It wasn’t long ago that the tide turned against traditional wedding cakes. Suddenly, in place of elaborately decorated layer cakes came doughnut walls, cupcake spreads, pie stations, Twinkie towers, sundae bars, and all kinds of twee arrangements. The argument, as the New York Times reported in 2012, was that wedding cakes, though treated as a given, weren’t always enjoyed — why not do something else? Reconsidering this anti-cake moment a decade later, post-cake renaissance, maybe the problem was never really the concept of wedding cake but its execution in the form of bad wedding cake.
Good wedding cake doesn’t deserve to get caught in those crossfires. It captures the vibe of not just a wedding but also a couple, and it helps bake the celebration into a sensory memory for every guest. That kind of cake deserves a place at any wedding. Another argument in favor: How often in your life will you order a big cake, one that can feed all your loved ones as a bountiful symbol of party-worthy love? As baker and author Natasha Pickowicz says, “It’s just such a symbolic part of the day.” More Than Cake, her recent, debut cookbook, is centered on the idea that “baking is about reinforcing connections and making new ones,” she writes. A wedding cake is perhaps the epitome of that, so here’s how to make sure you get one that will make your guests pro-cake.
How to decide on a bakery for your wedding cake
Whether you know exactly what you want and just need a bakery to execute it or you love a bakery enough that you want to leave it mostly up to the baker, you’ll want to make sure that a bakery’s approach to wedding cakes aligns with your own vision. John Hensley, owner of Lark Cake Shop in Los Angeles, for example, leans toward the more customized end of the bakery spectrum, which is more suited to couples with very specific needs or mood boards. When it comes to decorating, Hensley says, “We will not do anything without a picture. We’ve learned over time: I will not disappoint you if I see the picture or pictures.”
Meanwhile, a bakery like Claire Ptak’s London-based Violet Cakes — which got global attention when Ptak made the cake for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in 2018 — takes the approach that people generally come to it because they’re fans of what the bakery is already doing or has on its menu. “We don’t tend to do too much bespoke,” says Ptak, who is also the author of the new cookbook Love Is a Pink Cake. Violet generally uses seasonal flowers and fruit as decor, and while it can accommodate color schemes and favorite flower requests, hyper-specific design ideas might not mesh with the bakery’s style.
How to choose a wedding cake flavor
Should you go fun, interesting, or uncommon, perhaps appealing to your preferences as a couple — or should you play it safe, picking a flavor that will make (most of) your guests happy? “It sounds like a politician’s answer, but I really leave it to the couple; I don’t want to get involved if they ask my opinion,” says Hensley. His shop’s most popular wedding cake flavor? Berry shortcake.
The bakers I talked to for this piece agreed. Classic fruit-forward flavors — citrus in particular — tend to be the most popular for weddings, with vanilla cake leading over chocolate. “If they’re choosing between a chocolate or vanilla cake, we generally recommend more vanilla,” says Anna Gordon, baker and owner of Brooklyn’s the Good Batch. But she’s a fan of adding a “fun pop of flavor” in the middle of the cake, like a lemon curd filling. You’ll also want to keep your audience in mind. As much as Pickowicz loves cakes with a boozy element, that might not be the best choice for a wedding with kids, she notes.
But since many weddings have a separate display cake and serving cake, you can have your proverbial cake and eat it, too. “Get the one that you guys love that you’re gonna cut and have for yourself, and then do a crowd-pleaser in the [kitchen that will be cut and served to guests],” says Hensley. Gordon suggests even considering a series of single-tiered cakes in different flavors, which can be displayed together. “You can have your traditional [flavors] even if you’re nontraditional, and your guests get to be a little involved,” she says.
You’ll want to taste the cake first, of course, typically at a tasting. Beyond tasting for flavor, you’ll want to consider a few things. Since cake can dry out while sitting at a wedding, “it’s got to be cake that you think is nice and moist,” says Gordon. “And [make sure] that the frosting is something that you really enjoy because there’s so much bad frosting out there.” Swiss and Italian meringue frosting tends to be common for wedding cakes from high-quality bakeries because their bases give them a strong structure that’s helpful for stacked cakes, she says.
Finally, it’s worth thinking about the event as a whole and how the cake fits into the overall mood. In tastings she’s done at restaurant jobs, Pickowicz noticed that couples sometimes latched onto flavors that evoked specific memories. The whole run of show matters, too: A couple who anticipates lots of dancing and plans for a midnight taco truck, for example, might not want a super-rich cake, she notes.
How to get a great wedding cake on a budget
For a tighter budget, Ptak recommends ordering a small cake that you can use for the cake cutting (“I feel like it’s so romantic when a couple cuts the cake together,” she says, in favor of the tradition) and then having a larger sheet cake, which is less work to assemble and therefore costs less, to serve your guests. Again, this arrangement also makes it easy to have different flavor options at your wedding.
But if you’re committed to the look of a large, tiered cake and you’re on a budget, Hensley recommends going with a fake tier or two. As Lark’s website breaks it down, a cake with two real tiers would cost $190.40 plus a decoration fee, while a two-tiered cake in which one was fake would cost $95 plus the decoration fee. “It’s just the way to go if you can,” Hensley says. “In our experience, it’s extremely rare that people are feeding the entire wedding party out of the tiered cake.” (This advice won’t work if you’re hoping for the rustic “naked cake” aesthetic, he cautions.)
Should you really freeze wedding cake for your first anniversary?
On this point, Gordon, Hensley, and Ptak are in resounding agreement: They’d rather not. Though Hensley and his wife saved a slice after their wedding nearly 25 years ago, he doesn’t recommend it. The year-old, freezer-burned cake — which he attributes to poor storage — tasted “awful,” he recalls, though the experience is now a funny memory. “I tell people, ‘Do what you’d like to do,’” he says. “But in my opinion, I think if I had to do it over again, I would have just come back a year later and got a fresh cake.”
Pickowicz, however, is more optimistic about freezing wedding cake. “I personally love it because I think that my cakes freeze exceptionally well,” she says. Instead of butter-based cakes, she opts for egg-leavened sponge cake, similar in texture to what you might find at Chinese bakeries. “That’s when the cake dries out because the butter rehardens and it feels very cold on the palate because of the butterfat,” she says. With thin layers sandwiched with ganache or cream or fruit filling, these cakes “thaw very quickly, and they don’t really ever dry out because it’s just a very porous cake,” Pickowicz explains.
What is the best way to freeze a wedding cake?
No matter what kind of cake you’re freezing, you’ll want to take a few extra steps when storing it. The Washington Post recommends putting slices on a parchment-lined baking sheet in the freezer for an hour or two to firm up, before wrapping each slice tightly in plastic wrap and then storing the wrapped pieces in an airtight container. The goal is to keep moisture in the cake and to prevent the cake from picking up freezer smells or other damage. That being said, as the Post notes, many baking resources recommend storing cake in the freezer for only a few months for best results.
But on that one-year anniversary, it won’t really be about the cake anyway. “The cake is more than just cake,” Pickowicz says. “It’s about being like, I’ve held on to something for a year; it’s been in my freezer, and I get to pull it out and sort of relive that moment again. I think that symbolically speaking, it’s really wonderful to be able to create that moment, to have it live on again for somebody.”
Ria Osborne is a Brooklyn-based food photographer by way of London.
Liberty Fennell is a London-born, New York City-based food stylist and recipe developer.
Sonny Ross is an illustrator based in Manchester, U.K. They love drawing food as much as cooking it but not as much as eating it. They work across editorial, publishing, textiles and packaging and in their downtime enjoys such hobbies as: sleeping.
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein