white, icing sugar and then, most commonly, liquid glucose. I tried 3 different pharmacies and sent Blondini to another 4, but we couldn't find this, so I decided to use glycerine instead. I don't know whether the icing would have worked just as well with just eggwhite and icing sugar, but I think the glycerine gave it a bit of extra stretchiness, which was good for rolling and smoothing, and made smoothing and patching up disaster areas easier.

The recipe is quite simply -

1 large eggwhite

500g icing sugar, sifted

1 tsp (approx) glycerine

Add the icing sugar slowly and just keep sifting it in until the desired consistency (a smooth ball of dough) is reached. For a 12 inch cake, you need around 2 kilos worth of icing sugar. You also need a large non-stick rolling pin.

I covered the fruitcake first, and was amazed at how easy it was. Roll out the icing, put it on top of the marzipan and then smooth it in the same way as the marzipan. If the icing gets sticky on top, or the smoother starts sticking to it, just sprinkle a little more sifted icing sugar on to it.

The fruitcake was so easy it lulled me into a false sense of security, because the other cakes were a bit of a nightmare to cover. The main problem with the chocolate one, which I did next, was the sheer weight of the icing which was needed to cover the cake, which meant that when I had rolled out a circle about 22 inches in diameter (i.e. massive) and managed to get it on top of the cake, parts of the sides started breaking off. I initially thought there was no remedying this (and with the chocolate there was the concern that the chocolate ganache, which was luckily now quite hard, because it had frozen on impact with the frozen cake) would start to come through and stain the white icing. I just had to patch up the fondant and keep smoothing it down, and it took about an hour. You can see how disastrously horrible it looks here, but then take comfort from the fact that by the end it really looked almost perfect.

The vanilla cake was also difficult to ice. The icing wasn't quite as heavy this time, so it didn't threaten to break off, but because of the disaster with the vanilla buttercream, by the time I came to fill and cover the vanilla cake it was no longer really frozen, and the icing was quite soft. I put it back in the freezer while working on the other cakes, which helped, but wasn't quite enough. Also, this cake was the only one which was not really level, and Blondini and I thought it was a good idea to "level" the cake by adding loads of buttercream to the top. It wasn't. When the fondant icing was placed on the top and I tried to smooth it down, bits of buttercream started to squidge out of the bottom, and to form gross lumps under the surface. As before, we managed to save it, mostly, but it was a mess that could have been avoided by (a) using less buttercream on the top, and (b) totally freezing the cake before attempting the fondant, which would have been much easier to work on.


I didn't really do much in the way of decoration, because I knew this was my weakest area. I'm crap at being artistic. Ellie had arranged for the florist to provide matching flowers to put on the cake, and she gave me ribbon which was being used for other wedding things, so it would match. I attached ribbon to the outsides of the cake, which helped disguise some of the more horrible areas, and I piped little flower/shell things around the base (this was also surprisingly hard - do a lot of piping practice beforehand, if you can).

I then put the cakes in boxes (I ordered boxes which would precisely fit the cakes from the same suppliers I used for most of my other equipment - Sugarcraft) and in the morning, took them to the venue with the flowers. And I was really proud and excited when it was cut, and the bride said it was the best cake she'd ever had, so it was totally worth it!