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How to Pinch-hit a Wedding Cake

In May 2020, my sister got married. Also in May 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was just getting started. People were sick, dying, and suffering, and we were lucky. My family was healthy, my (now) brother-in-law's family was healthy, and we're a resourceful bunch! They were still going to get married...we'd just have to improvise the now-tiny reception. So we did!

The mother-of-the-bride (AKA: my mom) became the florist, we ordered carry-out for catering for the few who would be in attendance, and I made the wedding cake. Three tiers of goodness, with different flavors and frostings for each one. It was way bigger than it needed to be, it was delicious, and it was the most fun I'd had in months! In this inaugural blog post, I'll walk you through the steps I took to make a wedding cake from scratch in my home kitchen.

Step 1: Cake Design and Flavor Selection

I asked my sister and her fiancé what flavors they wanted and we came up with three cakes: coconut with vanilla buttercream, buttermilk with lemon curd and vanilla buttercream, and chocolate with marshmallow filling and a chocolate buttercream (i.e., "S'mores Cake").

Cake design sketch
Cake design sketch

I made my plans and sent her a mockup of a cake that, per Wilton's cake serving chart, could comfortably feed 74 people (or a few hungry dads who know they can have as much cake as they want). Suffice it to say, I didn't need to feed 74 people, but with a wedding day this hectic, I thought the bride and groom deserved a big, beautiful, and delicious cake!

We ended up making some tweaks to the final version, since the cake would have to sit at room temperature for hours and lemon curd should be refrigerated. So the second layer ended up being buttermilk with blueberry buttercream (a "blueberry pancake if it were a cake", per my sister-in-law!). That said, we stuck pretty close to the design in the end.

Step 2: Bake the Cakes and Make the Flowers

Start early, if you can. Cakes that have been baked and cooled store well in the freezer, provided you insulate them with cling wrap and aluminum foil. Remember to label each cake, so you don't confuse yourself. I was lucky here in that cakes of the same size were of the same flavor, but it's not always so straightforward! I also find it helpful to use cake circles (or something similar) to separate the cakes while in the freezer. This prevents the cakes from freezing in a concave shape due to stacking.

I started baking mine five days in advance with different cakes on different days and relied upon my trusty Nordic Ware aluminum baking pans to get the job done. While the cakes were cooling, I made the first of many batches of Swiss meringue buttercream (my personal favorite) and started piping flowers. Lots and lots of flowers. You can make buttercream flowers ahead of time too and store them in the fridge, preferably in an airtight container until you're ready to start decorating.

Step 3: Cakes...assemble!

Now comes the really fun part--assembling and decorating the cakes. When I was ready to get started, I took the cakes out of the freezer and found counter space in my small apartment kitchen to thaw them.

After crumb coating each tier--an absolutely essential step that I'll never skip again--I stacked the two smallest tiers and added a buttercream floral wreath to the break between the tiers. In my prep work I'd read that two cakes is the maximum to travel with already stacked, at least for buttercream cakes, and I can't say I disagree.

Were I to do it again, I'd probably plan more time on the day of to put the entire cake together on site. Though thanks to two helpers and a cart, I was able to put it all together without any mishaps. Shout out here to my dad and a friend of mine who braved my fraying nerves and helped keep the cakes safe on our drive from St. Paul to Minneapolis!

Step 4: Enjoy

Finally, after days of baking and decorating, and then several hours of sitting and waiting for someone to eat it, the cake was ready to be devoured! I was proud of it, the bride and groom loved it, and I learned a lot.

  • Plan, plan, plan: From the flavors to the design to the transportation help and equipment, think about it first and write it down if you can.

  • Take your time: Start your baking before you think you need to. Cakes freeze well, and I've never regretted giving myself extra time to assemble and decorate.

  • Make absolutely sure that your bottom layer is sturdy: Cards on the table, I'm not a natural at torting cakes (i.e., cutting them in half horizontally, making two layers into four layers). So when I decided to torte my 10" base layer of chocolate cake, it was a bit risky. It worked well for flavor, as it meant I could even out the sweetness of the marshmallow fluff filling with a bittersweet chocolate frosting, but after a full day at room temperature, the cake started to tilt. Whoops! Lesson learned.

So without any further delay, see the finished cake below! And thanks to my sister and brother-in-law for trusting me with their wedding cake.

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