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Lessons in Wedding Planning: making your own cake

14 Dec 2016

Bride-to-be Jessica Phillipson sits down with her wedding cake-maker, and mother-in-law, to offer advice for brides who want to dabble in DIY

Hello brides-to-be,

’Tis the season for over indulgence, so my thoughts have turned to cake.

Fortunately for us, my future mother-in-law (Liz) has agreed to make our wedding cake. Though she modestly claims not to be an expert, over the six-and-a-half years I have known Liz, she has made dozens of exquisite cakes. Whether it’s family functions, colleagues’ birthdays or the festive season, Liz is the go-to person for a cracking cake and there’s nobody I trust more to make our wedding cake.

Knowing not everyone will be in this enviable position, I picked Liz’s brains about what a not-really-amateur-but-not-technically-an-expert needs to know about making wedding cakes...

Q: What type of cake goes on what layer? 

A: Traditionally, wedding cakes are dense fruit cakes as they keep well (the top layer was kept for the christening). These can be made in advance and fed with brandy. The flavour matures and it gets easier to cut into small portions – if you try to cut into small portions too soon after baking you’ll get piles of crumbs. The fruit cake I’ve been making for many years is from the Reader's Digest Cookery Year, which my parents gave me for my 18th birthday. The one I’ve done most [Jess: which we’re having] has dried sour cherries, cranberries and chocolate – a modern twist on tradition.

It’s a relatively new concept to have different flavours for the individual layers. Stacked cakes are dowelled and each cake sits on a thin board, so weight is not an issue. The answer has to be supply and demand – the biggest should be the most popular.

Q: How far in advance can you make the cake?

A: Fruit cakes should be made a good three months in advance to mature. The fruit begins to break down and is much easier to cut. Sponge cakes should only be made a couple of days ahead or they may dry out. Aim for a heavy Genoese or Madeira style – easier for cutting, moist, and shouldn’t sink. Good sponge cakes can be frozen.

Q: What size portion per person should you aim for?

A: I’m guessing 3"x 3"x 1” maximum to begin with. You can always have more than one piece. No one likes to be served a large, untidy piece of cake.

Q: Are there any types of cake that aren’t suitable?

A: Anything light like a whisked sponge (Swiss roll) or where the eggs are separated may not really match the icing. Nothing with big bits in due to cuttability issues.

Q: Are there any flavours you would avoid?

A: Stick to traditional flavours. You may have a craving for banana and liquorice, but you can guarantee nobody else will.

Q: Where do you look for ‘cake-spiration’?

A: Regarding cake making, Kathy Moore’s book Cakes from Concept to Creation details all aspects of celebration cake making: recipes, sizing, assembly, portions, design. Peggy Porschen has similar clear instructions and advice – Cakes in Bloom is lovely.

Cake Geek has online tutorials and lovely pictures.

For sugar flower manufacture, books I have are by Alison Proctor, Lesley Herbert and Claire Webb – some are a little disheartening as they look so perfect and are very fiddly. For the ultimate sugar flowers, look at Amy Swann – I have no idea how she does it. Just perfect.

If you want to try sugar flowers, be realistic. Get some basic equipment and start with roses and filler flowers – they are easier than they look! [Jess: But not that easy. I spent an entertaining afternoon with Liz making triangular roses as I was so bad at it]. Sugar flowers are brittle, so make spares. Bare wires into cake are a definite no-no – you have to use a flower pick.  

Q: What’s the key to smooth icing? 

A: I’ve only ever done fondant icing, not traditional royal icing. The key to a smooth finish is a) a well prepared undercoat – almond paste for fruitcake and buttercream for sponges. Remember to stick down the almond paste with apricot jam – I forgot once. A crumb coat is essential for sponge cakes as you don’t want bits on the icing. This is a doddle on a chilled cake and buttercream can be layered thinly to give a really good finish. And b) you need thick enough fondant. Don’t skimp or you’ll get lumps and shadows. Use a good quality fondant – people may leave it but lard icing is not nice.

Q: What’s your must-have tool for making cakes?

A: For icing, a turntable and smoother/polisher for fondant. A thermapen is lovely for checking whether cakes are done [Jess: a Christmas present from yours truly], especially if you’ve scaled up and aren’t sure how long to cook for – you can’t just double the time if you double the quantity. 

Q: Any hints and tips?

A:

  • Read the recipe properly
  • Assemble ingredients before starting
  • Eggs and butter at room temperature
  • Use the right sized tin – the volume of an 8” square is not the same as an 8” round
  • Line tins properly
  • Know your oven temperature (get an oven thermometer) and don’t open the door until at least ¾ of the way through cooking
  • Allow yourself plenty of time to do everything
  • Enjoy it. You may not end up with a perfect finished product, but it will be your finished product.

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