Books, classes and the Internet offer guidance on cake decisions
NEW YORK - No question about it, the perfect wedding cake is the dream of every bride and groom.
One big question is, who makes the cake?
There's no shortage of professionals who make cakes that scale the heights of baking art, from dream cake to sheer fantasy. Some of them even offer to share their skill - they give classes, they publish books, they show images on their Web sites.
Cooks even considering making a wedding cake, for themselves or for someone else, can find plenty of advice on what to do about that budding cake ambition, preferably before reaching the point of no return. That means, decide way ahead, before making any promises. Professional bakers, especially at busy times of year, are booked far in advance.
For creative guidance, delectably illustrated books and the Internet can give you a great start in making decisions, first, on what you want your cake to look like, and, second, on whether to do it yourself. The books range from inspirational to practical, and are often both.
Here are a few.
"The Perfect Wedding Cake" by Kate Manchester (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2002), a freelance chef and caterer based in New York state, has a delicately elegant air, with photos by Zeva Oelbaum.
The text is upbeat in tone, insisting the cake must be as good to eat as it looks. The foreword defines today's attitude to wedding cakes: "anything goes, as long as it's delicious."
In an interview, Manchester said that she didn't see this volume as mainly a how-to book. "I wanted to show the reader what the possibilities are - then it's up to your imagination."
The cake is often the centerpiece of the wedding, she said. "It's probably the most photographed thing after the bride." So the couple should think about a wedding theme, to include the cake, to reflect things that are meaningful to them, perhaps linked to where they met.
She added, with a laugh, that doesn't mean you need to go as far as one professional creation she recalled - a replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa made for a celebrity's wedding.
Definitely take the seasons into account, she said. "You're not going to see a pastel cake in December - that's when red, green and gold would be more in keeping, perhaps a gift-box design."
Keep location in mind, too, she recommended. "A seashell cake would be great for someone on the coast, in California or in the East."
Cakes can reflect a couple's dreams or their ethnic heritage, they can range from understated to wildly imaginative, "their cake can be anything and everything they desire," Manchester writes.
The designs shown in the book make much use of flowers, with refined detail. There's plenty of background information about types of cakes, flavors, fillings and finishing touches; how to choose a baker; a few basic recipes with simple decorations, and a resource guide.
The cakes in "Romantic Wedding Cakes" by Kerry Vincent (Merehurst, 2001) are both more ambitious and more intimidating - if you're not a sugar artist, as she is. Chalk this one up to inspiration, perhaps.
The designs, for guests', grooms' and engagement cakes besides wedding cakes, are indeed elaborately romantic, decked with flowers, bows and frills. Each is accompanied by a professional list of needs: for the cake, for decorating materials, and loads of equipment (cutters, molds, skewers and other tools).
The photographs include detailed close-ups and how-to shots as well as full-view pictures of stately cakes, often evoking crowns and palatial architecture with enough splendor for a royal occasion.
Australian born, Vincent now lives in Oklahoma, and is the co-founder of the annual Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show.
"Cakewalk," subtitled "Adventure in Sugar with Margaret Braun," (Rizzoli International, 2001) radiates its own imaginative splendor. It's an exhilarating and personal survey of the art of cake decorating in general, not just for weddings.
The large-format volume with its gold-edged pages is itself a work of art, profusely illustrated with color photographs by Quentin Bacon, line drawings, collages and fine-art reproductions.
It's a window into the creative processes of the New York City-based Braun, a sugar artist whose creations have been exhibited far and wide.
"It's really a book for inspiration," Braun said, interviewed by phone. She wants to encourage readers not so much to copy designs as to focus on what pleases them. And she says it has "a secret message to women in the kitchen," to look around, to take note of what you like, and use it - "a kind of consciousness-raising," she called it.
There are captivating images of Braun's high-style cakes, lavished with both intense and cool colors, and decoration ranging from gilded baroque curlicues to geometric mosaic.
But the book's varied contents also convey a great deal of practical guidance, in text and illustrations, for both beginners and experienced cake decorators.
At any level, focus on developing your own ideas, Braun urges. "You can start simple, get your food coloring, do polka dots or paint flowers," she said. "Just think about basic shapes and forms. Use magenta and chartreuse if you want to, play with color and shapes, choose the things you like."
Or just sit back and enjoy this sumptuous book.
Chocolate lovers are not forgotten amid the white and pastel fantasies favored by many designers. John Slattery's "Chocolate Cakes for Weddings and Celebrations" (Merefurst, 2001, $29.95) is full of mellow ideas using both dark, light and-or white chocolate.
Slattery is a British chocolatier and some of his ingredient measurements are not adequately translated, but his cakes are great to look at. They and their details could be used as starting points by aspiring and capable cake makers wanting to make their own creations.
For further reading:
- "The Cake Bible" (Morrow, 1988) by Rose Levy Beranbaum, is a classic often mentioned by other pastry and cake makers.
- "The Wedding Cake Book" (Wiley, 1997) by Dede Wilson has 30 complete recipes with step-by-step instruction photos.
- "Colette's Wedding Cakes" (Little, Brown, 1997) has detailed, illustrated instructions for making some 32 cakes.
- "Good Housekeeping Great Baking" (Hearst Books, 2003) has a "beginner's guide to cake art."
- "Family Circle Best-Ever Cakes and Cookies" (Broadway, 2001) has cake decorating basics.
On the Net: