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More than icing on the wedding cake

Top cake designers reveal their trade secrets. By Teri Goldberg

Decorated with globs of sugary confections, the traditional white wedding cake can be quite a showpiece, but more often than not, tastes awful. The word “saw dust” has been frequently used to describe the texture. Today’s couples demand more. You could say: They want to have their cake and eat it too.

Avoid dry, white cakesNow, why is it that those white wedding cakes taste so dreadful? “They’re just not the moistest cakes around,” says Cheryl Kleinman, a Brooklyn cake designer with more than 20 years experience. White cakes are low on fat and fat keeps a cake moist, she explains. White cakes also are “made with egg whites and a lot of air,” she adds.

When couples ask for a moist cake, Kleinman thinks chocolate cake, hazelnut and almond tort, carrot or banana cake and in the summer, maybe a lemon cake. Pound cake is a popular option because it appeals to many taste buds but it’s moister than a traditional white cake.

Inexpensive white cakes also taste bad because they generally are made with vegetable shortening, says Manhattan cake designer Ron Ben Israel of, who frequently designs cakes for top-tier hotels in New York City, such as The Waldorf-Astoria, The Pierre and The Plaza. Vegetable shortening is not only cheap but also gives the cake that pure white color, says Ben Israel, who admits upfront he caters to an upscale clientele. Cakes at run thousands of dollars or $12 to $15 a slice, which is customarily how wedding cakes are priced.

It’s the high butter fat content that makes a cake taste good, explains Ben Israel, who only uses butter, manufactured in small batches at creameries in Vermont, in his cakes. The filling also adds to the flavor, and texture. The options are endless and clients of Ben Israel taste at least 12 cakes before deciding on a flavor. Some tasty concoctions on his palette include: passion fruit filling, roasted pistachio butter cream and ginger-infused vanilla.

Simple flavors, elaborate designs

In contrast, Manhattan cake designer Elisa Straus of says most of her clients stick to the basics when flavor is concerned. Vanilla and chocolate are still the most popular, she says.

Couples are more willing to experiment with design. Cakes shaped like designer shoes are quite fashionable for bridal showers. Each time, it’s a different shoe, though, says Straus, whose claim to fame is a pink fondant cake covered with chocolate piping which made its first appearance at Charlotte’s wedding on “Sex and the City.”

In lieu of a tiered cake or sheet cake, individual cupcakes for each guest are unusually popular this year, says Straus. The idea has been around for awhile and may have first appeared on the cover of a Martha Stewart Weddings magazine, she says.

Cupcakes at are personalized with gum-paste sugar dough sculptors and reflect the couple's interest, occupation or hobbies. Recently little airplanes were used to adorn cupcakes for a couple who had a long-distance relationship.

Cupcakes are “charming” says Ben Israel, but stay away from individual cakes. The cakes are beautiful but once again, that’s part of the problem. Most people don’t want to eat the cakes because they look so nice. Individual cakes are also very costly to produce, mostly because of the time it takes to create the detail on each one.

Striped wedding cakes also seem to be in vogue this year. “I don’t think there has been a weekend that goes by that haven’t done one of these,” says Kleinman. Stripes are defined by texture — a matte band adjacent to a silky one; or different shades of the same color, such as ivory and pure white. One cake Kleinman designed this past summer featured stripes in different shades of pink, from pale shell pink to a ripe watermelon color.

Personal touchesManhattan cake designer Gail Watson of finds that most couples don’t want to go with the trends. “It’s not cookie cutter,” she says. Most couples want the cake to make a personal statement about them or match the décor. “Weddings are more personalized these days,” says Watson who charges up to $20 a slice.

One way couples personalize the cake is with an unusual topper. “Nobody is using the plastic (mass-produced) bride and groom toppers,” says Kleinman. “Couples look at toppers in a new way,” she adds. Toppers are now made of a range of materials, from sugar paste to stainless steel.

One topper at has interchangeable figurines, which lets couples choose statuettes that reflect the couple's ethnicity and/or gender for same sex marriages. The topper plus the base sells for $49.95.

Rebecca Russell of sculpts toppers, which actually resemble the couple themselves. The end result, 4½- to 5-inch figures mounted on a 5-inch circular base, is a topper that has the same basic features as the couple in terms of hair style, eye color and height difference, and mimics their facial expressions. “I generally do simple facial features, rather than heavy portraiture, although I can do that as well,” says Russell who learned the tricks of the trade when she was a chef’s assistant at the pastry shop at Watergate, then the official off-site patisserie for the White House. Toppers are available in marzipan for $275 and clay for $325.

Graphic artist Troy McDevitt of takes the concept of personalizing toppers even further, and his rock-hard baked clay toppers can last more than a lifetime. McDevitt molds and hand paints the bride and groom based on a photograph of the couple. The end result is truly a showpiece. These toppers are not just caricatures but replicas of the couple. “I’m trying to push the envelope beyond anything that people have seen for a cake topper before and I really don't view anything as too difficult or complicated to pull off,” says McDevitt who started the Woodstock, Va.-based business this past January and is almost booked up for 2005.

The 7-inch toppers cost $1,000 — not a lot for the time involved in making them. If it was up to me, I’d forget the cake and just order a topper.