Everything I Learned Making a Wedding Cake from Scratch

updated May 1, 2019
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The dress, the kiss, the dancing, and the cake — there’s so much wrapped up into one special day. I said “I do” just as I began a career in food 10 years ago, before Pinterest and DIY weddings were a thing. But the thought of making my own wedding cake never even occurred to me.

Instead, I ordered a perfectly nice (albeit perfectly forgettable) tiered cake from a professional baker. Fast forward a decade and weddings are freer and less formulaic. So when my sister casually volunteered to our longtime friends, Alex and Tyler, that I’d be open to baking their wedding cake, I was at the same time flattered and terrified. Then I thought, why not? I’ve baked countless cakes, made bowlfuls of buttercream, and, with this opportunity, I knew I could figure out the rest. It would just take plenty of practice and preparation.

Some bakers are so confident in their skills that they wing the whole thing (and it turns out beautifully!). But here’s the thing: I am not that baker. I am a planner and a perfectionist at my core. I absolutely went a little overboard preparing and practicing in the lead-up to making this cake. (And I may have been more anxious for the wedding day than the bride was.) I tweaked the recipes, squirreled egg whites away, and found ways to prepare for the big day, so that I didn’t tear my apron off in a cloud of flour and frustration, proclaiming myself finished with cakes forever.

And I’m happy to say that it was a success! The cake turned out beautifully, Alex and Tyler’s big day was perfect, and I learned a ton along the way. Here’s my best advice if you’re thinking about doing the same thing.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

1. Start by researching what pro wedding cake bakers do.

Baking a wedding cake is quite different in its size and needs from a standard party cake. So I started by closely observing what professional bakers do and what they consider at the beginning.

Every bakery — from the chain grocery store to the small boutique baker — has a cake order form, and it’s a great starting point to mirror. I started there, noting a place for all the sweet wedding day details (you have to know where and when to deliver the goods!) and leaving room for the cake specifics.

Wedding cake slices are significantly smaller than what you’d serve at a birthday party, so I used the Wilton cake cutting guide to advise Alex and Tyler on how large a cake they’d need, keeping in mind that a good number of wedding guests won’t leave the dance floor to get a slice.

I brought Tessa Huff’s book Layered to my meeting with the couple as a jumping-off point for talking flavors and to show them different finishes (none of which included fondant or intricate piping work — techniques that just aren’t in my current skill set). From there we filled in the rest: the number of tiers to the shape of the cakes, and finishing with flavors and fillings.

2. Get an accurate estimate of your costs.

You might bake a wedding cake as your wedding gift to the couple (or even yourself!), but if you’re charging for your work you’ve got to know how much to ask.

Call local bakeries to find out cost per slice and if customers incur delivery or other fees. I made a list of all of the tools needed to make and deliver the cake, factoring in the cost to purchase anything I didn’t already own. I included everything from parchment paper and cake pans to cake boxes and piping bags.

Finally, I did a rough estimate on how many hours I expected to spend testing the recipes, baking and decorating, traveling, and setting up the cake. Just remember: It might not be less expensive for the wedding couple to choose you over an established bakery that orders ingredients in bulk and has the space and equipment already.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

3. Order supplies early.

The last thing you want to think about the week before the wedding is ordering pans, cake boxes, or piping bags. I purchased my supplies early and stored everything in a single bin for easy access.

In addition to baking basics like my stand mixer and large mixing bowls, the equipment I needed included two pans of each size, parchment rounds (I cut circles from parchment sheets, although you can purchase precut rounds), cooling racks, pastry bags, gel food coloring, piping tips, mini and full-size offset and straight spatulas, cake decorating stand, cardboard cake rounds, cake boxes, a level, dowels, and a hacksaw for cutting dowels.

4. Practice the cakes ahead of time!

Between now and the wedding day, whenever friends and neighbors saw me coming, I had a cake in hand. Over the course of a year, I served cakes at one wedding shower, two baby showers, and three birthday parties just for the excuse to practice layers. I baked the wedding cake flavors for each festive occasion to perfect the recipes, adjust existing recipes to fit the wedding day pan size, and simply to increase my comfort level with baking cakes through sheer repetition.

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

5. If making a traditional white cake, freeze your egg whites.

Egg whites freeze beautifully, so for the year leading up to the wedding, I saved egg whites anytime I made a recipe that just called for a yolk. I measured egg whites by weight for the Swiss meringue buttercream, so there was no need to freeze them individually. Instead, any time I had an extra egg white, it went into a food storage container stashed in the freezer.

6. Prep what you can weeks ahead.

Weeks before batter hit the pan, but once the cake recipes were finalized, I measured dry ingredients and sugars into separate containers. I labeled them clearly indicating ingredients, flavor, and tier. (I told you I was a planner and perfectionist!) Cake layers can be made a few weeks in advance as long as they cool completely before wrapping in plastic wrap and foil and frozen. Thaw in the fridge a day before icing so the cakes can defrost slowly.

7. Practice icing and decoration.

Alex and Tyler wanted their cake to be finished in buttercream, colored like the sunset with a casual swirl finish. (See below!) While I didn’t need to practice lace piping patterns or intricate icing flowers, I did practice blending the colors and the swirl texture on the cakes I baked throughout the year.

Cake supply stores and even some craft stores sell styrofoam cake rounds, meant for practicing piping skills, but since I had several layers of cakes stashed in my freezer for months (let’s face it — cake layers were ALL I had in my freezer for months) I had enough of the real thing to practice on.

8. Building a cake isn’t scary. Just go slow.

Each three-layer tier is built on cardboard cake rounds. While I assumed at first that a six-inch cake would go on a six-inch round, my local cake supply store advised me to go up to the next size round for each. This allows for easier movement in and out of the fridge while you fill, frost, and transport the cakes. Before building, just trim the excess with kitchen shears. Any raw edge still visible can be covered up with simple piping, a ribbon, or flowers once the cake is assembled.

Layer cakes are stabilized with a pattern of dowels pressed into the cake, allowing the top tiers to rest on the wooden dowels instead of tender cake. I bought a small, thin hacksaw to trim the dowels to size, leaving a flat edge that I sanded down before inserting into the cake. Once the dowels are in place, a parchment round goes on top to keep the buttercream from sticking to the layer above. Then the cake rounds are carefully (but confidently!) stacked one on top of another.

9. Don’t deliver solo.

It’s a good idea to bring moral support when you deliver the cake — someone to drive while you babysit the cake boxes on the roads’ twists and turns. That friend is an extra pair of eyes to let you know if the cake is centered before you set one layer on top of the other. Most importantly, that friend’s job is to give you a high five and toast you with a glass of Champagne in honor of a job well-done.

Your turn: Have you ever made a wedding cake from scratch before? Leave your best tips and tricks in the comments below.