The A-Z of Cake
(minus the ‘U’, ‘X’, ‘Y’ and ‘Z’)
While it’s sad to admit it, my life revolves largely around cakes and anything made of sugar. I love relaxing with a cake book and a glass of wine. For me, the differences between sugarpaste and fondant is like, so obvious (clue…they are the actually the same thing, just the American/British name), but to most normal people, the world of cake and sugarcraft is a confusing minefield where quite literally anything is possible. There is a lot to consider and a lot of unfamiliar language so I have tried to break it down into chunks covering the essentials – terminology as well as things to look out for when choosing your dream wedding breakfast centrepiece. We talk about everything from different types of icing, ganache, toppers, flowers, fillings, height and location to name a few!
I warn you now folks, this is a LONG blog post but as your wedding cake is one of your bigger expenses, it’s worth the read so you have a head start when you meet your designer! So grab a cuppa and lets get learning about cake….
A is for Allergies…
Okay, so this may not be the most exciting topic to begin this blog, but cake is food, so it is important! Rushing a member of the Bridal Party to A&E during the speaches is not a good memory for the wedding!
The vast majority of independent bakers, myself included, work in an environment where there may be traces of allergens through cross- contamination. I can guarantee that a whole peanut won’t be in your cake, but I can’t guarantee that a trace of peanut won’t have survived the dishwasher on a spatula. For some, just a microscopic trace is enough for a potentially fatal allergic-reaction. As a result, while there are a few designers who can provide true ‘free from’, most designers will not provide cakes guaranteed to be allergy-free. The extent to which this is important will depend on the nature of your allergy but it is important to ask. Your baker should have a list of the primary allergens used in their recipes to make available to you if you have any guests who cannot eat something.
In many ways, this is one time were supermarket-purchased cakes can be a good option as they have dedicated facilities for specific dietary requirements, thus guaranteeing allergen-free products. If there is a severe allergy, you can always get one of these to complement your main cake so everyone can enjoy some cake on the day.
B is for Buttercream…
Buttercream is a very versatile mixture used for filling and covering cakes. It can be dyed, flavoured, piped, textured and smoothed. The mixture will vary depending on where you live. In the UK, a traditional buttercream is a mixture of icing sugar and butter. It is sweet, buttery and will always have a slightly yellow colour. In other regions, you may find ‘meringue’ buttercreams which also incorporate egg whites and have a very different texture/taste. While not technically ‘buttercream’, vegetable shortening can be substituted for butter to give a white buttercream (often featured on pinterest and wedding magazines) but the flavour will be very different to a buttercream that we British are used to. Be sure to try some before specifying that you want a shortening-based buttercream on your wedding cake.
Depending on the design, a buttercream-covered cake may be more cost effective option than a fondant-covered cake. BUT buttercream is made of, well, butter and will melt in warm weather. While the effect can be beautiful, it may not be suitable for all venues, especially marquees on a hot summers’ day!
C is for Cake Cutting…
Most wedding cakes will be cut in 1x2x4” pieces for sponge cakes and 1x1x4” for fruit cakes. A 3-tier all sponge cake will yield about 78 servings using this portion guide. Depending on how/when you plan to serve your cake, your designer may recommend making this serving smaller and change the cake sizes accordingly. If you’re serving your cake as dessert for the wedding breakfast, a full serving is advisable but if you’re having cake as an extra with coffee, a smaller serving will usually be sufficient. It is important that your venue/caterers know how to cut a wedding cake correctly, otherwise you may not have enough cake for your guests (or you may have loads to take home)! Your designer should be able to provide you with a cake cutting guide to give your venue if needed.
Check that your venue/caterer includes the cost of cutting and serving the cake in your price! It may seem like a silly question but taking apart and cutting up a 4-tier, 137-slice cake is no easy task and it is sometimes an extra service you have to pay for.
D is for…
Cake delivery may seem like an extravagant extra when a willing friend will happily pick it up for you but it is strongly recommended, especially if you have 3 or more tiers.
Wedding cakes are deceptively heavy, fragile, temperature sensitive and, of course, a food product so must be treated with care. Decorators are experienced in transporting their cakes (safely!) and should have a repair kit to fix any damage should the worst happen. Some designers will insist on delivering larger or particularly delicate cakes and assembly and finishing on-site. Lets face it, when you have paid potentially hundreds of pounds for your dream wedding cake, it’s worth a little bit extra to ensure it makes it to the venue in one piece!
If you do choose to transport your cake yourself, it must be kept level at all times – place it in the boot or a flat foot-well. Ensure there are no loose objects to roll about, and drive like you have an egg balanced on your head.
Flowers, figurines, silhouettes, flags, bunting, lace, piping, jewellery, chocolate…Flowers, figurines, silhouettes, flags, bunting, lace, piping, jewellery, chocolate…where do you begin??!
First off, your designer should advise you on what decorations would suit the type of cake you are looking for, both practically and physically. An 8” tall cake topper will look very odd sat on a small, single tier wedding cake for an intimate celebration for example. A cake which requires hours of hand piping may require a cake base which has a longer shelf life – chocolate fudge or fruit perhaps – if you desperately want a light vanilla sponge, lots of hand piping may therefor not be the choice for you. While you can go to your designer with a completely open mind, it’s helpful to have at least an idea of what look you want for your wedding cake.
Here’s a bit of information about what looks can be achieved with what decorations:
Flowers are a common decoration and can be used for a LOT of different looks (modern, vintage, rustic, depending on how they are arranged). Flowers will have an entry all of their own very soon!
Silhouettes/figures are playful, fun and can be used to tell stories aboutthe couple’s relationship.
Flags/ bunting have been really popular over recent years as the ‘vintage’ theme has become mainstream. Different colour bunting can bring across a different looks and is a good option for couples who want their names on their cake without a traditional monogram.
Lace effects – real, hand-piped, applique or from a mat – lace can give a cake a very romantic look. New edible lace mats mean that you can have a lace-effects without huge expense if you are comfortable with a generic pattern. Alternatively, you could go for an ultimate in cake personalisation – give your designer a picture or piece of lace from your wedding dress (or even your mothers/grandmother’s dress!) and have them either replicate it with hand piping or make a bespoke mould of the material!
Jewellery – used very carefully, real jewellery can be incorporated into a cake design. Using family heirlooms can be a lovely way of creating a talking point and remembering family. Larger pieces such as broaches work best to serve as focal points, for example using one in the centre of an over-sized bow.
No matter what you choose, your decorations must be prepared appropriately. Anything that is inserted into the cake must be shielded by a food-grade barrier. Weighty decorations (such as large cake toppers) may also need a support structure to stop them sinking into the cake…a mini-bride slowly drowning in buttercream isn’t a good look!
E is for Edges…
Sharp or curved? Traditional designs often have more rounded edges recent fashions lean to sharp, crisp corners. The overall look to a cake will vary greatly depending on which option you choose so it is worthwhile looking at different designs to see what you prefer. The sharpest edges will be achieved from royal icing on a fruit cake built up in layers but a comparable effect is achievable with fondant. Most of our cakes use ‘sharp’ edges but there are one or two with curved. Take a look at the differences in our gallery!
F is for Flowers…
Flowers can look stunning on cakes and quickly achieve many different looks. But what type do you choose? Fresh, silk or sugar? All can be a beautiful but each have pros and cons…
Fresh flowers – cost effective, they can match your bouquets perfectly and they can be very beautiful but must be used carefully – some flowers are poisonous and nearly all are grown using non-edible pesticides. Pollen falling can damage the cake. So, if choosing fresh, ensure your flowers are non-toxic varieties AND prepared appropriately using a posy-pick. While there are ways around it (artificial tiers being the best option), some designers will refuse to use fresh flowers completely.
Silk flowers – silk flowers have come a LONG way in recent years. Many are now nearly indistinguishable from their real counterparts. If your chosen flower is poisonous, this can be a good alternative and cheaper than having sugar flowers.
Sugar flowers – what’s better than a flower made of sugar? Sugar flowers are the ultimate in cake artistry. They are beautiful and, when looked after correctly, can be kept as a memento of your day for years to come. However, making them requires great time and skill on the part of your decorator so they are the most expensive option.
No matter what you have seen in pictures or on the TV, you must never simply insert flowers directly into a cake! Have you ever looked into a florist’s bucket? They must be wrapped and inserted into a food-safe posy-pick first…think flower goo dripping out the bottom of stems and slowly being absorbed into the sponges…yuck!
G is for Ganache…
A delicious mixture of chocolate and cream, ganache has been a filling for cakes for some time – it’s the base for many truffle chocolates you buy. We also use ganache as a coating layer between the cake and the fondant. This helps to keep the cake fresh and provides a sturdy base (for a clean finish)! As ganache holds up better in the summer, it’s a great alternative to buttercream too.
H is for Height…
The height of your cake is very important to the overall impact it will have and it should be appropriate to the setting where the cake will be displayed. A small 2-tier cake will get completely lost in a grand venue with a vaulted ceiling – similarly, a 7-tier cake may look out of place in a standard-12ft high room. There are a lot of ways of giving a cake height – dummy tiers, tall cake stands, pillaring between tiers and creative staging using props. Your designer should be able to help you with ideas for this.
I is for Icing…
(also called fondant, sugar-paste, ready-to-roll icing).
Icing is the (often white/ivory) sweet coating which you find on celebration cakes. It is made mainly of sugar and very versatile, able to be moulded, sculpted, coloured, flavoured and shaped. It will firm up over time and leave a satin-finish but should not be hard when you come to eat it.
In the UK, we have pouring ‘icing’ which is used on fairy cakes and for pouring. There’s also traditional royal icing used on fruit cakes and for piped decorations which sets near-rock-hard. Many wedding cakes are covered in icing which acts as a smooth base for further decorations.
J is for Jam…
Always a staple for victoria sponges, jam comes in many different flavours and makes a welcome addition to cake sponges. In naked cakes, jam will often be left to ooze out the sides of the cake. Yummy! Beware that some jams can cause discolouration of sponges and make them look blue (and mouldy!). Generally, there is nothing wrong with them, it’s just an unfortunate mix of ingredients….
K is for Kitchen Cakes…
(also called ‘Cutting Cakes’ or ‘Sheet Cakes’)
Kitchen cakes are additional un-decorated cakes kept with your catering team. They will usually be covered in the same colour fondant/icing as your display cake but may not be as neatly finished (your guests will never see them in one piece). Kitchen cakes are used for several reasons…
– Make up the number of servings. You may have your heart set on a cute 2-tier cake design but have 100 guests to feed. Kitchen cakes ensure your guests all get a slice while providing the cake design you love!
– You hate fruit cake but have your heart set on a very elaborately designed cake with lots of hand piping and time-consuming details. A preservative-free sponge cake has a limited shelf life so you use artificial tiers for the display cake and have all your ‘edible’ cake out the back.
Caterers often love kitchen cakes because it saves them lots of time however, contrary to what it often says in wedding magazines, don’t assume kitchen cakes will save you a lot of money. They should be cheaper than having an additional tier to your displayed wedding cake but the extent to which they are cheaper will depend on how elaborate your wedding cake design is.
L is for Layers…
Depending on the type of cake, it may be baked in multiple layers or as a whole and torted into layers. The more layers your cake has, the more filling it will have and the taller each tier is likely to be. All our cakes have 4 layers of sponge per tier as standard and each tier is over 4” high. When you go for your cake tasting, it’s worth checking how many layers of sponge/filling your wedding cake will have and comparing that with the sample. Many designers provide mini-cupcakes with a buttercream swirl as their samples which taste delicious but can sometimes have a very different buttercream : sponge ratio to your real wedding cake resulting in a different flavour profile.
M is for Marzipan…
Like icing, marzipan is a versatile cake covering used for modelling and covering cakes. Made of almonds, it is important for fruit cakes especially to prevent the colour seeping through the icing. Some decorators also use it underneath icing on sponge cakes as well although the almond flavour can be quite strong.
Being made of almond, marzipan is not suitable for nut allergy suffers.
N is for Naked (Cakes!)…
Increasingly poplar, a ‘Naked Cake’ is a cake with exposed interior sponge. They fit well into a rustic wedding and can be decorated in many ways; fresh fruit, flowers, light sugar.
While I could repeat it, there is a fabulous blog post about naked cakes available here from the lovely Lucie at Lucie Loves to Bake.
While they may look like the work involved is less than a traditional iced cake, they have to be prepared last minute (to prevent drying out) and there is no room for error in terms of time. If your decorator has also got multiple cakes on that week, it can cause upheaval in terms of scheduling. As a result, the cost may be comparable to an iced cake.
O is for Ordering…
Every cake maker will have a different policy for ordering and it is important to check their details. Some have strict limits on the number of cakes they commission in a weekend so it’s best to notify your chosen decorator as soon as you can to make sure you don’t miss out.
You should be given some sort of written agreement as to what you are ordering and expect a copy of their terms and conditions to sign/agree to. A deposit is normally required to secure the date/order (anywhere between 10% and 100% of the cake cost, depending on the type of cake and time left until the wedding).
P is for…
Pinterest (et al!)…
Pinterest/Facebook/Instagram are fantastic tools for gathering your ideas together and fabulous for decorators but remember that Pinterest cakes are often staged for photoshoots/magazines – they may well have benefited from a date with Photoshop and are not designed to be eaten. Glitter is one of the worst offenders and often appears on cupcakes/cakes online. Unless you want a mouthful of plastic (yes, it really is plastic), the edible equivalent will not look like it does on the picture. Your cake designer should be able to discuss this with you and, where necessary, come up with some edible alternatives. The moral is, by all means use Pinterest for ideas but check something is possible ‘with cake’ before getting your heart set on a design
Pillars are cleaver little dividers which are inserted between tiers. There are different styles – traditional Grecian, modern and angular or crystal/transparent. You’ve possibly seen them on your parent’s wedding cake as they were very popular in the 70s/80s. Their popularity has reduced somewhat in recent years with many Brides opting for a stacked design (although I think they will make a comeback pretty soon!) but, pillars have many different uses …
- Increase cake height. A set of pillars is usually about 3” tall. So, adding pillars between the tiers of a 3-tier cake will add 6” to the overall height of the cake. In a large, tall room, a taller cake can look more proportioned.
- Providing a gap for flowers.
Q is for Quality…
Why should you pay £500 for a cake when the ‘ingredients’ only cost £80? And you may be able to buy another cake for a quarter of the cost from somewhere else? Most decorators have been asked this at some point. In terms of ingredient quality, you can pay anywhere between 25p and £2.99 for a bar of dark chocolate. In itself, that may not sound like much but when you need 25 bars for a single cake, you will see a big increase in ingredient costs for a premium quality ingredient. However, ingredients are just a tiny fraction of what you are paying for. You are mostly paying for your cake designers’ time and experience. Perfecting a quality cake takes years – higher pricing is usually (not always) a reflection of your decorators skill, quality of ingredient and their demand. In addition to the actual baking/decorating time (which can easily be dozens of hours), they spend time emailing you, holding your consultation & tastings, doing paperwork, shopping, clearing up, liaising with their suppliers and liaising with your other suppliers. They also have general business costs to cover (websites, insurance, fuel, training). A quality designer has to spend time on all of the above.
While much of the above is subjective, you must always check the decorators credentials – insurance, council registration, food hygiene certificates (self-employed tax status may be advisable if you’re being fussy) – as well as the quality of their actual cakes and make an informed decision from there.
Supermarket-bought cakes are usually cheaper but they are also often decorated by a machine, have shallow tiers and can have a lumpy/bumpy finish. 2” deep is common for supermarkets where our tiers are well over 4” deep. The overall look of the cake will be very different to the equivalent made by a dedicated wedding cake designer. The below photo was taken by a fellow cake designer who compared one of her bespoke cakes with a ‘wedding cake’ purchased from a supermarket. I think it’s fair to say that the two aren’t really comparable!
Everyone has different budgets for their cake – some don’t even want a cake at all which is fine (it’s your wedding). But don’t just choose the cheapest – research all your options before choosing! There is a phrase amongst cake designers, ‘good cake isn’t cheap, and cheap cake isn’t good’.
R is for Royal (Icing)…
Royal icing has been the traditional covering for wedding cakes for many years. It is sweet and tastes mostly of sugar. Unlike the icing which is used more commonly nowadays, it sets very hard which makes it a fantastic base for decorating, but rather difficult to cut! Applying royal icing to a cake is an art and takes a long time (I apply no less than 5 layers of royal icing to a wedding cake over 10 days!) so while it can give a beautiful finish, it is likely to be a much more expensive option. Because royal icing sets hard, it is also used for piping intricate details onto cakes and gluing bits together.
S is for…
Beautiful cakes deserve to be displayed beautifully! Displaying your cake on a stand can completely elevate the overall look (both figuratively and literally)! There are several types of stands:
- Traditional silver: Classic and timeless, silver cake stands are grand and opulent. They may well have floral patterns on the sides which make them look quite traditional but modern variations are available. These sort of stands are expensive to buy – over £250 for a genuine silver-plated one – so can be hired from specialist shops or may be provided by your venue. If hiring one, expect to pay a hefty deposit. One major benefit of traditional stands are that they can take the weight of larger cakes. If you are getting one from your venue, be sure to look at it too and make sure it is clean!
- Flower pedestals: May be prepared by either your cake maker or florist. It ties your cake stand perfectly into your flowers and can be made to virtually any height.
- ‘Pillar’ stands: Much more modern than traditional stands, a pillar stand has a single ‘leg’ in the middle between a plate on top and base. Cakes on these sort of stands can look very elegant and grand. When looking at a pillar stand, you must be careful of the weight capacity for the stand (a large cake can easily weigh 30kg and all of that weight will be being held by a single 2cm stem of glass!). Also bear in mind the stability of the cake for when cutting. The larger the base of the stand, the more stable it will be.
- Wood rounds: This has become really popular recently and gives a really natural look to the cake. It can be particularly appropriate in a barn venue. Wood rounds can be purchased from a variety of sources. By nature they’re very stable and can be any height. Just make sure they’re level and free of any natural debris – i.e. mud!
- Props: Crates, boxes, vases – using props as a stand for your cake is a fairly new thing but increasingly popular. If you have a travel-themed wedding, why not put your cake on a stack of suitcases??! It’s awesome and perfectly on-theme. The only thing you must really be careful of it stability. As I have said before – cakes can be really heavy so make sure your props can take the weight!
The array of sponge flavours is immense ranging from the traditional vanilla and lemon sponge and fruit cake to flavours containing tropical fruits and fat-free sponges.
You want your cake to taste amazing but at the same time, different sponges have different ‘qualities’ and shelf-life so your design will limit your sponge options to an extent. A traditional Angel Cake (fat-free sponge) is unsuitable for a fondant-covered wedding cake for example because it can neither take the weight of the icing, nor can it stay fresh for long enough to be decorated. Similarly, a design which requires a lot of decorating time may mean you have to have a fruit cake or chocolate fudge cake which has a longer shelf life. Your designer should be able to discuss the different options with you so you can weigh up having the best flavour with a design which is perfect for your day.
Round, square, petal, hexagonal, letters…there are several options for cake shapes. Some designs will work better with certain shapes rather than others and all will yield different serving numbers than a different-shaped equivalent. Round is traditional whereas square cakes can look much more modern. You can mix and match shapes – petal and round tiers go particularly well together but you may find there are minimum tier sizes needed for a design like that. From a cost perspective, square and petal-shaped cakes in particular are more difficult to cover with fondant so be prepared for a slightly higher cost if using those.
T is for Topper…
What do you put on the top of your cake? From a design point of view, it always looks more ‘finished’ if the cake is brought to some sort of graduating point at the top, rather than having a flat top. There are several alternatives:
- Flower toppers – arrangements of flowers (usually round formations) to match the other flowers on your cake or the flowers decorating the venue.
- Figurine topper – traditionally, cake toppers were a small porcelain representation of the bride and groom which could be kept as a memento of your day. Nowadays, you can still buy generic topper but there are also specialist companies which will create a topper personalised for the bride and groom – they will match details of the dress/suit, couples’ skin tone (especially important if the couple is of mixed ethnicity) and even add personal touches – one of my couples had their topper with them holding PS4 games controllers! As well as traditional figurines, may now are comic or feature other personal touches – pets, children or even the beloved family camper!
- Monogram – the initials of the couple or a letter signifying the married surname, monograms can either be purchased ready-made or made from sugar by your designer.
- Bunting – a fairly recent trend, bunting is usually customised to the bride and groom with the name of the couple and hangs from wooden sticks inserted into the top tier. Bunting can be added to both figurine and flower-toppers.
V is for Visibility…
The cutting of the cake is traditionally the first task of the new Bride – it is an important milestone in life and your wedding. Everyone will photograph it and you want people to be able to see it! So, think carefully about where you want your cake displayed. The centre of the room is ideal if you have the space. If not, the middle of a wall is a good alternative. The location can also influence your design – if your cake is going in the centre of the room, you will want your decorations to go around the entire cake. If it will be against the wall, you can focus the design on the front areas.
Look for opportunities in the room to frame it – is there an ornate window to put it in front of? Or a pretty area of wallpaper? While windows are great, be wary if it is a sunny day – windows will magnify the heat and, heat and cake doesn’t mix! While moving cakes once assembled is not a good idea, some venues will move the cake into position just before the guests arrive.
While it may sound silly, try not to put it in front of plug sockets or ‘fire exit’ signs if you can. It just doesn’t look very pretty and will be a pain for your photographer to remove afterwards!
W is for Water…
This is very simple…water and iced cakes do not mix. Sugar (which fondant/icing is made of) is hydroscopic which means it will absorb moisture. A fondant-covered cake will literally melt if left in a humid environment. If you are moving a fondant cake around in the rain, the cake must be completely covered. Drops of water will result in little pot holes in the fondant as the water dissolves the sugar. A fondant cake must not be put in the fridge (unless it has advanced humidity controls) because of the condensation. If you do ever get any liquid on a cake (knocked over champagne for example), you need to act quickly and use clean kitchen towels to lightly dab away the drop – do NOT smear. You cannot prevent the formation of the initial crater but you should be able to prevent it ‘spreading’. Look for a decoration on the cake and see if you can add anything to cover the damaged bit.
The A-Z of Cake was written by Sarah Osborne. Copyright (C) Simplicity Cakes by Sarah