How to Make a Wedding Cake
A while ago, before puppies and grad school and my own engagement, my sister Alexis got engaged. It was back when Craig and I were living in China. In fact, it was back when Craig and I were traveling throughout Nepal and then taking an overland train from Tibet to Beijing, and then getting deported to Hong Kong after an epic visa fail, so I didn’t learn about the engagement until weeks after it had happened. After I did find out, I was beyond overjoyed, and immediately began plotting all the things that could be made in celebration of the impending nuptials. I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but at some point shortly after the engagement I decided the best possible thing I could possibly do would be to make Alexis and JP’s wedding cake. You know, since I had so much baking and wedding-cake-making experience. (I had none).
I spent the remaining year and a half of their engagement in planning phases. At some other undisclosed moment throughout the year I came across this cake and knew that would be the one. Moist, dense red velvet cake with creamy buttery frosting? Sign me up. Truth be told, I had already tried a half dozen other red velvet recipes when this one came along. I am nothing if not a diligent completely-inexperienced-cake-maker. This one was mind bogglingly good, and I knew it would be the one for Lex and JP’s wedding day.
Somehow, I managed to convince my wonderful and now forever-in-my-debt childhood best friend Elena to be my partner in crime with this cake. First lesson, for all you first-time-wedding-cake-bakers out there: find yourself an Elena. Not only did she save me a thousand times over during some of the many nervous breakdowns that will inevitably come when you volunteer to make your only sister’s wedding cake with exactly zero experience, but we laughed through it all (except for the times when I was in tears).
Exactly two years ago today Alexis and JP were married at our parent’s home in Annisquam, Massachusetts. The same day 33 years ago my parents married. Exactly one year from today Craig and I will be getting married. Labor Day is special and full of love for us Lawrences.
Happy Anniversary, Lex and JP, Mom and Dad. Happy minus-one anniversary, Craig. I love you, all. Let’s have some cake and celebrate.
Full recipe, photos, and step-by-step instructions after the break.
Red Velvet Cake
Adapted from Martha Stewart
Makes 5 cups batter. See below for batter amounts needed for wedding cake.
Unsalted butter, softened, for pans
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, plus more for dusting
2 1/2 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups canola oil
2 large eggs
3/4 teaspoon gel-paste red food coloring (I used Americolor)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup low-fat buttermilk
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons white vinegar
Note: Batter needed for each 3-inch-deep pan: 4-inch, 1 1/2 cups; 6-inch, 3 1/2 cups; 9-inch, 5 cups; 12-inch, 8 cups; 15-inch, 12 cups. I doubled the recipe for each batch (that was as much as could fit in my KitchenAid) and made three batches for the cake. My final cake was four tiers. Each tier was four layers. I made two cakes of each size and cut each cake in half to get four layers.
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Butter the pans. Line with parchment paper, then butter the parchment paper. Dust the pans with cocoa powder and set aside. (note: this step is actually important, though somewhat time consuming. Taking the time to butter, line and butter the pans will allow the cakes to come out easily and will give you smooth surfaces to work with later).
3. Sift together the flour, salt, and cocoa in a medium bowl
4. Mix sugar and oil on medium speed in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk until combined. Add eggs one at a time; mix well after each addition (mixture should thicken slightly with addition of each egg). Mix in food coloring and vanilla. Add flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with the buttermilk and beginning and ending with flour, mixing well after each addition. Scrape down sides of bowl as needed.
5. Stir together baking soda and vinegar in a small bowl.
6. Add baking-soda mixture to batter, and mix on medium speed 10 seconds.
7. Pour batter into prepared pans. Bake until a cake tester inserted into centers comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool completely in pans on wire racks.
Cream cheese frosting
4 packages (8 ounces each) cream cheese, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened and cut into pieces
2 pounds confectioners’ sugar, sifted
- 1. Mix cream cheese and vanilla on medium speed in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle until creamy and light, 2 minutes.
2. With mixer running, gradually add butter; mix until combined.
3. Reduce speed to low; gradually mix in sugar until combined. If not using immediately, refrigerate, covered, up to 3 days; bring to room temperature before using.
Note: It is recommended you make the cakes one day ahead and refrigerate them, then assemble and frost on the day of or day before the wedding.
4 each 6-, 9-, 12-, and 15-inch round layers Red Velvet Cake
4 pieces corresponding-size 3/16-inch thick foam board
5 recipes Cream Cheese Frosting
1 cake board, 18-inch diameter
25 wooden dowels, 1/4 to 1/2 inch diameter
Fresh or gum-paste flowers for decorating (we used orange orchids)
1. Begin by trimming your cake layers. As I wanted each tier to be four layers, to give the cut slices a really rich look, I baked two cakes in each size and cut them in half. This can get slightly unwieldy with your larger layers, but can be done. We did the trimming in three parts: 1) Cut off the cake top so that you have a perfectly flat top. 2) Trim the sides of your cake as evenly as possible so you have smooth sides. 3) Cut your cake in half. You will end up this stage with 4 layers of each of the 4 sizes.
2. Using a small amount of frosting, stick one of each size of the layers on a piece of foam core of corresponding size. This will form the base of that size cake. You will now have four cake base layers.
3. Start building your cakes. We started with the smallest one, to build the confidence which we severely lacked. (Note for the 6-inch top cake, we only ended up using three layers. It looked more proportional that way). Begin by frosting the top of your base cake layer. Add another layer, frost top, and repeat. No need to frost the sides at this point. You will end with four tiers of cake, each on its own base of foam core. Time to start building!
4. Begin assembly! Start by placing your largest layer on the cake board to give it additional support. Place cake board on your serving platter, if using. You will now cut your dowels to the appropriate length. The dowels will be roughly 4 1/8 inches long, but this will vary by cake as it depends on how much trimming and frosting you have done. As you will see from the photos below, our cake lacked some of the, hem, structural integrity that the Martha Stewart version makes look so easy. A couple tips to help aide your structural integrity: cut your dowels exactly the same length for each tier. This will ensure that the foam core on the next tier sits on a perfectly flat surface. Additionally, you want to cut your dowels so that they come to exactly the top of the frosting. If they are too short, your next tier will sink in to the base layer and start sinking suspiciously downward. See below photos for visual references and accompanying panicked faces. For the bottom 15-inch tier, you will need 10 dowels; one in the center, and nine in a circle approximately 2-3 inches from the cake’s edge. For the 12-inch tier, use eight dowels in a circle 2-3 inches from the cake’s edge. For the 9-inch tier, place four dowels in a square. Place top 6-inch tier.
5. At this point your cake is assembled and ready for frosting. (Note/warning/caveat: you can feel free to stop reading here, as I will not pretend to be anything even resembling an expert when it comes to cake frosting and decoration. I am more like your four-year old nephew who doesn’t have great hand-eye coordination. Nevertheless, I will tell you what we did, and you can feel free to continue reading if it is useful and/or humorous to do so). It is easiest to frost a cake that is slightly cool, which will help avoid crumbs coming off. I know this because we did not do it, and had said crumbs coming everywhere into our frosting. Also, you can frost using a cake frosting table, which conveniently turns so that you do not have to crawl all over your giant table to get every last corner. Obviously we did not have one. Our frosting consisted of three stages. Stage 1: Base frosting layer. At this point, your cake looks ugly as sin. Ours was not going to win any prizes (see photographic evidence below). I think this may have had to do with the fact that it was incredibly hot and our cake seemed to be melting on top of us, so there were a lot of crumb issues and not the neatly frosted look we were going for. This brought us to Stage 2: Attempt to make cake look mildly presentable. Once we had some frosting on, we went over the cake again with another layer of frosting to hide our literal crumbiness and have a smooth, fairly unblemished surface to work with. Stage 3: Attempt to be Martha Stewart. I chose this particular cake because I loved the simple frosted look — beautiful, but not overly elegant, perfect for my sister’s outdoor wedding. It also looked and sounded somewhat simple. HA. Creating that easy swooping scalloped look posed more challenges than we thought. While the original Martha Stewart instructions told us to move the offset spatula in a swooping motion to create the pattern, we had trouble getting the desired effect. We ended up using a knife and the spatula to create ridges by moving the knife/spatula upwards, and in the end were satisfied (enough) with the result. Also, the wedding was in 3 hours so we had to call it quits at some point.
6. Finish your now frosted cake with some flowers to hide the very worst spots. Top off with some adorable wedding toppers! I got the ones pictured from Goose Grease on Etsy, with whom I am in love. She customizes the colors and dresses to match what you are wearing that day, and even does pets. Obviously we had to include Irwin.
You are done! Now time to eat, revel in your loved ones, and have some wedding fun.