Stories that take the cake
Taller, wider, fruitier, more colorful, and sometimes downright extraordinary. Couples today are thinking outside the box when it comes to designing their wedding cakes. Gone are the days of the cake that looked pretty but didn’t pass muster in the taste department. And couples now often look for “statement cakes” – those that reflect the theme or colors of their wedding, their own personal passions, their favorite fabrics or textures. A groom’s cake has become popular as a second cake that highlights his own tastes or interests.
Trends in wedding cakes are definitely shifting toward the more adventurous. Think mixing tiered shapes (such as squares and circles) or flavors (each layer has a different taste), as well as interesting combinations (coconut cake with lime buttercream or hazelnut almond cake with chocolate ganache and raspberries). Be bold, be creative! Vineyard bakers are adept at cooking up unusual cake concepts.
Laura Beckman of the Black Dog Bakery in Vineyard Haven
If awards were granted for unique cake creations, Laura would be a contender. A pastry assistant since 1996 when she was in high school, Laura became top dog – that is, executive pastry chef – in 2005. Her most memorable concoctions include a nine-tiered peanut-butter-cup cake, an Army footlocker–shaped cake, a cake celebrating a bride’s love for tattoos, and a Lilly Pulitzer–themed cake. She elaborates: “Each layer of the Lilly cake had to match the bridesmaids’ dresses. People see the picture of that cake in my portfolio and say, ‘What on earth is that?’”
According to Laura, the four-tiered cake incorporated pink, yellow, blue, and green frostings decorated with little flowers, palm trees, and seashells. The result: Preppy perfection.
Janice Casey of Martha’s Vineyard Gourmet Café & Bakery in Oak Bluffs
Janice’s lobster cake tops her list of unique requests in her eleven years as co-owner. She received an order for a “humorous lobster-themed cake” for a recent outdoor wedding, and she admits, “I became obsessed with finding just the right lobsters to decorate the cake.” Combing the souvenir shops across the Island, Janice bought lobster candies, miniature lobster traps, lobster chocolate molds, and gel lobsters that expanded in water. “An hour before the wedding, I found ceramic lobsters that were perfect for the top of the cake,” she says, the relief still palpable in her voice. Designed and baked by head pastry chef Raffi Jabri, the cake, she adds, “came out wonderfully.”
Kim Garrison of Something Sweet in Vineyard Haven
Kim has been busy in the past few months perfecting a new recipe for a wedding cake based on a French pastry not commonly found in the United States. “I have a bride who is living in Paris who asked me to create a cake based just on her description,” the pastry chef explains. Since the bride won’t be available to taste Kim’s trial recipes before her upcoming Vineyard wedding, the chef is improvising, confident that she’ll come up with the right ingredients. Kim’s past challenges include designing a cake with dog-bone tiers and a marzipan topper resembling the bride and groom’s own canines. And soon to come, her first gluten-free wedding cake, of delectable red velvet.
Leslie Hewson of Vineyard Haven
In the unusual request department, this independent pastry chef weighs in with her Harley Davidson cake. The biker bride and groom were planning a cross-country honeymoon astride their Harleys, so Leslie crafted their cake in the shape of the company’s iconic winged logo, replete with blacktop highways, lakes, trees, and miniature models of the couple’s matching bikes. “I used every skill I had, from coloration to landscaping,” Leslie says.
Avoiding sticky mishaps
The wedding cake should be a beautiful focal point at your celebration. Yet nearly every pastry chef and wedding planner can share stories of cakes gone awry. Here are a few tips for keeping yours looking good and tasting delicious:
➊ Choose a safe spot for display. High-traffic settings and dance floors invite accidents, as do unstable tables. Make sure you have selected an out-of-the-way, sturdy spot to place your cake.
➋ Discuss delivery logistics. Don’t forget to mention any unpaved or bumpy roads or driveways that might unsettle your cake en route to your reception site. Plan for extra time if on-site assembly is required for a complex cake.
➌ Avoid heat. An outdoor wedding in mid-summer can spell trouble for wedding cakes. Talk to your cake designer about temperature-controlled delivery and refrigerated storage options. You may also need to avoid ingredients that melt easily, such as whipped cream, meringue, and buttercream. In winter, avoid putting the cake near a heat source.
➍ Protect your cake from unexpected threats. Loose pets, insects, birds, or mischievous children can all inflict sudden damage. Consider using an umbrella, fence, or screened tent if your cake is on display outdoors.
➎ Use a professional baker. Even the most experienced baker can run into an occasional mishap, but amateurs are much more prone to disasters. Be sure to plan ahead to help avoid accidents like the ones the experts below were candid enough to share.
Ron “Puppy” Cavallo of Soigné in Edgartown
Co-owners Puppy and Dede Rabaioli have quietly and without drama provided hundreds of cakes for Island weddings over the past twenty-seven years. But when Puppy describes one ill-fated, warm summer day twenty-five years ago, it’s obvious that his memory burns bright. “We were novices,” he begins. “My dad was driving the car and I was holding the wedding cake.” There’s no mystery where this is headed. “He slammed on the brakes unexpectedly and the top two tiers slid onto my chest. I pushed them back onto the cake and called Dede as soon as I got to the wedding site. She showed up with a pastry bag full of buttercream frosting to patch the cake. No one knew.” Lesson learned: Dede now adds hidden dowels to the tiered cakes to keep them from sliding.
Jaime Hamlin of V. Jaime Hamlin and Sons Catering in Vineyard Haven
In her twenty-seven years as an Island caterer, Jaime says she’s seen it all. With an estimated two thousand weddings under her belt, Jaime’s favorite wedding cake mishap involves – what else – a rambunctious Labrador retriever. “A few years ago, the bride and groom insisted that their big yellow Lab had to be at the wedding. The photographer had just taken pictures of the cake from the Black Dog [Bakery] when the yellow Lab jumped onto it. It was unsalvageable. The wedding planner, Patrie Grace, calmly hid the ruined cake and called the Black Dog. They brought up some cakes they had in the cooler, along with buckets of icing. The guests never knew that the newly created cake wasn’t the ‘real’ one.”
Liz Kane of Vineyard Haven’s Cakes by Liz
This veteran pastry chef recalls one fateful August day about eight years ago when she and an associate were delivering several wedding cakes and a birthday cake to various sites around the Island. It was stop-and-go traffic in Edgartown, Liz was driving, and the car ahead braked abruptly. “The girl in the back seat controlling the cakes fell into one,” she says. Switching drivers, they continued on their way. Minutes later, another sudden halt and Liz, now in the back seat, fell into all of the cakes. Armed with newly purchased Betty Crocker frosting, the duo made a detour to the former Navigator Restaurant in Edgartown where the manager offered them an area to fix a wounded birthday cake; repairs to the other cakes were completed at the Beach Plum Inn in Menemsha. All emerged looking flawless, according to the resourceful baker.
A tasty history
We can thank the ancient Roman Empire for countless innovations that remain integral to American society today: the calendar, modern law, the invention of complex road systems, theater, aqueducts, and, perhaps most important of all, the wedding cake.
It’s true. Back around 1100 AD, when a couple got hitched, a loaf of specially made wedding bread was broken over the bride’s head during the ceremony. Thankfully, that tradition evolved over the following four centuries and emerged in England in the more benign form of scones and biscuits piled high between the bride and groom. By the seventeenth century, “bride’s pies” filled with mince or mutton became all the rage. And finally, by the nineteenth century, we arrived at something resembling today’s American tradition of the multi-tiered wedding cake, now created by skilled pastry chefs and delivered with great pride to hundreds of reception sites across the Vineyard each year.
With so complex a history, it’s no wonder that contemporary wedding cake bakers often face challenges in the design, creation, and transporting of their extraordinary wares. From one-of-a-kind requests to near-disastrous deliveries, it’s easy to see why the wedding cake has been called “the most dangerous food.”
[Originally published in the 2012 issue of Martha's Vineyard Magazine's Island Weddings.]