I am very much lacking in pictures of putting the cake together. But it was my wedding day so... forgive me? There were a few steps left to do. First, I'll talk about structure.
Cakes don't just hold themselves up. Buttercream is not solid, and cake itself is fragile. This cake, all-in, was probably somewhere around 40 pounds, at least. It needed a support system. Each cake tier sits on a cardboard round, which acts as a solid platform for that tier. However, despite that solid platform, stacking four tiers of cake would invariably cause issues with the bottom layers, in that the weight of each additional cake layer will make it sink in on itself. So, you need to have some sort of structural element that will ground it. Enter, boba straws. Now, a lot of cake decorators use wooden dowels, but I love boba straws for two reasons: (1) they're cheap, and (2) when you pull them out, they're filled with cake you can suck down as you're cutting the pieces. You just put a handful of boba straws in a circular shape in a lower tier, and the tier above it will sit on the straws, rather than the cake, meaning the cakes themselves actually have no weight on them. You're supposed to put in the number of straws that equals the inches of the above tier--so, for instance, in my bottom tier, which was 10 inches, I'm supposed to put 8 straws, because the tier resting on top of it was an 8-inch tier.
Then, to keep the tiers themselves from sliding off their new straw stilts, you slather a bit of royal icing onto the top of each cake to "glue" the tiers together. Use either real ribbon or a fondant ribbon or buttercream piping to hide where one tier joins another tier (I used real ribbon because #convenience), throw some last-minute decorations (e.g. candy pearls), and you're done!
Well, besides the prayer you'll employ when the hotel carts off your masterpiece to be stored until cake cutting time.
It was magical to see the cake when we walked into the ballroom. Mind you, our wedding was supposed to be 100% outside, but the rain had other plans, so we were feeling anxious and worried, knowing that we were probably going to have to pull an Alanis Morissette at the last minute. Our hearts were breaking a little, with our Plan B about to be employed, but seeing this cake on the table made us realize that it was really happening, rain or no rain, and we were about to have the happiest single day, followed by all the happiest days of our life.
I mean, happiest until the day I finally get to meet Mary Berry (still waiting for that call, BBC). Then we'll talk.
The way I did it, I baked all my layers on Wednesday and planned to do all my covering on Thursday. Friday we would check into the hotel and have our rehearsal dinner, and Saturday was wedding day. So when I woke up on Thursday morning, I had about ten cakes waiting for me. It was actually intimidating when I peeled the foil off of them and put them all on one countertop to look at. They were taunting me. "Can you do this?" they asked. "Yes?" was my answer.
Especially because not all my cakes were beautiful. So let me talk about four-inch cakes for a second. Four-inch cakes, it turns out, are special beasts. I ended up baking twice the amount of four-inch cakes I needed (I needed just one of each flavor, baked two of each flavor), because each time, they cake out kind of weird. I had a cake whose entire outer edge fell off. I had a cake that had a giant crater in the bottom. I had a cake that looked like a parallelogram. And I had a cake with a top you could skid own. I baked twice as much, because I figured that between the four cakes, I would be able to put together four sort-of complete layers, and keep it all held together by covering it in frosting.
The first step in covering, after getting over the intimidation of 10 cakes staring you in the face, baiting you, is to slice them in half lengthwise to make layers that are about one-inch tall (maybe a little less -- just try to make them equal, whatever height that ends up being). Some people use a cake leveler for this, but I'm old school (and don't have the storage for gadgets), so I use a knife. And I don't say that lightly: because this is where I started sweating, and I didn't stop for about 5 hours (it was gross). The key, I've found, it to have a ruler handy, and to keep your knife as flat as possible. As well, don't be afraid for this or the frosting, to contort your body to get your eyes level with the cake and make sure you are being as horizontal as possible. And lastly: little by little. First, just notch the cake sides a little bit, only cutting a small slash less than half an inch deep all the way around. Then, just connect the dots, and slowly cut deeper and deeper, never going all the way across, but just spinning the cake 'round and 'round, going deeper and deeper.
Oh, and practice. You won't get it right the first time, most likely.
After you're done leveling your cakes, you'll be left with a giant bowl of cake scraps. Some people say you should use these for cake pops. I 1) find that a waste, and with that 2) find cake pops disgusting, so I like to call this the Baker's Bonus, and prefer to use the cake scraps to stress snack on while I make the rest of the cake. And for dinner that night. And for breakfast the next day. I just really like, cake, okay?
So, step 1 is the leveling (or "torting," if you're fancy). Step 2 is the frosting. I think I may have said this in the frosting post, too, but always make more than you need. I made three gallon-sized bags of Italian meringue buttercream and it was only just enough to fill the cakes. I wish I had made a third batch of buttercream, just because having that extra safety of extra buttercream makes it a lot easier, and a lot less stressful, when frosting the cakes.
The stacking and filling process is fairly straightforward. Put a glob of frosting on the cake, spread it out evenly, and throw the next layer on top. The key to doing a good job is really about knowing the right amount to put on. Let's get real: we all love frosting. And more is always better than less, right? Wrong. I made cakes of four tiers, meaning three layers of frosting, plus frosting all around the cakes, plus a sweet fondant covering the frosting. Exercise caution in how much frosting you put inside and around the cakes. You want to highlight the cake with the frosting, not suffocate it.
As well, frosting is not solid, whereas cake is solid. The more frosting you have, the more delicate your cake becomes, and the more susceptible it becomes to tilting, leaning, and altogether chaos. So keep the layers thin.
And I say "layers" as plural because around the outside of the cake there are 2 layers. The first is what's called a "crumb coat," and it locks in crumbs to keep your final cake smooth and beautiful, which is really important if you're not covering it in fondant. The crumb coat layer is so thin you'll be able to see cake underneath it. You refrigerate that coat to make it a smooth solid surface to put the final coat on, making it ready for fondant.
Once the cakes were covered, once I had four neat and tidy tiers, you would think I would be able to calm down. One step left. Step 3: fondant.
I don't have any pictures of me covering the cakes in fondant, just this shot of my prep station. You know why? Because it was so stressful that I forgot I even owned a camera. I was so focused on these cakes that I forgot I even had a name. Despite my practice and my best preparations (i.e. watching Yolanda Gampp's How to Cake It "Hacking Fondant" video about 87,000 times), working with fondant is not easy if you're not used to it. And I was not used to it. I got so nervous that it would wrinkle, it would crack, it would tear, it would stick, that my shirt instantly became drenched in my own stressed sweat, and I became an unintelligible fool.
So, my first piece of advice is: relax. It's just cake.
My pieces of advice of advice: 1) use more fondant than you need (but not too much more), 2) roll out to 1/8" thick if you can, 3) roll out on top of a non-stick mat and/or cornstarch, and 4) remember that it will taste good no matter what. Always remember: it will taste good no matter what.
I'm a chocolate lover, through and through. There is nothing like a deep, dark, richly bittersweet chocolate to make my heart go pitter-patter. But I know chocolate doesn't tickle everyone's fancy, and at a wedding, you need to crowd please (while still staying somewhat selfish -- I mean, the day is for us, isn't it?). So, I knew I had to cave and find something I could work with.
Finding the recipe
The only other wedding cake I baked, my mother's, was a vanilla cake. It was a "white velvet cake" that came from the Queen of Cakes herself, Rose Levy Beranbaum (you thought I was going to say Mary Berry, didn't you?). While the cake was delicious, and just as light, airy, and soft as expected, I knew it wouldn't do for my own wedding cake. It yielded a crumb that became dry very quickly, and probably wouldn't have the strength to comfortably hold the weight of fondant and chocolate cake layers.
I found myself two recipes, one from Cake Central (an irreplaceable knowledge base during this entire process), and the other from my favorite YouTube baker, Yolanda Gampp of How to Cake It--and then I tested them.
I had originally assumed CC's cake would be a more pale white color, and possibly with a more delicate crumb, thanks to using only egg whites, and HTCI's would be more dense and spongy, since Yolanda tends to make novelty cakes that require much more structure to take the weight of fondant.
But, honestly, there was little difference between the two of them. I kept having to reference the tape I put on each cake board with the name of the source, because I couldn't tell them apart visually or by taste. So, I made a more rational judgment call and looked at which recipe would be easier to construct, and require less things from the grocery store--I don't need additional stress, and I have to lug my groceries up a San Francisco hill.
I ended up choosing Yolanda's recipe--it uses the whole egg and regular ol' milk instead of half and half. Much easier, much simpler.
Baking the cake
Yolanda's recipe is also so much easier to put together. It's so... standard. Cream butter and sugar, add eggs, alternate adding milk and flour in 3 or 4 parts, slap it in the oven. I get the appeal of box mixes in that it's literally two steps (1. add water; 2. bake), but I don't get why people think homemade cakes are complicated and difficult. I think people get too nervous and don't believe in themselves. If there's one thing baking will teach you (besides good math skills, or maybe that's just me), it's to trust yourself, and to stop being afraid of creating things. Remember: it will all work out.
There is one interesting thing about this recipe that I've always come across, but in watching How to Cake It, Yolanda doesn't seem to fall victim to it. If you make this cake, let me know what happens to you. But what happens to me is the cake takes much longer to bake than Yolanda says, and it always ends up having an overcooked spot in the middle, which is also where the cake tends to sink half an inch, creating either a valley or a butthole, depending on the analogy you prefer. Not that it changes the taste, and I always trim the tops of my cakes anyway to ensure a flat top (and ensure I have cake scraps to eat), but it's just interesting to me that it always works that way.
Yo's Ultimate Vanilla Cake
makes 7 cups
1 cup UNSALTED BUTTER
2 cups GRANULATED SUGAR
1-2 teaspoons VANILLA EXTRACT
4 large EGGS
1 cup MILK
10 5/8 ounces ALL-PURPOSE FLOUR
2 1/2 teaspoons BAKING POWDER
1/2 teaspoon SALT
1. Preheat oven to 350F (and no, you do not need to butter/flour/parchment pans if you follow this post-bake instructions below)
2. Combine FLOUR, BAKING POWDER, and SALT in a bowl
3. In another bowl, cream together the BUTTER, SUGAR, and VANILLA until light and fluffy (3-5 minutes in an electric mixer)
4. Add EGGS to sugar/butter mixture one or two at a time and blend until incorporated
5. Add the dry ingredients in four parts, alternately with MILK in three parts, starting and ending with dry
6. Pour batter into cake pans, and baked until a toothpick comes out clean
7. Post-bake, cool cakes in pans completely, until room temperature, then run a knife or thin, flexible metal spatula around the edge of the pan, and flip out of pan, then peel the parchment off and flip back right-side up
The chocolate cake was probably the easiest decision I had to make in planning this cake. In fact, it's probably the reason I decided to make my own wedding cake. I knew I wanted chocolate cake as part of the final product, but I knew that if a different recipe was used, I would bite into the cake on my wedding day and think, "Good, but not quite my chocolate cake." I know, I know: I'm super romantic.
For those of you who know me (which is probably everyone reading this right now), you know I am quite possibly the biggest Amy's Bread fan ever. For the few who might not know, and those who didn't click on that link, Amy's Bread is an amazing local bakery in New York City. When I graduated college, my first job was located a block away from their original location in Hell's Kitchen. I can't remember the first time I went there, but I soon found myself a frequent visitor. After making a few friends with friends who happened to work at Amy's, it quickly became what I would call my "happy place." I would go there if I had nothing else to do, always trying a new treat and sitting in their quaint cafe, sipping a coffee and eating a chocolate sourdough twist, or a cinnamon challah knot, or... a black and white cupcake.
That black and white cupcake was a turning point. I had always been someone who loved pie far more than cake. I loved the crispy flakiness of a pie crust, enjoyed the various fillings you could find underneath, and admired the skill it took to make perfectly. But this chocolate cake... it was moist, first of all. And I know a lot of people hate that word, but do me a favor and embrace it right now. Second, it had the deepest, darkest chocolate flavor I had tasted. For all you milk chocolate lovers, this is not for you. But again, embrace it. The cake was bittersweet in a way that played with the tender sponge and perfectly complemented it. That black and white cupcake became my treat -- my birthday cupcake to myself, or a reward after a hard day at work.
I love this recipe because, in all honesty, and I don't say this as a baking enthusiast: it's easy. You really cannot over-mix it, and everything needs to be prepped ahead of time, so the actual combining is simple. First, you get together all five of your bowls, and then you just throw everything together. Just a quick note for you bowl lickers out there like me: the only bowl that tastes good right now is the butter + sugar bowl. The chocolate bowls are misleading, and they're really bitter right now.
There are a couple interesting things happening in this recipe that contribute to its flavor. First, it uses brown sugar instead of regular white granulated sugar. Brown sugar is really just granulated sugar and molasses, so what this does is it gives it a slightly deeper flavor. While granulated sugar makes things sweet, brown sugar makes things sweet and a bit warm. Second, it uses only unsweetened and Dutch-processed chocolates. This keeps the chocolate flavor pronounced and keep the cake squarely in the "bittersweet" bucket, rather than the "cloyingly sweet" bucket. Third, it uses sour cream. For some scientific reason, I hear this makes it moist.
This is where you can dip your finger in and take a lick (not that I did...), and also where you'll notice it's a really, really liquidy batter. But actually, that's pretty common for a good, moist, velvet-esque (chocolate) cake. And, like I said before, it gives you more leeway when it comes to over-mixing. The more liquidy and "looser" of a batter, the less you have to worry about over-mixing. That said, try not to over-mix it.
A word about baking pans: the most common height for cake pans is 2". These ones I used are 3". There are a couple reasons behind this. First, I don't like doing more dishes than I have to, so the fewer cake pans I have to clean, the better. Second, despite sweating bullets out of anxiety while doing it, I feel super legit as a baker slicing a cake in half horizontally to create my layers. And third, I read somewhere that "professional" bakers use these Fat Daddio's 3" pans, and I want to pretend to be professional, so why not?
Amy's Bread's Chocolate Cake
makes 8 2/3 cups
(double the recipe to fill 1 each of 4", 6", and 8" round (3" tall) cake pans, or 10" and 4" round (3" tall" cake pans)
4.8 ounces UNSWEETENED CHOCOLATE
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon SOUR CREAM (you can also use plain, full-fat Greek Yogurt)
5 tablespoons DUTCH COCOA
2 1/2 teaspoons BAKING SODA
1 1/2 cups BOILING WATER (you can also substitute some or all of this with coffee for a stronger chocolate flavor, or a mocha flavor)
8 ounces ALL-PURPOSE FLOUR
1/2 teaspoon SALT
4 large EGGS
2 1/2 teaspoons VANILLA EXTRACT
3/4 cups BUTTER
1 3/4 cups BROWN SUGAR
1. Prepare pans by buttering, lining in parchment, buttering the parchment, and dusting with either flour or cocoa, preheat oven to 350F
2. Prepare your bowls:
2a. [bowl 1] Melt UNSWEETENED CHOCOLATE, let cool
2b. [bowl 2] Combine SOUR CREAM, DUTCH COCOA, and SODA to form a paste, add BOILING WATER and whisk until combined
2c. [bowl 3] Sift FLOUR and SALT together
2d. [bowl 4] Whisk EGGS and VANILLA EXTRACT together
2e. [bowl 5] Cream BUTTER and BROWN SUGAR until light and fluffy
3. Add chocolate (bowl 1) to butter (bowl 5)
4. Add eggs (bowl 4) to butter (bowl 5)
5. Add dry ingredients (bowl 3) to butter (bowl 5) in 4 parts, alternating with liquid (bowl 2), starting and ending with dry
6. Pour the batter into pans and tap on counter to release air bubbles
7. Bake, until a toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs
8. Let sit cooling in pan on a rack for 10-15 minutes, then run a knife or flat metal spatula around the edge of the pan, and then flip out onto cooling racks and let cool completely.
I hate fondant. Or, rather, I hated fondant. Until I made my own. And yes, I think that's crazy, just like you do. But a fondant cake was non-negotiable, and a good tasting cake was non-negotiable. Fondant is basically just a sugar dough, so I knew there must have been a version out there that tasted good. I went to research.
There are two main types of homemade fondant. The first is 100% from scratch, and it involves having glycerin and corn syrup and all sorts of other things. I was not into that. I mean, I'm making my own wedding cake--I ain't got time for extra complication. So, I went for the easier (and, from what I hear, tastier) "semi-homemade" version: marshmallow fondant.
And that word, "marshmallow" is the key to why it's actually delicious. The fondant is honestly just marshmallows and powdered sugar, and as Ina Garten says, "What could be wrong with that?" But making it takes a bit of practice and a bit of guesswork. So let's go through it a bit.
The first thing that could trip you up is simply melting the marshmallows: don't burn them. I use the microwave because I'm efficient (or lazy), so just throw it on in 30-second spurts, stirring in between. Obviously, this is some sticky business, but water is an easy solution to that. A tablespoon of water poured down the side of the bowl easily separates the sticky melted mess. And then it's time for the mixer.
The key in this next step is to keep the mixer on low. Unless you like wearing powdered sugar. Personally, I find it inconvenient. But, to each his own. Also, quick note: for my black version, I used onyx, or black, cocoa powder, to give my fondant a head start on its darkness.
This is where a lot of the art comes in. Like bread, you need to look more for texture and monitor the behavior of the dough to know when it's done. Keep adding powdered sugar until it gets more tacky than sticky, mostly pulling away from the side of the bowl, but still a little sticky (you can add more powdered sugar when finishing it off by hand.
This is where the particular recipe I found differs from what I tried in the past: fake fondant! The first fondant recipe I had was 100% marshmallows, shortening, and powdered sugar, and when I went to cover my test cake, it wouldn't stretch. It was difficult to roll out, and it tore all over my cake. By adding in pre-made fondant, it gives it that easy workability you'll only find in something fake. But it's not enough fake to A) affect the taste, or B) creep me out.
After you knead in the fake stuff, start to work the dough by grabbing a hunk and pulling and stretching it, then folding it back in on itself. If you've ever seen anybody make taffy (say, on a beach boardwalk somewhere), then just follow their lead. I have a feeling that does something like activate some sort of elasticity of some compound in the marshmallow/sugar combination, but I have no evidence to prove that. Just trust me.
When it's sufficiently stretch, not sticky, and it's smooth, it gets a coating of shortening and thrown in plastic wrap. The cool thing about fondant is it's shelf-stable for a year (or more!), so do it in advance and just let it hang out -- always have some fondant on hand.
makes 40 ounces
1 pound MINI MARSHMALLOWS (use the store brand)
2 pounds POWDERED SUGAR
2 tablespoons WATER
1/2 cup SHORTENING
1 1/4 pounds PRE-MADE FONDANT (I use Wilton Decorator Preferred)
FOOD COLORING (optional)
1. Pour MARSHMALLOWS into a microwaveable bowl (plastic is best) and melt in microwave in 30-second spurts, stirring in between spurts
2. Spoon the WATER into the bowl to easily remove the melted marshmallows, and transfer to a mixing bowl fitted with a dough hook -- add FOOD COLORING at this stage, if using
3. Add the SHORTENING to the mixing bowl and turn it on low
4. Add half the POWDERED SUGAR, one cup a time, until the mixture is smooth and no lumps of sugar are visible; continue adding the rest until the fondant starts to release from the sides, but is still tacky
5. Microwave your PRE-MADE FONDANT for about 30 seconds until it's soft and pliable
6. Grease your hands and pull the fondant off the hook, then knead in the pre-made fondant
7. When combined, pull and stretch the fondant until it's soft and pliable, but still holds a shape (add more sugar if needed)
8. Roll the dough into a ball, lightly coat in shortening, wrap in plastic wrap, and store at room temperature in a Ziploc bag