Viewers watching NBC’s “Today” Throws a Wedding series quickly realize how each step in planning a wedding requires learning a whole new lingo. So when it comes to the cake, what will it be: Butter cream or fondant; Swiss dots or French dragees? Confused already? Then it’s time to brush up on the basics and also consider what some top cake designers have to say this year.
Just to whet the appetite: butter cream, made with real butter, has the consistency of whipped butter and will melt in extreme heat or humidity (a serious consideration for East Coast summer nuptials); whereas fondant — a mixture of sugar, gelatin and corn syrup — can easily be molded into various shapes and should not be refrigerated. Swiss dots are tiny raised dots or decorative buttons that look like small pearls. Dragees are “round, edible sugar balls coated with silver or gold, according to the online glossary at one stop-shop theknot.com.
As with all things nuptial, budget determines where a couple starts to look for a cake. Catering and reception halls, commercial bakers and even neighborhood bakeries and supermarkets offer a wide range of choices at moderate prices. Homemade cakes are also an option, especially for small, intimate weddings. Many couples choose to hire a cake designer.
Wedding cakes are most often priced by the slice, which can cost anywhere from $1.50 to $15-and-up. Like New York-style pizza, $1.50 gets you the basics. Opt for a topping, it costs more. Select a slice with “everything” and end up paying $3-$4 per slice. The same with wedding cakes: a slice of the standard, round-tiered pound cake with icing runs about $1.50. Sprinkle on some almonds, it costs more. And a cake that sells for $15 per slice should be made of the finest ingredients.
Warning: Some catering halls charge an extra fee per slice to cut the cake, which can run as high as $2. So make sure to ask about any additional fees before selecting a cake, and perhaps, the venue. On principle, I might take my business elsewhere.
Cost-cutting tip: Order a special small cake with all the bells and whistles for the cake-cutting. Then, order a sheet cake without the decorative items to serve the guests. The sheet cake tastes just as good but costs a lot less.
Now, what’s the best way to find a cake designer? Start by word of mouth. Ask friends and family first. Don’t ask caterers or event planners who may have a vested interest in your decision (such as promoting a friend’s business or making a commission on the sale). Theknot.com also posts a list of America’s top designers.
A cake for all seasons
What’s exceptionally hot this season depends on who is doing the talking. “Old-looking new things,” are in demand this season, says Margaret Braun, Manhattan cake designer, known for her elaborate, hand-sculpted cakes. That is, cakes with classical features and textures that have a contemporary look, says Braun, author of “Cakewalk: Adventures with Sugar.” For example, Braun has had several requests for traditional cakes in exceptionally bold colors. Magenta and orange are hot this season, she says.
Cheryl Kleinman, a Brooklyn cake designer who charges $8 a slice, has noticed that pastels have replaced white. “This summer every weekend, I’m making a celery-green or pastel-pink cake,” she says.
Cakes topped with fresh flowers, a popular trend in recent years, is now on its way out, says Kleinman. “Icing flowers” are in. Icing flowers look real but are made of sugar paste, which has the consistency of play dough. They’re made of the same material as the popular strong mints Altoids or candy Necco wafers, she explains.
Toppers are also making a comeback. Topping a cake with a family member’s topper — such as your parents’ topper — will never go out of style. “But for a long time, no one was using those plastic (mass-marketed) bride-and-groom toppers because they were so ugly,” says Kleinman.
Contemporary toppers make a stronger personal statement. Monograms that introduce the bride and groom are popular.
To groom or not to groom
Grooms cakes, a long-held tradition in the South, have migrated north and west. Wit and whim define these smaller cakes set aside for guys. Groom cakes — often a gift from the bride to the groom — focus on the groom’s interests or hobbies. Grooms cakes can take the shape of a trout for a fisherman or a pile of law books for a lawyer.
“I’m doing more grooms cakes than I’ve ever done,” says Braun. Recently she had a request for a “game of life” cake, where each square showed a different stage in the groom’s life. “The last square, of course, was babies and lots of grandchildren,” says Braun. Now if that doesn’t make him run the other way, nothing will.
Braun speculates that 21st century grooms are more involved than male counterparts past decades. “Today’s grooms are reading Martha Stewart Living, too,” she says.
And despite recent financial problems, Martha Stewart still may set some trends herself. Martha Stewart’s Weddings magazine for the summer 2003 features a candy-covered cake. Inside, there’s an assortment of full-page photos of cakes decorated with jelly beans, nonpareils, peppermint and licorice, to name a few.
“I haven’t had any requests for this (candy-covered cakes) but it’s cute,” says Braun. “It’s the antithesis of classical, which makes it fun.” Years ago, a similar trend swept through the bridal industry, when many couples choose to have a pile of cup cakes or Ring Dings instead of a traditional cake, she says.
On the other hand, one top Manhattan designer has a more cynical take on Stewart’s taste. Candy-covered cakes are not a trend, at least among my clients, says Sylvia Weinstock, who was about to leave for Paris to bake a cake for one of these clients (which she wouldn’t name.) “Every couple of months she (Martha Stewart) has to come up with a new concept,” says Weinstock also believes wedding cakes have to be made from the best ingredients. “You can’t make filet mignon out of stew meat,” she says and then laughs,
But why do so many cakes that look great taste awful? “That’s the question of the hour,” says Kleinman. “I don’t know how they make it taste so disgusting. My only guess would be that they prepare it too far in advance,” she explains.
Personally, I usually skip the cake at most weddings. It’s not worth the calories, especially if there’s any Italian pastry or chocolate-dipped strawberries around.
Teri Goldberg is MSNBC.com’s shopping writer. Write to her at