Wedding cakes heaped in whimsy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Think Alice in Wonderland – in rolled fondant icing with tilted tiers and a cacophony of colors."

I was showing my mother a blueprint of my wedding cake. She was not amused.

The base was bedecked in bright blue-and-white argyle checks, surrounding a second layer of buttery yellow with red-and-white icing flowers. The top, an encore of blue, yellow, and white, but in polka dots and stripes. As for the cake topper: strands of white, er, spheres.

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"How are you going to keep it from tipping over?" my mother asked with a smirk.

She had wanted a "traditional" cake – the kind my fiancé and I had just seen on pages of pictures at the bakery. To us, the white castles of confectionhad all begun to look the same. That's when we decided that ours would have a huge helping of whimsy. And that the bride and groom figurines would not make the guest list, thank you very much.

After our wedding last June, where we served this very cake (at right), we were still smug with our dare-to-be-different decision. That is, until the food editor of this paper asked me to write an article on wedding cakes. Turns out, we were just mere cogs in a whole torte-reform movement.

So I called upon Sylvia Weinstock, who has been creating high-end wedding cakes in New York City for more than 20 years, for some solace. First I asked her to distill the latest wedding-cake trends into four adjectives. She gave me: "whimsical, nontraditional, personalized, and delicious."

Now I felt sheepish.

"I've topped a cake with a replica of a couple's dog, and another with a pair of skis," she says. She's even crafted an entire cake into a gigantic fish for a couple who loves fishing.

Modern baking methods have cultivated a generous amount of creativity among the almost wedded. Not to mention a higher demand for better-tasting cake.

"Brides these days are older, and they have more sophisticated palates – they've eaten various ethnic foods, they've traveled more, and they also want something that's a little different," confirms Ms. Weinstock.

No more of that bland, sawdust-tasting white sponge cake. On mine, for instance, I opted for a different flavor on each layer: tiramisu, chocolate with fresh raspberries, and vanilla with fresh strawberries and cream.

Chocolate is the hottest alternative to vanilla, says Weinstock. But gaining ground are eclectic flavors such as ginger, cardamom, pistachio, and blood orange. In fall and winter, popular choices have been spice cake with caramel, hazelnut with chocolate mousse, and almond cake with apricot cream.

Competing with the traditional round tiers are square, octagonal, and hexagonal confections. The bride and groom toppers, meanwhile, most likely grace cakes when they are a sentimental heirloom or to add kitschy flair. Or in some cases, custom-made marzipan figurines resemble the couple.

Breakthroughs in icing during the past 20 years are a main reason for the moist, flavorful cakes of today. "Before, a cake might have been decorated for days or even weeks [before the wedding] with a hard icing made of egg whites and sugar," says Weinstock. Worse, the icing couldn't be refrigerated, so the simple cake – made without butter, eggs, or fresh fruit – was bound to taste stale by the time it was served.

And before that, around the early 1900s, the wedding cake du jour was a large, heavy fruitcake that was so labor- intensive (due to primitive baking methods back then) that it was often made not weeks but months in advance.

Now, many decorations, such as ornate sugar-dough flowers or marzipan fruits, are made ahead and attached later. Most icings can be refrigerated, and cakes are served within three days.

Weinstock is famous for lavish explosions of edible sugar-dough flowers, which sometimes match bouquets. "Other times, a bride will want the cake decorations to replicate the lace and beading on her gown," she says.

After all, a wedding is all about details. "After the bride," she adds, "the cake is the most photographed item."

But there is one thing about the photogenic centerpiece, says Weinstock, that hasn't changed: Flowers still take the cake.

"They're the most popular cake decoration because they are considered romantic, and people are still into romance."

My mom had to agree with that – the confection flowers were her favorite part.

Cut the cake: history of the ritual

Originally, the wedding "cake" was not eaten by the bride, but thrown at her. The wedding cake concept evolved early on in Europe from grains of wheat – long a symbol of fertility and prosperity – that were showered on the happy couple. Single women, so we are told, scrambled for the grains to ensure their own betrothals.

Around 100 BC, Roman bakers reportedly turned the wheat into bread loaves – but not to be eaten. The bread was crumbled over the bride's head, usually by the groom. It was considered good luck for guests to eat the crumbs.

During the Middle Ages, the bread became simple biscuits or scones – this time to be eaten. Guests were encouraged to bring some to the couple as a gift.

In the British Isles, so the story goes, the biscuits and scones were piled up after the ceremony, and the bride and groom attempted to kiss over the mound – the taller it was, the more prosperous the couple. Afterward, guests were allowed to partake of the bread heap.

However, an anonymous French chef visiting London in the 16th century was appalled by the unsanitary and chaotic tradition. So he transformed the mountain of bland bread into an iced, multilayered cake.

Today, couples cut a slice of the wedding cake before anyone else and feed it to each other, symbolizing the support they'll provide to each other.

Source: 'Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things,' by Charles Panati (Harper & Row).

Bake your own castle of confection

During the past 20 years, breakthroughs in wedding-cake frostings and baking methods, along with changing tastes among brides, have allowed for more artistry and imagination. This has spawned a subset of "wedding cake designers." Many of them also offer cookbooks – guides to help you design and bake your very own castle of confection (and at a fraction of the cost of buying one).

Sweet Celebrations: The Art of Decorating Beautiful Cakes, by Sylvia Weinstock (Simon & Schuster, $35) offers 24 cake projects with color photos and detailed blueprints.

Colette's Wedding Cakes, by Colette Peters (Little Brown and Co., $26.95) showcases 32 stunning wedding creations, organized by season.

The Perfect Wedding Cake, by Kate Manchester (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $22.50) includes baking instructions for and photos of 35 cake designs, which range from traditional to contemporary.

Contemporary Wedding Cakes, by Nadene Hurst (Charles E. Tuttle Co., $29.95) provides 24 exquisite designs and photos for wedding cakes ranging from Art Nouveau to a Victorian cake with heavy scroll piping.

The Wedding Cake Book, by Dede Wilson (Macmillan, $35) features imaginative recipes and various scaling sizes.

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