Couture by the slice: Wedding cakes get a makeover
The cake soared five tiers, some of them carrot, some double chocolate. The icing, in deep blues and greens, was etched with white and gold, reflecting the look of the Tiffany stained-glass dome of the Chicago Cultural Center, where the reception took place. No plastic bride and groom sat perched on top. Instead, there was a golden chalice.
“I didn’t want a carbon copy look at the altar, or at the table,” said Tasha Buchanan, who collaborated with Chicago-based cake designer Mark Seaman to fashion a dessert for her wedding to Jed Buchanan that would reflect their relationship and dazzle their guests.
Wedding cakes have been a matrimonial staple since medieval times, when guests would tote cakes to the celebration and stack them in piles. These days, brides and grooms-to-be are seeking out ever more distinctive designs and flavors to ensure a memorable reception, down to the last bite. As a result, cake designers around the nation are serving up more colorful, more elaborate, more personalized-–and more expensive--wedding cakes than ever before.
Even as the divorce rate hovers at 50 percent, the price of the average wedding has been creeping up in recent years. Close to 2.3 million nuptials took place in the United States last year at an eye-popping average cost of nearly $30,000, according to The Wedding Report, a market research company.
With the cutting of the cake by the bride and groom being a staple of practically every wedding, it is no wonder that the cakes themselves have become more showy.
The taste and appearance of the wedding cake is more important than ever, New York-based cake designer Sylvia Weinstock said, because “everyone’s become a foodie” these days, and because weddings are so fashionable. “It’s about sharing sweetness at the event,” added Weinstock, a 30-year industry veteran who is known as “the Leonardo da Vinci of wedding cakes.”
The average cost of a wedding cake was $564 in 2007, a $25 increase over the year before, according to The Wedding Report. However, designer cakes cost considerably more because of the time it takes to conceive and sculpt them. Some may cost as much as $1000 per 100 guests; others can top $10,000.
“These days, the couple does not cook anything--they invite people for a party but physically, they are just there,” explained cake designer Ron Ben Israel, who is also based in New York. “By cutting the wedding cake they connect to a very interesting tradition where the bride and groom would serve their guests, and then everyone would eat together.”
The cakes no longer simply stand on their own. Increasingly, prospective brides and grooms are seeking personalized creations that tie-in with the décor, the wedding gown, and even the invitations, said several cake designers.
“We have been designing the cakes with piped designs, based on a lot of letterpress stationary,” said Elisa Strauss, creator of Confetti Cakes in New York. Cakes with sugar versions of the wedding flowers are also popular, she added.
The centerpiece flower arrangement–-including citrus blossoms–-will inspire the look of bride-to-be Caroline Markunas’ cake. Markunas, 23 and her fiancé Garth Wright, also 23, commissioned Weinstock to design their cake, which will be flown to Orlando and assembled on site for the reception in April.
“We felt that for the reception, that splurging on a beautiful, exceptional cake would provide a more valuable memory for everyone than the trendier dessert bars or multiple cakes,” Markunas explained.
Wedding gowns are another source of inspiration for today’s cake designers.
“The gown and the cake are the two most important things at a wedding,” Weinstock said. She often mixes the two by incorporating elements of the dress, such as lacework, into her cake designs.
Ben Israel compared the shapes of his latest creations to wedding dresses and the brides who wear them. “The silhouette is tall and narrow, like the ideal body,” he said. In addition to lace, some of his most recent cakes have offered a nod to the intricate beading and crystal work featured on wedding gowns.
The process of ordering the cake is even beginning to mimic shopping for a dress, from designer collections to multiple “fittings” to final garnishes and flavors. Ben Israel invites clients to his “showroom” and offers cake collections that change with the seasons. He will customize the cakes from his current collection to fit a client’s needs.
Most high-end cake designers offer tasting sessions, where clients can choose between caramel apple and blood orange, or chocolate-raspberry and chocolate-strawberry.
Couples with differing tastes may opt for multiple flavors, which has become another popular trend. “Each tier can be a different flavor, and I have at least two flavors on most cakes,” said Lisa Kincaid, owner of Fleur de Lisa Cakes in Sonoma County, Calif.
Needless to say, the white, round-tiered wedding cake is a dessert of the past. Mark Seaman, who created the Buchanan’s cake and is the owner of Chicago’s Marked For Dessert, has carved hexagon and square tiers, and even crooked cakes for recent clients.
Seaman, who specializes in botanically-correct sugar flowers, won the gold medal at the 2007 National Wedding Cake competition with a six-tiered cake sprouting four varieties of sugar orchids in deep purple and gold and bearing the bride and groom’s monogram.
“People want something unusual, but not weird,” explained Seaman, who said he has spent weeks sculpting the sugar petals and leaves for a particularly elaborate cake.
Color themes are particularly popular depending on the season, said several designers, who see pastels in the spring and “flowery colors” in the summer. White still reigns in the winter, according to Sylvia Weinstock.
Ron Ben Israel said that some of his latest cakes have been black, which looks particularly chic against the mahogany panels of the old-world clubs where some of his clients are holding their receptions.
And what of the iconic black-and-white bride and groom figurines that graced the peaks of an earlier generation of wedding cakes?
They only show up on “kitschy cakes,” Elisa Strauss of New York’s Confetti Cakes wrote in an e-mail. Weinstock put it more succinctly: “They were mass-produced,” she said. “It’s like putting a commercial button on a couture suit.”