I Made My Niece’s Wedding Cake and Survived to Tell the Tale

published Jul 31, 2015
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(Image credit: Dana Velden)

When my niece announced her wedding date, I knew I wanted to give her an extra-special gift. Without thinking too much about it, I called her up and volunteered to make her wedding cake. She was thrilled, and we immediately began to discuss possibilities, but when I hung up the phone 10 minutes later, my first thought was, “What I have I gotten myself into?” My impulse to offer the cake was pure, but the reality and responsibility of making a wedding cake hit me like a ton of bricks. Suddenly I remembered how much — how very, very much — can go wrong!

Fast forward to today, nearly one month after the wedding. I not only survived making my niece’s cake, I absolutely loved doing it. Sure, making a wedding cake is a big deal and there were a few stressful moments here and there, but it was also an utterly delightful and truly meaningful way to express my love and support. Needless to say, the cakes turned out great and everyone raved! Not only were they beautiful, but they also tasted wonderful, which, let’s be honest, isn’t always true with commercially made wedding cake where it’s mostly about looks and stability.

(Image credit: Dana Velden)

Know Your Skills

One of the reasons I immediately waltzed into this deal is I have some basic cake-making and cake-decorating skills. I am by no means a professional, but I do have some experience, including making a wee post-wedding cake for some friends. If you are considering doing this for someone you love, be realistic about your skill set. Consider taking a cake decorating class, or at the very least, watch a lot of YouTube videos and practice, practice, practice.

Also important in the skills department is that they matched my niece’s vision of her wedding. She was planning a very rustic, DIY country wedding, and the cakes she liked and shared with me on Pinterest were very simple, just frosting and fresh flowers. No fondant, no elaborate piping, no multi-tiers with Champagne fountains. This is an obvious but still often overlooked point: Be sure your skills are up for the overall look and feel of the wedding.

(Image credit: Dana Velden)

Know Your Recipes

I used a tried and true chocolate cake recipe and a familiar frosting recipe. Still, even though I was familiar with these recipes, I did a trial run at home just to be sure I had them down. It wasn’t practical for me to recreate the whole wedding cake but I did a smaller layer cake, just to see if there were any potential issues and to get my mojo going. I also used many of the same ingredients I was planning on using in the final cake: same brand of chocolate, butter, cocoa powder, etc as these ingredients can vary and have a big impact on the final outcome.

Scaling up a recipe, especially a baking recipe, is tricky. In general, spices, baking soda and powder, and salt need to be proportionally decreased a little with each increase in the over all recipe. In other words, when you triple or quadruple a cake recipe, you do not automatically triple or quadruple the salt, leavening or spices.

Pro tip: My advice is to either find a recipe that has already been professionally scaled up to wedding cake size or consult with someone who knows how to do such things, perhaps a local baker or culinary professional.

Know Your Guests

Since there were a number of gluten-free people attending the reception, I also wanted to make a GF side cake. While the wedding cake was chocolate, I decided that the GF cake should be very different so that it would be easy to distinguish. I didn’t want our celiac aunt to grab a piece of chocolate cake only to discover it was the ‘wrong’ non-GF chocolate cake! So I went with Alice Medrich’s Carrot Cake from her new book Flavor Flours. Excellent choice!

I also knew that the guests were serious dessert eaters (I’m related to most of them, after all.) So instead of following the usual serving calculations that results in those small wedges of cake, I went with full slices. With my 9-inch cakes, using the wedding calculations, they should have served about 24 people but they would have been very small (‘event’) slices. I stayed with an average of 12 slices per 9″ cake which was smart for our crowd. Everyone had a generous piece with just enough left over to serve at the wedding brunch the following day.

Know Your Limits

Besides not wanting to do fondant and fancy piping, I was also a little worried about constructing a large multi-tiered cake. I didn’t want to purchase a lot of plastic cake plates and supports and pillars. And yet, I wanted a ‘wedding cake feel’ for the cake table. So I decided to do a smaller, two-tiered cake as the official cake (and the one that the bride and groom would ceremonially cut) and make several normal-sized side cakes (including the GF carrot cake) to be displayed on pedestals and platters.

Another limit I needed to acknowledge was my frosting choice. I had originally wanted to go with Italian buttercream. This is a classic choice for wedding cakes because it is smooth, stable, and pure white. But it also needs to be made in several batches, each batch involving whipping egg whites in a stand mixer until stiff and then slowly pouring in hot sugar syrup and then more whipping until cool and then adding the butter and then whipping again. This is for each batch of frosting, and I would need to make at least five batches. Ugh.

Luckily, I wandered into a local cafe one morning and spied a beautiful chocolate cupcake topped with a swirl of cream cheese frosting. Bing bing bing! Cream cheese frosting was the solution: it’s rich and creamy and delicious. It’s easy to make, stable in the heat and it also goes with carrot cake. And everybody loves cream cheese frosting. Best decision ever.

(Image credit: Dana Velden)

Know Your Equipment Needs

Wedding cakes often call for cake pans outside of the 8″ or 9″ usually stocked in home kitchens. I happened to have a 6″ from another project and we were able to borrow additional 9″ and 12″ pans. Be sure you can source extra pans while planning your cake strategy or be prepared to purchase them. An offset spatula is also helpful and, if you’re going to tackle piping, a set of tips and piping bags.

We borrowed cake stands from friends and family and a relative lent her heirloom cake knife and server. Again, keeping the cake and setup simple meant that there weren’t additional props and pillars to contend with. If this is the direction you want to go in, they often can be rented from a well-stocked cake decorating shop.

(Image credit: Dana Velden)

Know Your Location

One of my concerns about this project was transporting the cakes. I simply could not imagine driving those curvy rural Wisconsin roads with layered, frosted cakes in the boot, especially on a hot July afternoon. It soon became obvious that while I would bake the cakes the day before, I needed to frost and assemble the cake on location.

This had its risks, too. The location was remote, so it would not be possible to just run out to the store for any last-minute emergencies. I also had to be OK with the fact that I had never laid eyes on the kitchen I would be working in. I knew its basic amenities (small fridge, running water, plenty of counter space) and it’s challenges (small fridge, no air conditioning).

Finally, two other pieces of advice: Have a helper and be flexible. My helper was my mom and she was just great. She helped in all those small but essential ways: prepping the cake pans, wiping up spills, finding the missing measuring cup. I couldn’t have done it without her!

The Day of the Wedding!

The day of the wedding was the day I frosted the cakes on site. Here’s where flexibility came in. My plan was to have the small, two-tiered cake, plus four non-tiered cakes on the table. I managed to frost and assemble the small tiered cake with no issues. But the GF carrot cake did not cooperate. I had baked two rounds to make a two-layered cake, but the cake did not have enough structure to be lifted; it just wanted to crumble apart. So I just decided to serve two single-layer carrot cakes with the frosting mounded on top, leaving the sides bare.

This informed my solution to my next opportunity to be flexible: not enough frosting. Although I had made an extra batch, I still ran short of frosting. So the three smaller chocolate cakes, while layered, also had bare sides. This actually matched the overall look and feel of the rustic country wedding, so it wasn’t at all an issue.

Based on these circumstances and my experiences, I would enthusiastically endorse making a wedding cake if the opportunity arises. It certainly beats giving a generic gift from the registry! While it was a lot of work and a bit stressful at times, in the end it was a deeply rewarding thing to do. Just seeing my niece’s eyes light up when she first saw the cake table was more than enough of a reason to do it. It was truly a labor of love.

(Image credit: Dana Velden)