"There was a time when cakes just looked good," said Vikki Leach, a Philadelphia wedding coordinator. "But nowadays there are so many different wishes people have. They're doing mocha icings, white chocolate shavings, chocolate chips in cakes. For every bride who has been born, there's a cake."
It's not unusual for brides and grooms to shop for wedding cakes with tear sheets from magazines. Sometimes, the expectations of couples don't coincide with the constraints of a large wedding cake. But that doesn't preclude unique creations, which often focus as much on content as form.
For example, there was the macrobiotic cake - honey instead of sugar, whole-wheat flour, no eggs - that Anthony Patafio, assistant pastry chef at the Four Seasons Hotel, made for one health-conscious couple.
Then there was the Italian rum-flavored butter cake that Peter Dierkes, now of the Pink Rose Pastry Shop on South Fourth Street, made using a favorite recipe from the grandmother of the bride who did not feel up to making the cake herself.
And, finally, there were the 22 miniature genoise cakes filled with an English lemon cream and topped with a Grand Marnier buttercream and intricate gum-paste flowers that Deborah Kaplan of Sud Fine Pastry in South Philadelphia prepared for a wedding.
Each of the cakes was decorated differently and placed on the dinner tables, where they doubled as centerpieces before they became dessert.
The art of wedding-cake baking has experienced a renaissance in the last decade or so, according to Donna Ferrari, the tabletop, food and wine editor for Bride's Magazine.
Although the wedding cake - said to symbolize future sweetness and goodness for the bride and groom - is something rarely done without, Ferrari said that the 1950s through the 1970s was a moderate, unremarkable period for the cake. It was a period in which people were often satisfied with a few roses squeezed out of a pastry bag.
"It was not until the 1980s that, coinciding with the growing interest in food, people wanting more theater in food and young people going to cooking schools that the sugar craft was back out there," Ferrari said.
Cakes and Toasts, by Ferrari and other editors at Bride's Magazine, is a testament to the revitalized art. The book showcases elaborate cakes in which sugar is molded into designs ranging from quilts, stacked silver and gold presents, and even a wicker basket filled with sugar (and edible) flowers.
Barbara Tober, Bride's Magazine's editor-in-chief, stressed that the intricate and often costly sugar work (one gum-paste sugar flower can cost $5 or the equivalent of a whole bouquet of flowers) is simply one kind of wedding cake available today.
She said that a variety of cakes - including those made by friends or relatives of the bride and groom - can be found at weddings. If there is one trend that she could point to, Tober said that people are serving cakes that are both a personal statement and delicious.
"Wedding cakes must taste good," Tober said. "It can be chocolate, zucchini bread or carrot cake, but it must taste good."
Industry experts offer this advice: Prospective brides and grooms looking to find a cake that expresses their own style should spend some time thinking about the cake form they want. Next, they should make the rounds of area bakeries, tasting the options.
"Whatever style you choose, you have to strike a balance between a very good flavor and craftsmanship," said Joseph McKenna, associate pastry chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. McKenna, who formerly worked at the Bellevue Hotel, cautioned that "flavor should be the real concern."
After concept and flavor, price - not necessarily in that order - is a crucial consideration. Keep in mind that the number of labor-intensive details and ingredients has a great effect on cost. With prices ranging from $2 to $12 a slice (making a wedding cake for 150 people priced from $300 to $2,000), such details as butter versus shortening must be considered.
For example, at Viking Pastries in Ardmore, baker Richard Petrone said most cakes cost about $2 a slice. For that price, a customer would get a traditional yellow chiffon wedding cake with vanilla buttercream frosting inside and outside the cake. The buttercream at Viking is a mix of shortening and butter, Petrone said. A lemon or strawberry filling would cost about 25 cents more a slice.
Average cost of a more contemporary cake made at Sud Fine Pastry is about $5 a slice. Sud Fine's Kaplan, who makes her buttercream frosting out of a mixture of cooked meringue and butter (she shuns shortening), has done everything from creating deco-style wedding cakes to icing a wooden box atop a cake that contained doves that were dramatically released at the appropriate time.
"The design is the most important thing to working within a budget," Kaplan said. "The insides are almost all the same price."
A Victorian-style piped buttercream four-tiered cake decorated with a cascade of flowers to match the wedding colors at Sud Fine would cost about $525 for 150 people. The price nearly doubles for a cake decorated with ruffled fondant - a thin, moldable sugar mixture that can be made to look like fabric - and topped with a cupid made out of gum-paste sugar.
When wedding coordinator Leach needs to find a cake for a client, she talks to other wedding professionals and asks for recommendations on bakeries in the wedding area.
She then sets up an appointment with at least three bakeries to meet the chefs, take a look at photos they might have on hand and taste some of the cakes. Leach said she makes sure to ask when the cake in question will be
baked to ensure freshness.
"People will say you don't have to do all that," Leach said. "But you do."
With the aim toward serving a cake that at the very least pleases the happy couple, different bakers offer potential wedding cake customers several means of sampling the end result.
At the Pink Rose, owner Julie Van de Graaf makes appointments with couples to go over the options. Pink Rose makes all-natural cakes - except for food coloring - and uses no mixes, said Van de Graaf. While customers were once offered only English-style marzipan wedding cakes, Van de Graaf now offers everything from chocolate cakes to fruit mousse-filled cakes.
On a customer's first visit to La Patisserie Francaise, in a house in Haddonfield, owner Diane Nussbaum recently gave the customer a sliver of her light pound cake with a dab of both American and French buttercream icing to give a realistic idea of the difference.
At La Patisserie Francaise, the client first looks at the photos of wedding cakes that Nussbaum has made, then chooses a flavor and style. The next step is ordering a mini-version of the final cake.
Nussbaum subtracts the price (about $15) of the tester cake from the wedding bill if the customer decides to have the wedding cake made at La Patisserie Francaise.
But despite the admonitions of food professionals urging couples to search out the perfect cake, not all professionals heed their own advice. When McKenna, an award-winning pastry chef, was asked about his own wedding cake, he laughed.
His wedding cake, he said, was something he left up to his caterer. It was a bit too much for him to handle at the time.
"We said, 'Whatever you have is great,' " McKenna recalled. "There were about 99 other things to do."
FOR MORE INFORMATION
* Here are some bakeries in the Philadelphia area that make wedding cakes: Pink Rose Pastry Shop, 630 S. Fourth St., 215-592-0565; Salon de The, 120 Market St., 215-629-9610; Sud Fine Pastry, 801 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-592-0499; Swiss Pastries, 35 S. 19th St., 215-563-0759; Termini Bros. Bakery, 1523 S. 8th St., 215-334-1816; Viking Pastries, 39 Cricket Ave., Ardmore, 610-642-9643, and La Patisserie Francaise, 101 Ellis St., Haddonfield, 609-795-1035.