If you know me, it doesn’t surprise you when I pick up a new hobby. I pick them up like pretty pebbles along a hiking trail. However, unlike pebbles, my new hobbies don’t usually end up being tossed away or back onto the path where I found them. They typically wind up in decorative jars at home or sometimes, they even go through a polishing process until they turn into quite lovely things indeed.
Cake baking and decorating is not a new hobby for me. My family has always loved desserts, so I grew up helping my mom frost caramel cake for my dad and watching her come up with creative ideas for all of our birthday cakes. I remember sifting confectioners’ sugar over a doily to decorate a cake for Emily Dickenson’s birthday when we read her poetry for the first time.
I’m still not sure what prompted the question, but when a dear friend asked my sister and me to make her wedding cake almost five years ago, we were excited to create a part of the celebration. Shortly after saying yes, I realized how much I didn’t know about making cake. Especially that much cake! So what could I do? I went to the library. Because you can find books to tell you anything you need to know about just about anything.
I don’t necessarily recommend the self-taught approach to wedding cakes, but our first one came together pretty well (if a shaky on the piping).
There were a lot of lessons learned there. Don’t put too much filling between the layers, especially if it’s jelly. Put the cake in the freezer before putting the frosting on. Fondant is a tricky beast, probably a relative of Mr. Stay Puft. But more importantly, a celebration doesn’t have to be expensive and complicated to be special. I was honored to be a part of that wedding, and even now it has a summery glow in my memory. A summery glow with the taste of vanilla cake with raspberry filling.
Surprisingly, I had the chance to use my newly acquired skills again. Two other friends asked if we would make cakes for their weddings. Being out of the country that following summer made it impossible, but the summer after that, we were asked again. This time, the challenge was a square shape, the impossibility of finding a square cake stand, writing on the cake, and arranging a cupcake display.
This cake involved much more arts and crafts than the previous one. We devised a “cake stand” from a wide picture frame, and used a moveable scrapbooking stamp with vanilla extract and food coloring to make faint outlines of words that we could fill in by hand. There were lessons there, too. Cupcake carriers cannot be trusted to keep the contents from throwing themselves around. Always bring filled frosting bags—you will need them. Small disasters like half of your chocolate cupcakes being tumbled can always be rectified with a calm head and the reminder that, after all, it is only a small disaster in the grand scheme of things. The day was beautiful, with the smell of buttercream and lavender in the air.
Last fall, we had yet another challenge. The bride had decided on the classic autumn look, the sweeping branch up the side of the cake. The greatest difficulty in cake making, like costuming, I find, is the amount of gravity that you have to defy.
I didn’t expect to learn so much from this cake: the more food coloring you put into fondant, the more flexible and less likely to dry quickly it is. Achieving burgundy in food coloring involves a copious amount of almost every color in your cabinet. Give yourself a day longer than you think you will need when sculpting a tree branch on a cake. Also, do not walk through a Sunday-busy park carrying a four-tier cake in your hands for a quarter of mile. It can be done. It is not a good idea. Even if you pulled it off. It is not a good idea.
But also, I learned that challenges can be overcome as long as the focus is clear. For challenges of the wedding variety, this is especially true. While I couldn’t organize set-up or direct guests, I could make sure that the wedding cake was as close as possible to the picture of the dream cake that the bride wanted, that the table was arranged beautifully, and that it was a delicious gluten-free cake. I missed much of the reception while I was serving cake, but I was happy to do it, to make sure that everything went as smoothly as it could for the happy couple.
The latest adventure in wedding cake making was an impromptu surprise. My sister and I had two days’ notice, but with one advantage. We didn’t have to bake the cake itself. That gave us one day to devise a decorating scheme and scour the shops for anything remaining of winter decorations (did you know it’s already April? I thought it was January), and one day to shape the cake layers, apply the crumb coats, stack the cake, cover with fondant, and decorate.
This was my first cake decorated in front of an audience, which felt a little like being on a reality show, but they seemed to enjoy it, so it’s all good. Like the first wedding cake we made, we had total freedom to decorate it as we pleased. This is fun, and worrying, too.
There were lessons here, too. It is possible to make a wedding cake in two days. Choosing the less time-intensive option isn’t always letting the terrorists win. Gum paste is not as difficult as it looks. And, most importantly, you will never regret taking the opportunity to do something special for another person if it is within your power.
So wedding cakes and I have had a long and unexpected journey together. I didn’t expect that I would be making them five years ago, and I’m still convinced that I’ll never be a professional. Just an amateur who does her best and still has a lot to learn. Who knows what the next project will be? I think this hobby is here to stay.