Why I Don’t Make Wedding Cakes

Posted on February 5, 2009 in Other writing

Why I Don’t Make Wedding Cakes 
In 1993, I had just met my partner Mikel, and life was good. My first book was being raved about in the press, even a year after its debut, and I was at work on my exciting second project, which took me all over the South. My best friend Dana Downs was thinking about moving to Charleston, my sister was running my shop for me, and I had offers from a dozen publishers wanting a book from me. Charleston had recovered from Hurricane Hugo and business was hoppin’. Another one of my dearest friends, Mary Edna Fraser, the batik artist, had fallen in love with her children’s pediatrician. She asked me to make their wedding cake.
I am a decent baker, but I don’t do “pretty.” My desserts tend to be on the homey side — cobblers, simple layer cakes, ice creams and custards, and poached fruits. I know a perfect cake recipe that I vary a dozen ways, but I wouldn’t put any of them in a bakery display case, however delicious they may be. I told Mary Edna that I would make her cake as long as she didn’t care what it looked like. I promised her it would be delicious.
The wedding was planned for August. There would be fifty guests at the reception. Casual. Outdoors. At Mary Edna’s home on the marsh.
No problem! I’ll make a cake to feed 80!
Charleston’s master confectioner Mark Gray and I had just spent a week candying figs (see blog for February 5, 2009), an ancient, and nearly impossible, task. I had a tin full of them, 4 or 5 dozen. A wedding cake seemed easy in comparison.
I made the cake layers the night before the wedding and tucked them in the refrigerator to chill, to make them easier to slice into even thinner layers. As I wrote in The New Southern Cook, which I was working on at the time, I had no fear of cake baking. Here’s what I wrote then:


It is bewildering to me why people — even good cooks — shy away from cake baking. Everyone seems to have a fear of the cake falling or being too dry or of what is perceived as strict scientific method. I seldom refer to a recipe when I bake cakes, because I know one good, basic recipe that is infinitely variable. It’s a variation on a European sponge cake, and it relies on no artificial leavening, just air beaten into eggs.


Different flours, cocoa, bread or cake crumbs, or ground nuts can be used in this basic cake recipe. The coconut cake and Huguenot torte in my first book are both butterless variations of this recipe, the one full of fresh coconut and the other, chopped apples, pecans, and walnuts. The cake keeps as well as a classic génoise, can be drenched in fruit syrups or liqueurs, and is simplicity itself to make. 


Basic Cake Recipe


13 eggs at room temperature

2 cups sugar, divided

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted but not hot

1 tablespoon vanilla

2 cups sifted soft southern flour or cake flour

pinch of salt


Grease three 9″ cake pans, line with parchment or wax paper, and grease the paper. Dust the insides of the pans lightly with flour. Preheat the oven to 350oand set the oven rack in the lower third of the oven.


Separate the eggs, putting the yolks in a wide stainless steel bowl that will fit snugly over a saucepan. Add 1 cup of the sugar to the yolks and beat well with a whisk, then place the pan over simmering water and continue beating until the yolks are thick and light-colored, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the butter a little at a time and continue beating until the mixture is very thick and has doubled in volume. Stir in the vanilla, turn off the heat, and proceed with the recipe, occasionally beating the yolk mixture to keep it fluffy and to prevent a skin from forming.


In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until they are very foamy, then gradually add the remaining cup of sugar and continue beating until they have formed soft peaks. Remove the yolk mixture from the heat and fold in the beaten whites, using the wire whisk. Sift the flour and salt over the mixture and fold in swiftly, but gently, until just mixed. Scoop big batches of the batter up from the bottom of the bowl and pull the whisk straight up, allowing the flour to sift through the wires. You do not want to knock the air out of the mixture.


Divide the batter between the three cake pans and bake in the preheated oven for about 25 minutes or until the cakes just begin to pull away from the pans and a toothpick stuck in the center of the cakes comes out clean. Remove to racks to cool in the pans. As soon as they are cool enough to handle, remove the cakes from the pans, remove the paper lining, and set them to finish cooling on the racks before assembling the cake with fillings and icings.


Fillings and Icings


The above cake can be drenched in your favorite liquor or liqueur, covered with jam, and iced with buttercream. I once made a friend’s wedding cake by stacking six large layers of this cake, shaved slightly so as to form a large cone. The layers were drenched in the sugar syrup from preserved figs. Between the layers, a layer of those preserves was topped with buttercream sweetened with the fig syrup. The entire cake was wrapped in rolled fondant then covered with crystallized golden figs. It was the most delicious cake I have ever eaten, and the 80 servings were devoured by the 50 guests in a matter of minutes. But the easiest icing, made with whipped cream, is also one of the most delicious. Bolstered with egg whites, it will hold up a little longer than plain whipped cream.

I can’t believe how nonchalantly I told the story in New Southern. The day was a near disaster! A few years ago I saw a book entitled Don’t Try This at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World’s Greatest Chefs. I remember thinking, they should have asked me (though I am NOT a chef)!


On the morning of the wedding, I awakened to discover, to my horror, that the air conditioning unit that had somehow survived the hurricane had indeed finally succumbed to the salt water that had drenched it. It was close to 100 degrees and the wedding was in the middle of the day. For some idiotic reason, I decided to make fondant icing. Fondant is one of the trickiest of sugar concoctions. I had never made it before. What was I thinking?!


Fondant icing is made by softening the coating over gentle heat and diluting it carefully so that it remains the right consistency to encase pastries with a shiny, pure white layer. I had read the instructions in several different pastry books and made notes that I had stuck to the oven hood. One of them I wrote in block letters: NEVER LET IT GO ABOVE 100o!! I looked at the thermometer on the wall: it was 102 in my closet of a kitchen!


Emboldened by my fig work with Mark, though, I marched on, the fondant rolling off the edge of the counter and never setting up. The wedding was in less than two hours. I panicked!


I drenched the cake layers in fig syrup and slathered fig preserves between them. I made buttercream icing, using fig syrup instead of sugar, and added that between the layers as well. I tried coating the cake with fondant, but it rolled off the sides. I had to start anew with the icing. Again I stupidly tried to make fondant (the first batch was filled with cake crumbs). I called my friend Paula, who is a great home cook, but who, I doubt, had any experience with professional baking, much less a wedding cake to feed 80. Her husband Tommy, a friend of mine since graduate school, answered the phone. Paula was out of town. He would be right over. Having known me so long, I’m sure he had never heard the despair in my voice.


I called Mary Edna. The wedding was in an hour.


“Do you remember what I told you when I agreed to make your wedding cake?”


A short pause, but she, too, could sense the panic in my voice. “Yes.”


“What did I say?!” I all but screamed at her. An hour before she was to wed.


“You said that you couldn’t promise what it would look like, but that it would be delicious.”


“Okay, as long as you remember. My air conditioner’s broken and it’s 100 degrees in my kitchen and I’m having a real problem with the icing.”


“I’m sure it will be fine. See you soon!”


I had to shave the cake layers down because the first batch of fondant had taken the edges with it as it oozed down the sides of the cake. I rolled the new batch of stiffer fondant out and somehow managed to get it wrapped around the cone-shaped cake, but no sooner had the fondant covered the cake than it started to slide down the sides again. I stepped outside, where it was actually cooler, and placed the cake down inside a chest freezer I had on the covered patio just outside the door. I felt like a fool.


Tommy arrived. The wedding was in less than an hour. “What’s wrong?”


“Mary Edna’s wedding cake! My a.c. is broken and the icing won’t set.” I was nearly in tears. I opened the freezer and showed him my mess of a cake.


“Oh, my,” he said. “Do you have any vodka?”


“Yes, in the freezer. Why?”


He opened the freezer, poured two juice glasses full and toasted Mary Edna and John, her soon-to-be-husband. “Drink this. We’ll just have to decorate it with some greenery and flowers.”


I drank up, despondent. It was August and there were no flowers or edible greenery, I knew, anywhere near my house. Charleston was at its hottest, its muggiest, its worst season.  Nothing was blooming. But the vodka felt good.


Tommy was sifting through the refrigerator, through cabinets, drawers, and canisters. “Go take a shower. We’ll fix it.”


I showered and got dressed, but was soaking wet from sweat within a matter of minutes. Tommy was standing in the living room, with the vodka bottle in one hand, refilling our glasses. In the other, he held my figs. My precious figs. “How many people is the cake supposed to feed?” he asked, handing me another glass of vodka.


“Fifty, why?”


“Perfect. You have exactly fifty of these. I ate one. They’re delicious. Didn’t you say the cake is filled with figs?” His mind was racing. I needed to leave for the church. “Do you have any toothpicks?”


My heart sank, not only because of my culinary disaster, but also because I saw that Tommy was going to offer up all fifty of my figs — a week’s worth of work — for Mary Edna and John’s wedding cake. “Go. I’ll put the figs on the cake and put it back in the freezer. Swing by again after the wedding and pick up the cake. I’ll wait for you.”


I had to go pick up our friend Kate. I had had nothing to eat and had had two juice glasses full of vodka. But I was no longer worried. I kept saying to myself, over and over, “Remember she doesn’t care what it looks like.” I knew it would be delicious, as I had promised. I was dying for a piece of it right then!


The wedding was a hoot. Though it took place in the Second Presbyterian Church in downtown Charleston, on the highest point in the peninsula, there was nothing “high Presbyterian” about it. “I’m in Love with a Big Blue Frog” was used instead of the Wedding March, to give you a clue.


Mary Edna and John live on a high bluff overlooking Ellis Creek on James Island. As the crow flies, it’s just a mile or two from downtown. After the church service, Kate and I rushed by my house to find a note from Tommy. “Tell Mary Edna I said hello. It’s too hot over here.”



We opened the freezer and found the cake, studded with all 50 of my candied figs. One for each of the wedding guests. Kate managed to get a snap of Mary Edna the second she saw the cake. I had made her turn her back and repeat what she had told me — that it didn’t matter what it looked like — before I let her see it. As it turns out, some folks were mesmerized by it: they had never seen candied figs. And, given that it was the cake for a frog wedding, it does seem fitting.





And, as I wrote in New Southern, it was delicious and all 80 pieces were devoured by the 50 guests in a matter of minutes.


Mary Edna’s gorgeous niece, three at the time, stood patiently by the cake, waiting for it to be sliced, for an incredibly long time. What a gorgeous child, and what

a glorious occasion!


But never again will I agree to make a wedding cake!!!


P.S. Yes, like Mikel and me, Mary Edna and John are still happily together.