Thursday, 10 June 2010

DIY SOS - tips for choosing and making your own wedding cake.

Weddings are expensive old things and, for most people at least, the chance to practise getting it right just isn't available. We only aim to do it once after all, and even if we find that once just isn't enough, it's unlikely any aisles will be walked down enough times for the experience to become old hat. Doing things yourself can be a great way to cut down costs and make things that bit more personal, but it's worth working out how a DIY approach can work for you, before crashing in and finding yourself in a whole new world of stress and mayhem. The things that people often DIY are table decorations, flowers, photography and the cake. Lucky you if you are friends with great photographers, florists and cake makers already, but if you aren't and are thinking of doing it yourself, here's a bit of advice on the cake front.

You can find lots of articles giving you a step-by-step guide to making a particular wedding cake design, but I wanted to show you the pros and cons of different styles, to help you know which is right for you and your personality. If you're easily flappable, avoid anything which requires last minute attention, but if you work best under pressure and tend to leave everything until the eleventh hour, steer clear of cakes that require foreward planning and early preparation.

Cupcakes are a popular choice and already come in neat individual portions, so the cake won't need to be taken away early for cutting, meaning you can have the cakes displayed right up until the last moment. If you want a tower of cupcakes for your wedding, it's worth considering the cutting of the cake photo op. Some couples feed each other a cupcake as a modern twist to mark this tradition, but if getting papped with a gobful of cake and smears of icing on your face isn't your idea of a memory worth keeping, making a separate top tier to sit above your tower of cupcakes is a good option and creates an elegant sense of unity to the overall design.

People think that cupcakes are the easiest option for DIYers and they certainly can be if done right, but do note that you will be giving yourself or your trusted friend/ family member a tight and stressful deadline. You can freeze them, but you'll need lots of freezer space. Personally I don't like the idea of pre-made frozen cakes as they're just never as nice as fresh. If you do opt for the deep freeze, open freezing the cakes first will help them keep their shape before you wrap them securely and pop them back in. You have to wrap them to ward off freezer burn. I wouldn't leave sponge in the freezer for longer than three weeks ideally, but then, when I'm in charge I'd always leave the freezer door shut entirely. It's your wedding day! And fresh is most definitely best.

When cupcakes are made fresh, it needs to be as close to the day they are going to be eaten as possible. Essentially they are, by their very nature, a last minute job. A scary responsibility for some. Chocolate cake tends to last that little bit longer than other sponges and most chocolate cakes actually  improve if left in an airtight container for a few days. This can make them a slightly less stressful proposition than vanilla or lemon. Do bear in mind where you're going to store them though, as you will need A LOT of tins for these little darlings.

Where and how your cakes will be stored should be thought through before baking commences. Don't pack them too close or too tightly together and avoid stacking them, as you'll end up ruining the edges of the paper cases. This will not only make them look messy but will also make them harder to ice later. Don't forget to consider what you want the cakes topped with too. Perhaps cupcakes don't sound so easy when you've got to make 100 pretty things to stick on their tops? Making little sugar roses is a very pretty option, but they do take time and practise and you will need a lot of them. They can be made up to a month before (or even longer if you don't mind them becoming rock hard) and you can do a few here and there in spare moments or even on a tray in front of the telly if you like. I'll give you a step-by-step guide to making your own sugar roses in another blog very soon.

Alternatively, you can buy some ready made sugar flowers, but they can end up being much more expensive, but you will save yourself a lot of time. Steer clear of wired flowers for cupcakes, as your guests will just want to sink their teeth straight in without worrying about cutting their mouths open or breaking a tooth. Whether you choose buttercream or royal icing, make sure the cakes are properly covered, so that they aren't exposed to any air. Wedding cakes sit out for hours before they're eaten and your cupcakes will dry out in no time if not properly protected. So don't be lazy about icing right into the corners - you don't want all your hard work turning into dusty crumbs.

One last tip for wedding cupcakes is to cover them FULLY with icing, but absolutely NEVER with cream. Cream can only be left unrefrigerated for up to four hours and less in hot weather. It's worth remembering this little health and safety rule if you don't want your wedding reception to turn into a giant queue for the loo.

If multi-tiered cakes are more your style, the same last minute pressures apply if you choose sponge cakes. I set up a cake a few weeks ago and was told a horror story by the venue's resident toast master about a wedding he had recently worked at. When the couple cut their cake, the whole thing was rotten and mouldy all the way through. Clearly the cake maker had been a little too eager to tick that particular job off his/her list, resulting in the whole cake being thrown straight in the bin. The very earliest the cakes should be made is 7 days before the big day, but I still think this is too early for most sponges, especially a Victoria sponge, which can go stodgy if made too far in advance. It is always easier to ice cakes after they have been marzipanned, so it might be prudent as a DIYer to marzipan the cakes first. But, if you, like many others, turn your nose up at almonds, you will need to cover the cakes in two layers of roll out icing, allowing the first layer to crust properly before applying the second. I will outline structuring your tiers securely further down, but first, a word on delivery.


I think it's extremely important to make a visit to the venue by car from wherever the cake will be delivered from. Take note of any pot holes in the road, steep hills or sudden declines and also check the entrance to the reception venue for speed bumps. Wedding venues seem to be particularly keen on speed bumps and they are the bane of a cake maker's delivery days. Check out with the venue's wedding co-ordinator that there isn't an alternative speed bump-less entrance; there quite often are at the bigger hotels. Pack your cake securely in a specially designed cake box and never carry anything bigger than a three tiered cake in one piece. You can get away with it, just, if you can deliver it in a van with a person sitting by it to ensure it remains in one piece, but I still wouldn't advise it. People who like watching shows like The Ace of Cakes (I'm totally with you) might think it's usual to transport cakes unboxed in the backs of vans, but unfortunately, in Blighty, red tape prevents it and food for public consumption must be fully covered during transit. That means that even if you do take it by van with someone watching over it in the back, they won't see any potential damage coming, they'll just hear a thump and hold their breath as they lift the lid off the box.

Traditional fruit cake
More and more people are opting not to go for traditional fruit cake these days, but it's certainly worth reconsidering getting fruity if you're planning a DIY job. See my recipe for Christmas cake to find the amounts for 6", 9" and 12" cakes. You can make the cakes a couple of months before the big day, wrap them up and they'll need no further attention other than the odd top up of brandy, rum or whisky. You can marzipan the cakes up to two weeks before and ice the cakes the week before your wedding date. People often make the unpractised assumption that rolling out icing and covering cakes is the easy bit. Unless you're used to doing it, easy it certainly isn't, especially when covering really large cakes. And if economy is the reason behind doing it yourself in the first place, then there's no point spending lots of time and money honing your skills before the big day.

If you're thinking that simple is the way to go, be warned, you might wish that you'd chosen a design that could cover up any air bubbles, lumps, bumps, cracks or billowing bottoms. My advice if you're icing the cakes yourself, is to be flexible with the finished design. You may well find that the smooth, polished white finish you were planning has become something quite different along the way. Don't panic though, if you follow my icing guide, you're more likely to get it right first time round. But maybe think about investing in some thick ribbon, just in case...

Victoria's Cake Boutique's top tips for a smooth icing finish:

  • First things first. At the baking stage, please don't be tempted to mix up the batter for all your tiers together in one go. Not only will you have to fork out for an oversized mixing bowl to fit it all in, you'll also increase the likelihood of having one incredibly deep cake, one average and one the depth of a digestive biscuit. Mix up each cake separately so all you'll have to worry about is pouring it in the right tin and levelling it out before sticking it in the oven.
  • Is it level? Before you ice your cakes, make sure their tops are level - this is especially important if you're planning on stacking your cakes later.
  • Using a little boiled, seived apricot jam, stick each cake on a thin board the same size.
  • Fill in any holes or dips with marzipan before covering the cake.
  • Brush the cake's top and sides liberally with boiled and seived apricot jam.
  • Knead your marzipan on a clean surface dusted with icing sugar before rolling out. I like to roll mine on to icing sugar dusted sheets of baking parchment, as it doesn't stick as easily as to the table.
  • Roll out your marzipan to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. Use a piece of string which has measured the size of the cake as a guide to know how big you'll need it to be.
  • Polish it over with an icing smoother if you have one, before lifting it with your rolling pin and placing it on top of your cake.
  • Pat the marzipan down and, using your hands, pat and smooth the marzipan down the sides of the cake, trying to avoid trapping any air underneath.
  • If you get an air bubble, use a scribe or sterilised needle to pop it, placing the needle in at an angle so you can squeeze out the trapped pocket of air.
  • Once you've patted and smoothed the icing down, preferably with a couple of icing smoothers for a really professional finish, trim off the excess marzipan.
  • Lift the cake up on to a turntable or upturned bowl and smooth the marzipan once more to ensure your edges are straight and haven't billowed out towards the bottom of the cake.
  • Trim the excess off using a small sharp knife, keeping it flush with the bottom of the cake board.
  • Leave the marzipanned cakes to "crust" for at least 24 hours before icing.
  • You can ice your cakes in a very similar way to marzipanning them, but instead of using boiled jam, use brandy, vodka or cooled boiled water to stick the icing to the marzipan.
  • Knead the icing thoroughly, but to avoid locking air into the icing and producing troublesome bubbles later on, press and fold the ball of icing under in a continuous circle, until the icing is properly pliable and any cracks or indentations will be on the underneath.
  • Always start with your icing in the same shape as your cake - a ball for a round, and a squared off ball for a square.
  • Liberally dust sheets of baking parchment with icing sugar and rub a little over your rolling pin.
  • Roll your icing to a thickness of 1/4 inch, but don't turn the icing over, we're keeping the "working" side on the bottom.
  • Use your rolling pin to lift the icing and follow the same directions as for the marzipan.
  • Leave the icing to crust for at least 24 hours before decorating.
  • If you are planning to stack the cakes, don't forget to check the tops are level with a clean spirit level.
Stacked, pillared or separated...?


If you opt for a multi-tiered cake where the tiers are stacked directly on top of each other, you will have to create some internal scaffolding to stop the cakes from sinking into one another. Once iced, cakes are considerably heavier than you might expect and need a little extra support to prevent a sunken or capsized mess. You can buy cake rods which are either plastic or wooden, that can be cut to size with a hack saw. I insert the uncut rods (at least 6 for the bottom tier, but up to 12 is safer, depending on the cake's size) into the cake and mark where I need to cut with a liqourice pen - which is like a black felt tip, but the ink is edible. I then remove the rods, cut them to size, sand over the cut tip and wash thoroughly and dry before re-inserting them in the cake. Once properly rodded, the cakes can be placed directly on top of each other, using a smear of royal icing to secure them in place. I always (unless instructed otherwise) place the base tier on to an iced cake drum. It not only looks more polished and complete, it also make transporting the cake much easier.


Pillars are harder to get right, and the cakes will each need to be placed on a cake drum (a thick cake board - ideally you should ice it to tie it in with the rest of the design. Otherwise it just looks like a thick piece of tin foil. Not especially attractive, I'm sure you'll agree). The iced cake drums will need to be 2" larger than the size of each cake. Using a compass, draw a circle the same size as the bottom and middle tiers on baking parchment or tracing paper and work out where you will need the pillars to go and mark them on the tracing paper circles at regular intervals. Next, place the tracing paper on top of the cakes and using a scribe or sterilised needle, prick the icing where the pillars will stand. Remove the paper and place your pillars lightly on the marked pin pricks. Take an uncut rod and press the rod through the pillar and down to the base of the cake until it hits the cake board, mark where the rod will need to be cut and repeat the process described above. The rods are what supports the weight of your cakes, not the pillars, which are purely decorative. When transporting the cakes to the venue, box them separately and wait until you arrive to arrange them on top of each other. Instead of pillars you can also use cake separators, which are glass-look acrylic tubes or squares which can be filled with petals, flower heads or glass beads. For these, rod the cakes firmly in the cake centre and cover up the hole you've made by smearing a little royal icing over the top of each inserted rod, before sticking the separator on to the cake with royal icing.

Separately presented

Separately presented multi-tiered cakes: This is the style of cake I would recommend as the least troublesome for DIYers. You don't need to think about internal structure and you don't have to worry about special boxes for transporting stacked multi-tiered cakes. The stand does the work for you and all you'll need to do is place your cakes on iced cake drums and decorate them as you wish. A ribbon and a fresh flower posey on top is a very simple and effective design. You can choose from a swan stand, an "S" or "E" stand for three tiered cakes or a "C" stand for two tiered cakes. Other vintage tearoom styles are also available, although you'll most likely have to buy one; the other styles can be hired from most decent cake decorating suppliers.

So there you have it, what is, I hope, a useful guide for choosing and making your own wedding cake. But if you decide it all looks a bit too much like hard work, Victoria's Cake Boutique will be happy to do it for you.

1 comment:

  1. The tips given will act as a guidelines to couples who are currently planning a wedding event. Cakes are one of the most important part in a wedding event. It is true, that choosing a cake requires a lot of time and patience. We base the cake's design on the theme that we want. Aside for choosing food for the wedding, it is also a must to choose a good, but affordable venue for the wedding reception. Denver is one of the better wedding venues for this generation.