In February 2019 my sister and her fiancé asked me to make the cake for their Jackson Hole, Wyoming wedding in April. I replied with a confident and excited “Yes! Of course!” and then a thousand questions cascaded through my mind. I had made large-ish celebration cakes before for family gatherings and friends’ birthdays, but I’d never attempted a full, tiered, structurally-sound wedding cake. I’m a professionally trained chef, and I love to bake, but this cake presented challenges, including baking at high altitude. When it finally set in that I was, in fact, responsible for this cake I narrowed my worries to a few key problems:
The Problem—Aesthetics: What kind of cake am I able to execute well? How refined should the cake look? What is appropriate for the couple and a Wyoming wedding?
The solution: Go with what you know you can do well without worry. Focus on one “challenge” piece of the project you’ll be able to practice.
My sister and her fiancé ultimately landed on a gluten-free, coconut flour–based cake consisting of chocolate and vanilla cake layers sandwiched with chocolate buttercream. This was a lucky choice. I’d make this cake many times and being familiar with the recipe made the process that much easier. Additionally, coconut flour requires much more moisture than regular flour, including three times the usual amount of eggs. This produced a sturdy yet tender cake that was easy to handle, froze well, and even more importantly—stood up to its cross country travel adventure.
I decided it was best not to push it on the decorations. I had enough to learn in order to level and structure the cake. My sister and her fiancé agreed on a rustic, “naked cake” look with some real flowers as decoration.
The Problem—Baking the Darn thing: Where should I make it? Baking at high altitude would require me to adjust the recipe to accommodate differences in how leavening agents work. How far in advance should I make it? How long will the cake keep? Should I/can I freeze it?
The solution: Make a plan that is realistic for your space and think through the most efficient way to complete the baking.
Without the tools of a professional baking space I had to get creative with my skills, organization, and time. I created a base recipe that I knew would make at least one tier of the cake and then adjusted it to strategically fill the other pans and cut down on mixing time. I used large bowls and a hand mixer. I found this easier than a stand mixer because it allowed me to mix large batches. I filled the pans ¾ of the way up the pan in order to get a cake that was almost exactly the height of the pan and ensure all the layers were the same size. This prevented me from messing around with horizontally slicing the cake into layers of the same height (I find this challenging and messy!). I only had to minorly level each cake. With the batter divided and the pans filled, the actual baking ended up being the least difficult piece to coordinate. Believe it or not, I was able to rotate these cakes through two ovens with little wait time because the pace at which I mixed the cake basically matched the baking time. Once baked and cooled, I wrapped each cake in plastic wrap and then in aluminum foil. I then cleared out as much freezer space as possible, placed all the cakes on baking sheets (to help them freeze flat) and transferred them to the freezer to freeze for two days.
The Problem—Logistics: Where am I going to store it once it’s baked? Does it need to be refrigerated before and/or after assembly? Where and when will I assemble it? How and when will I get it to the venue?
The solution: Do as much as you can beforehand when you can take your time, and then be prepared to be flexible to make it happen.
I made the risky decision to bake the cakes in NYC and ship them, frozen, in two styrofoam coolers, via 2-day shipping, to Wyoming. Miraculously this worked. I used regular ice packs (I considered using dry ice, but it was too expensive and difficult to find) and lots of bubble wrap to secure the cakes, and when I opened the boxes in Wyoming, the cakes were still cold. I also shipped other tools such a spinning cake stand in these boxes. Shipping the cakes this way was definitely the most expensive option, but it meant a huge part of my work was done before I arrived, and I didn’t have to worry about finding a space in which to bake or the effects of high altitude on the cake.
As the wedding weekend schedule unfolded, it became clear to me that the only time to assemble the cake would be the morning of the wedding. There was no space to safely refrigerate the assembled cake, plus the use of buttercream as opposed to harder fondant icing meant kitchen smells and tastes could sink into the cake if prepared ahead of time. So, I set all the butter for the buttercreams out before I went to sleep the night before the wedding and woke up at 5:30 AM to make it. Don’t worry–the bride was close behind me, waking up at 6:30 AM to begin getting ready and keep me company. With an early spring Wyoming blizzard howling outside, I made the buttercream in a stand mixer, transferring batches of vanilla and chocolate buttercream to large bowls. I assembled each tier of the cake in the kitchen of the house in which I was staying because the wedding venue didn’t have enough space for me to spread out and organize. For the structure of the cake, I opted to assemble each tier on a piece of cardboard that I cut to be just a tiny bit smaller than the cake itself. Once leveled and assembled, I cut plastic dowels to the height of each tier and pushed them through. This ultimately prevented the cake from sagging over the course of the night.
The hard part seemed like it was over, but the greater issue of getting the cake to the venue still loomed. Although the venue was just a short drive away, I knew I couldn’t stack the tiers until I got there. Thankfully, a few family helpers were willing to take a break from getting ready for the wedding to assist. With one friend driving, three other family members and I each held a tier of the cake in our laps and drove down a mountain (literally) to the venue. Once at the venue, we filed into the space, excited to get the cake quite literally out of our hands, but it turned out that there wasn’t enough room in the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator for me to fully stack the tiers because the ceiling was too low. I got as far as I could, but with the wedding only a few hours away and the venue heating up, I left the cake partially assembled in the walk-in. I ended up finishing the final assembly while in my bridesmaids’ dress during the cocktail hour before the reception!
Making this wedding cake was a huge challenge, but my sister and her husband were incredibly grateful to have a cake that was truly their own. For me, it was the best way to show my support and help them celebrate their special day.
Ready to take on a wedding cake? Check out the recipe!
Story contributed by Plated Recipe Development Manager Grace Pescatello.
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