Can You Have a Dragon Cake, and Eat it Too?

So it’s wedding season. Well, pre-wedding season. And over the coming months wedding planners, florists, dress shops and cake designers alike will be working overtime to help blushing brides create the wedding of their dreams.  The perfect location, the perfect photos the perfect date – a lot goes into your day and there is no shortage of professionals to help make those dreams come true.

I love wedding season. Suddenly girls that were strangers to you just weeks before are bringing you into their world and asking you to be part of making their perfect day happen. There is a certain quick friendship that occurs doing this job. I have met grooms and moms, best friends, sisters, even grandmas and grandpas. These people hold a special place in the hearts of our brides. You share stories and ideas, and laughs, and it is all pretty badass on the whole. I Iove the pace, the pressure, and mostly the people. Along with all of this also come a lot of questions: questions about cake, and buttercream, and tiers, and designs, and the ever present questions about fondant. Oh fondant, this little misunderstood hunk of sugar that seems to freak people out A LOT! So I am here to, hopefully, explain some of what goes into your wedding cake and maybe end the love-hate relationship between brides and their fondant.

The first thing I have to say is making cake takes a lot of work and a lot of time. Television shows like Ace of Cakes and Cake Boss have allowed us to see cakes in a whole new light. Gone are the days of tiered cakes held up by pedestals with a bundle of roses sitting on the top. No, now we can make cars and dragons, topsy turvy cakes with stripes and polka dots and smoke that will come out of the top. But how reasonable are these cakes for the average person? The magic of television makes it seem like these cakes are made in an hour. Elaborate designs limited only by the imagination suddenly appear at weddings or birthdays to the ooh’s and ah’s of a delighted room full of guests. But how much do these works of art cost? And how long do they really take to make? More than once I have heard the disappointed “OH, really?” when I have explained the process, the time, and the expense of creating those edible works of art. People are shocked when I explain that the cakes we see on T.V. start at a base rate of $1000.00+  or the cost per slice can range anywhere from $12.00- $20.00, ending up with a price tag in the thousands! So what goes into making your perfect cake?

Let me start at the beginning. There are generally two things that go into pricing a wedding cake: cost per serving, and the design. Every cake designer will base their quote on these two things. The cost may vary a little from city to city or designer to designer, based on their location or their experience making cakes. But we all expect wedding cakes to cost some money. Why is that? Well because to make a cake these days you not only need to know how to bake a mean cake and whip up a pretty great buttercream you have to know a little about engineering! Suddenly you are looking at physics. How can I suspend this piece of sugar from that structure to make this look like its coming out here while still making this go this way and put the flowers on here … it can get pretty intense! Can we do it? Sure we can, is it easy or inexpensive? Probably not.

What I hope to do here is shed a little light on what goes into making your cake from we humble cake designers that haven’t gotten our television show yet *grin*. And hopefully prevent a few disappointments along the way when someone hears that the six-foot dragon cake they wanted costs several thousands of dollars to make!

Basically there are two types of cakes, tiered/stacked cakes and sculpted cakes. I’m just going to explain the process for a tiered cake right now. For a sculpted cake just take everything you’re about to read here and put it on steroids!

First thing would be the obvious, buying the ingredients and making the cake. This is where a designer will need to do a little math and figure out your serving amounts and how much cake you will need to make to accommodate your design. Once you have done that the cakes are baked, and keep in mind a regular 3-tier cake can mean you have baked off 6 pans of cakes in any range of size from 18 inches down to 6, you will then have to level the cake and torte it. Torting it is where you cut the cake into layers in order to create a single tier. This is where the buttercream comes in. Buttercream is your filling. It can be almost anything. Ganache, mousse, cream cheese, strawberry, raspberry, blue, pink, pretty much anything you can think of and it goes between the torted layers. So, once you have bought your ingredients, baked the cakes, made your buttercream, leveled, torted and filled the cake you now have to crumb coat it. Crumb coating is where you cover the whole tier, after it has been layered, in a smooth coating of buttercream to get it ready for the fondant, the dreaded fondant.

As I mentioned earlier, fondant is this misunderstood piece of sugar that has earned a bad rap. People are never totally sure what it is. Does it go in the cake or on it? Is it flavoured? Is it thick? Can I take it off? Can I cut it? Can I eat it? Oh the fear! And if there is one thing I have learned in my life as a cake decorator it is people either hate fondant or love it. There is no middle ground. No “meh, I could take it or leave it.” Oh no! It is always, “I HATE that stuff!” or “I LOVE fondant.” So what is it exactly? It is essentially play-doh in sugar form that we knead and roll out and use to cover your cake. Fondant is what allows the designer to be able to create all those awesome wedding cake designs you see everywhere. It molds and bends and covers your cake with a beautiful smooth finish. It is essential for making any of the designs you see these days.

Now that you have prepared your cake tiers it’s time to stack them. Each cake tier needs to be placed on a cake board, and then each tier needs to have dowels placed inside. Dowels are placed inside to support the weight of the next tier sitting on the top. Otherwise the weight of each tier would just crush the cake below it. Once the next tier is on its board it is then carefully placed making sure to have it centred over the dowels in the cake below. When all the cakes are stacked, a centre dowel is pushed through the whole shooting match so that the cake won’t shift.  So next time you see a beautiful wedding cake you will know that inside of it is a whole unseen structural support! WHO KNEW!?

Once your cake is baked and covered and stacked, next comes the decorating.  This is where the most fun comes in! Shaping and molding and creating figures and beads and flowers are where you can really get your groove on. It is also where the most time comes in. Making simple handmade roses is a process that takes a long time to produce just one, then it has to dry for several days, and finally be painted or dusted to look real, then steamed to seal it all in. So a beautiful cascade of flowers means weeks of work has gone into making it. I can hear angels sing when I make a really awesome sugar flower!

So there you have it, albeit the short and sweet version. A cake, especially a good cake, can’t be pumped out in a day like T.V. makes us think. It takes hours, days and sometimes weeks to make and create all the elements on a cake, and generally there isn’t a brigade of people working on various pieces of a cake in a fully loaded bakery the size of a house. It is more than likely a very dedicated cake designer working hard to help make your dream cake come to life.