I wasn’t a girl who dreamed about my wedding. I wanted to marry someone, sure, and I wasn’t opposed to wearing a pretty dress. But the rest of it— the flowers, the dancing, even the food— all seemed extraneous. And when my husband and I decided to marry, our narrow time frame and even slimmer budget made it pretty clear that the most important thing about the day was going to be marrying my closest friend in the world.
And yet, throughout four months of hand-addressing invitations, scouring the PennySaver for secondhand dresses (I eventually bought one off the rack) and explaining patiently to the folks at the Knights of Columbus Hall that we would not be introduced as “Mr. and Mrs.,” but rather by our own names, I began to play with the notion of making my own wedding cake.
I’m not a cake decorator, but I am a baker, and the idea of a wedding cake that actually tasted good appealed to me. Baking my own cake, I reasoned, would give me a chance to put my own stamp on a wedding that had begun to feel generic. It would also give me control, I thought, something so many brides feel slip away from them as the wedding date inches closer. I had never decorated a fancy cake before, but I figured if I kept it simple, all would be fine. I decided my cake would be chocolate, swathed in white buttercream and crowned with a bouquet of flowers— low-key and elegant, as I hoped the rest of the wedding would be.
By 1994, the year I got married, wedding cakes had evolved at least slightly from the silver and white confections I used to see at my cousins’ weddings and at local bakeries like Woodlea and Fenwick in the 1970s. Some of the bakery cakes were built on three levels of columns that wouldn’t have been out of place in Roman temples; others were draped in sugar bunting and ruffles, the confectionary version of a crinolined bride. The most fascinating cakes were full-fledged tableaus: swans gliding across a mirrored lake, fountains spouting strings of clear plastic beads, champagne coupes brimming with colored liquid. I remember seeing the gallery of cake toppers at Fenwick Bakery: a parade of miniature brides and grooms, some blond, some brunette, all in formalwear and with white teeth, locked behind dusty glass.
For better or for worse, my family talked me out of baking my wedding cake, citing both the other responsibilities I’d have leading up to the wedding and the fact that the cake the rental hall provided was pretty similar to what I would have done myself. So I tucked away the wedding cake idea for another time.
Over the next few years, I dog-eared pages and ripped photo spreads of wedding cakes out of magazines when I saw one that might be doable someday. I had compiled a small collection of recipes— lots of lemon and berries and white chocolate— when someday came. I was living in Chicago and my friends Sue and Mike decided to get married in New England with only their families in attendance. Could I throw them a wedding party for their friends in Chicago?, I asked. And, could I make them a wedding cake?
I don’t remember any other food I made for the party, which was held in midsummer in the backyard of our apartment building a few hundred feet from Lake Michigan. But I do remember the cake they chose from my trove of clippings: two chocolate layer cakes filled with chocolate ganache that were frosted an ivory-colored orange-scented buttercream. It didn’t require plastic columns or fancy flourishes made of icing; the primary decoration was a small posy of crystallized flowers. It was just complicated enough to be a challenge, but not so difficult as to keep me awake at night wondering how I was going to make sugar roses.
A day before the party, I made the cake and the filling and tackled the flowers, pansies sold in plastic containers like herbs in the grocery store’s produce department. I brushed egg white along the pansies’ petals and on mint leaves from the backyard and sprinkled them with granulated sugar until they looked like sparkly Christmas ornaments. The next morning I made the buttercream and with a shaky hand frosted the cake and piped the icing in tiny rosettes around the perimeter of the cake, pushing the glittery pansies into place among the swirls.
As I worked on the cake, I thought about Sue and Mike and how important it was for them to bring together their families from two cultures and continents to celebrate their marriage. I thought about parties that had been thrown for me for my wedding and how honored I felt to be able to do the same for friends. I looked down at the cake and realized that while it wasn’t elaborate, it had a sweet, homespun quality that could honestly be called pretty. It was a good offering.
The evening of the party, I placed the cake on a pedestal plate I had received for my own wedding and gingerly carried it out of our sixth-floor apartment into the ancient elevator, my breath catching with each lurch on the way down to the lobby. When I opened the door to the backyard, everyone burst into applause. My favorite photo of the day is of Sue and Mike leaning over the table, his hand outstretched as if he were presenting the cake and hers raised to her face in mock surprise. My second favorite takes place slightly later: all of us gathered around the table, arms linked, drinks raised, the cake sliced wide open with chocolate crumbs dotting the table like ants.
Weddings are often laborious, but seldom are they really labors of love. And while I may never make another wedding cake, making Sue and Mike’s was the best gift I could give, wrapped in butter, sugar and friendship for two people in love.
The recipe for Sue and Mike’s wedding cake came from the now-defunct Gourmet magazine, but epicurious.com still has an archive of this and other wedding cake recipes. Martha Stewart’s website is also a good bet for wedding cake ideas. Or, use one of your own favorite cake recipes— something sturdy like hot milk sponge, pound or even some carrot cakes— and use the method above for crystallizing any flower that has not been sprayed with pesticides. Mint leaves are also easy to paint with chocolate and can make beautiful, easy decorations, as can candied violets, or clean, pesticide-free fresh flowers.