Sunday 28 October 2018

Making the Cake

Less of a recipe post, this is more of a "how I went about making my wedding cake". It's been a year in the planning, and it all went rather well.

So, why did I do my own cake? There were 2 main drivers..firstly, I was pretty sure that I could do a better job than any commerical cake maker (the current trend seems to be for an awful lot of fondant icing, and very little in the way of flavour). I could certainly do it cheaper! Secondly, I wanted the cake to be a reflection of me, and my baking. I did some initial checks on local cake bakers, and the estimated cost was enough to convince me that I could do this.

My first job was deciding on what style of cake...this involved a lot of googling. I knew I wanted multiple flavours, and my initial plan was a tiered cake in a half-and-half style. This seemed an "on trend" idea...however after doing a couple of trial runs I decided that I didn't really like the look of it, and it was very fiddly. This process added a very important requirement. I needed a high level of confidence on both the making and transport of the cake. With this in mind, I went for a new plan...a cupcake tower, with lots of differnet flavours. I'd then do a single top-cake for the cutting photo. The real benefit of cupcakes is that your risk is spread, and if a batch goes wrong or transports badly, you still have the others. It was also easier to split the manufacture up. I didn't want to go overboard with "fake" colours and flavours either, I wanted the cakes to be cakes first, and pretty second (cupcakes are actually very good for this, as a bit of piping covers an awful lot of presentation issues).

Once I had decided on cupcakes, the next step was deciding on the flavours. I have a theory with cake that if given a choice, someone will always go for a favourite...whacky and new flavours are all well and good, but as people see them as rare treat, they want a "comfort pick", and know that what they will like what they have selected. With this in mind, I decided to base each flavour on a classic cake, or classic flavour. I also wanted to try and make sure that from a simple visual standpoint that each cake was both identifiable, and gave the punter a good idea of what was inside. The actual decision over what flavours I was going to do took months, and I trialled each one a few times to make sure that I was both happy with the flavour, and also very confident with the recipe. I ulitmately ended up with 7 flavours;

  • Lemon Meringue - I always wanted this one in, as it is the first cupckae I did where I went off-piste. The only change I did to my classic recipe was to candy some lemon slices to decorate the top (so that the visible components showed the flavour)
  • Carrot Cake - this is one of the most popular flavours (people think it's healthy!), and the use of a fondant carrot (the only fondant icing I used in the entire cake) gave a good visual cue as to the flavour
  • Sticky Toffee Pudding - I came up with the idea for this one at Christmas, after making the actual dessert. It was probably the hardest cake to visually set up (most people think it's caramel from a first viewing), but at the same time the test subjects quickly indicated it was a strong contender for favourite flavour.
  • Chocolate Brownie -  I needed a chocolate cake, and it's actually quite hard to come up with a "classic" chocolate cake that is visually identifiable. It was also fairly hard to add onto this...brownie is by default rich, and adding icing made it a challenging eat. I did think about adding a white chocolate dome, but wasn't confident on the process.
  • Strawberry Shortbread - this was a "safe" option, and probably the closest to a standard cupcake in terms of flavour (vanilla and strawberry). The big challenge here was keeping the shortbread biscuit crisp once it was stuck in the icing...I did this by dipping the biscuit in white chocolate to seal it.
  • Coffee and Walnut - I see this as a cyclist classic, and it's rare you goto a cafe where there is not a massive coffee and walnut cake being chunked up. That said, it's a bit of a marmite flavour, and probably one of the less-selected flavours
  • Bakewell Tart - a very late addition. I had initially had this on a list of flavours to try, but was worried that it would end up looking very similar to the Strawberry shortbread. I did a trial run of the entire wedding cake a couple of weeks before, and decided I had some spare capacity...we were at the same time sorting out the dietary requirements of the guests, and we spotted a number of dairy/gluten/vegan people who would not be able to eat any cakes. I wasn't able to amend any of the existing recipes to remove the offending items, so instead had a shot at fitting all the dietary requirements into a single recipe. I was about 85% hapy with the final looked fine, but the cake recipe was not at the same standard as the others. A couple more attempts and I reckon I would have nailed it. (I should note that the reciepe link ed it not the one I used, the actual receipe is in the cookbook Word Document I link at the end).

Once I had the flavours and recipes sorted, I then had to come up with a plan. As with so many things in life, I resorted to Excel, and worked up a big sheet that had all the ingredients, costings (based on both my local supermarket, and a "cheapest source" if I needed to reduce costs), and a timetable for when various things needed to be made. I then did a copy of this for the trial run I did a couple of weeks beforehand (this was 12 of each cake flavour, rather than 24), and based on feedback from that I altered the final plan to save some time. I al;so had every recipe printed out in a single book, so that I could annotate it and not have to rely on internet etc.

The plan was pretty important, and ultimately gave me plenty of spare time on the last week. I gave myself 3 days to do everythiung, with several items being made in the week before (this was for items that would store well). The 4 key groups of "things to be done" were;

1) Sauces and Decorations - these were items that could be done in advance, and stored in the fridge. Lemon curd, jams, caramel sauce, fudge (I also did the favours, being bags of fudge, and used some of this as decorations), candied fruit etc
2) The big cake (see below)
3) The cupcake baking - this was basically getting all the sponge elements done, and the day consisted of making sure the stand mixer and oven were always in use.
4) Icing and finishing everything - I wanted this to be separate to the baking, as I wanted a cooler kitchen. This also involved a lot of stand mixer work.

These also happen to be roughly in order of time taken, so it was important that for the cupcake baking and icing that I had everything ready to go. Within the recipe book I had noted on everything I could/should prepare the night before (simple things like getting eggs and butter out of the fridge the night before, and weighing stuff out, or chopping and soaking the dates for the sticky toffee pudding, and grating the carrot for the carrot cake). Alongside this you do a _lot_ of washing up throughout the days.

Once I had the plan, I re-visited the top cake. I knew I wanted to do a multi-layerd sponge, and while the cupcakes looked remarkably un-wedding, I thought the top cake should have a little more formality, but not too much. I also knew I had to be able to produce it in less than a day. I settled on a "drippy cake", and then added a small additional podium tier for the cake topper (chocolate-dipped strawberries). I originally was going to decorate it with strawberries, but after doing a trial of that didn't really like it, so instead did some red macarons...this gave it a really lovely formal look, which went well with the decadence of the chocolate drip. It also made it look much taller than it was, which is "on trend". From a logistics stadnpoint, the macarons could be made ahead of time, kept in an airtight box, and then filled on the day very quickly. As such, this fitted into the plan very well.


I don't normally do much work with props for cakes (after all, most people are just interested in eating the stuff)...for this though, I decided to do a bit of extra.
Cake Stand - this was picked up off Amazon, and could hold about 50 cupcakes and the top cake. The venue then kept this topped up on the day, providing a cake buffet for everyone!
Cupcake Cases - I normally use cheap paper ones, but for this I got some silver foil ones to give some glam and consistency. As an added bonus, foil cases will keep cake fresher a little longer.
Cake Board - I actually went very simple with this, with a thin silver round for the top cake.
Letters - this was a bit of a late buy, but really glad I did. Some 25-30cm tall light-up letters spelling "CAKE" to show around the stand. They made it into plenty of photos!
Menu - We needed some way of showing the flavours, so we took some photos of the trial run, added on the cake name in script, and then had the photos printed as an old-style poraoid photo. These were then displayed around the cake.
Cake boxes - Moving the cakes was pretty stressful. I have a few cupcake carriers, capable of holding 96 cupcakes. I also got some 12-hole cupcake boxes for the rest. The top cake went into a cake carrier, and was on my lap the entire way, while the stacks of cupcake cases were strapped into the best mans back seat, and he was under strict orders to driver _really_ carefully (he did, he was a legned on the day).
Individual cupcake carriers - Quite often at a wedding people end up with a finger of cake wrapped in tissue. I knew there was more cake than people, and that some of it would be going I picked up some individual cupcake carriers, so make it easier for people to take them home.

What would I have changed?

Very little actually. The cakes went down really well, and having done the trial run, and having a good plan meant that the actual manufacture went really smoothly. The top cake suffered in a bit of sunlight when it was on display...meringue buttercream is quite delicate, and not suited to warm conditions. I should have either had this kept in the venue fridge (which would have been a shame, as plenty of people took photos), or experimented with a more robust icing such as royal icing. A cupcake tower is a very safe way of doing a wedding cake, and if anyone is planning on doing their own, I'd strongly recommend considering it.

The vegan/gluten-free cake should have had a bit more work done on the receipe. I'm glad I did it (and I had some great feedback from the vegans and dairy-free peeps), but I know I could have done better.

Generally, I was lucky enough to be able to test all the recipes on work colleagues and friends, so was able to make sure that everything was a pretty robust, reliable recipe.

What did it cost/what did I save?

Well, in terms of ingredients the cake and favours came in at under £120. This isn't the true cost however, as it doesn't take into account trial runs and experimenting. That said, I bake as a hobby, and a lot of the trial runs would have been done anyway (maybe just with different recipes). The baking took 3 days, though with a gun agaisnt my head I could have done it in one (doubt I'd have wanted to get married the next day though). All the recipes have about 10% excess built into them, so that you're always going to have ~3 more cakes than you need. The carrot cake is actually well over-size, and made 36! I ended up taking 160 cupckaes (of 7 flavours) anda the topcake. From looking around, as a rough quote I could have expected this to cost £800-£1000 including delivery.

The props were not super-expensive, with the exception of the light-up letters (though the chances were we may have done something like that anyway). With the exception of the cupcake cases and cupcake caddies (about £20 in total) I still have everything else, and I'll undoubtedly use them at some point.

I did buy some extra tins (the top cake in particular had some new tins bought, as I swapped from a dobos torte-style bake to a tin-based one, as it was a more reliable process). Again, I still have those tins for future baking.

The Plan and Recipe Book

These are on Drive. In theory you won't need to be logged into Google, but it might help!
The Plan is here, and includes a breakdown of each component of each cake, when the componernt needs to be done, and how much the ingredients are. You'll want to download this and open it in Excel, as I have used Pivot charts (which Google Docs doen't understand).

The Recipe Book is here, and includes notes per item about anything to be prepared ahead of time, and some notes on time-saving.