Trial and Error

If your name is Genna and you are getting married in a couple of months and you have asked your only bridesmaid and oldest friend to bake your wedding cake, then read no further.  The contents of the following paragraphs are of absolutely no interest to you whatsoever.

Go away.

I said, go away, Gen. 

Jeez, you’re so nosey.  Get!

OK… I think she has gone.

I’m in a bit of a pickle.  My bestest friend in the whole wide world and her lovely fiance are getting married in May.  So excited was I at the prospect of being part of the wedding that I offered/demanded to make the wedding cake.  That I don’t have much of a sweet tooth and that I am not a baker did not faze me in the slightest.  I had five months to learn how to bake a cake and five months to learn how to use royal icing.  She didn’t even want a proper fruity wedding cake: she wanted a light sponge filled with jam or cream or something else moist.  And it was to serve just twenty five people.   It didn’t seem like a tall order.

Well, I have since tried out five recipes and each cake has been highly disappointing.  I haven’t even ventured into icing territory yet!  Where am I going wrong?  Is my lack of mechanical mixer the problem?  Have I simply been unlucky in my recipe choices?  Am I just a rubbish baker?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that I am running out of time and if I cannot crack this I’m going to have to admit defeat and order a cake from the local bakery.  Boo!

Antonia commented earlier in the week that she likes it when we share disasters.  That’s fortunate as starting this weekend I am going to share with you all my cake trials.  Including all of the errors. 

Any advice before I start?


25 thoughts on “Trial and Error

  1. Genna… GO AWAY!

    Seriously Wendy, I quivered in my booties just reading about this impending steep learning curve. I trust some serious cake makers will give you all the tips you need SOON!

  2. Oooh, you do like a challenge Wendy! Baking is just such a different style of cooking. Not that I’m any good at it, but it seems like the trick is to follow the recipes absolutely completely to the letter (actually that’s why I’m not any good at it). An oven thermometer might help too – my oven is way hotter than it says.

    But don’t panic, you’ve got loads and loads of time to figure it all out. Maybe you should go find where all those daring bakers hang out?

  3. My first thought – apart from ‘oh you are brave and kind’ – is that you need a sturdy cake to hold royal icing – rather than the fluffy sponges my mum makes (but I know the british sponges are firmer than what we call sponge in australia). I think Nigella has some good sponge recipes in domestic goddess if you have a copy or can get your hands on one.

    But my second thought is that people are often more concerned about how the cake looks for the photos etc and cake stores have lots of pretty things you can put on a cake if that takes the stress off you.

    And lastly, the love that goes into a home made cake will always make it taste much better than something from a store so I am sure Genna will just be so grateful for your efforts, however it turns out.

  4. Go and get yourself a copy of Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible and a measurement converter of some kind. It’s expensive, but my partner’s ex-wife is a cake maker (she makes beautiful, beautiful things with icing) and having just made a quick phone call to her, she swears by it.

    Maybe the library might have a copy?

  5. A baker I know who made the most delicious cake I’ve ever eaten swears by The Cake Book, by Tish Boyle. It’s with US measurements, though.

    I would say just be careful not to use too heavy of a frosting. For my birthday this year, my gramma made me an angelfood cake with this wonderful frosting that she cooks on the stovetop. The only problem was that the cake flattened underneath the weight of the frosting and it looked like a big shiitake mushroom! It tasted wonderful, which was all we cared about. 🙂

  6. This is a serious gesture of friendship! I don’t know if I’d ever have the guts to offer to bake my bestest friend’s wedding cake! Good luck and I’m really gonna follow you through this venture. The subject alone is worthy of a reality show. I can’t wait to see how this turns out. I’m sure you’ll create something marvelous. The advice given to you thus far is very expert !

  7. Genna – Thank you, sweetie. 🙂

    Mallika – The advice is coming in thick and fast now!

    Sophie – You think I have plenty of time? Good. That’s reassuring.

    Johanna – A sturdier sponge, you say. Hmmmmmm. I suspect you may be right. Will have to test how the cake holds out with the icing on top…

    Lucy – Off to the bookstore straight after work. 🙂

    Salena – “It looked like a big shiitake mushroom” – warning heeded! Eeeeeek!

    White On Rice – Thank you!!! Watch this space.

  8. I’m sure you’ll do a fabulous job!

    But I totally agree with Johanna about icing a light sponge – royal icing needs sturdy foundations and is designed to set hard and encase a cake that will keep for years!!!!

    I’d try a moist but firm sponge – madiera style – that improves with keeping a few days, with maybe thin jam and a butter icing layer in the middle. And use a fondant icing you can roll out (can you buy it ready rolled?) that will give you a nice ‘canvas’ to add some decorations.

    What about buying some gorgeous hand made white choc champagne truffles to decorate, and making a little decoration of fresh flowers you can put on the top at the last minute. There are some gorgeous sugar sprinkles you can get now – even glittery ones if that’s your thing! The more oooooohs and aaaaaahs for the decorations the less people will worry about the sponge (which will be delicious)!

    Don’t fret – enjoy the challenge!

  9. Wendy, the reason people make fruit cake for weddings is that it scales up well, without problems. If a fruit cake was wanted, I can give you the recipe for a cake that is all fruit with a tiny bit of cake to glue it together.

    If you are not a confident baker, then you need to know first of all that the single biggest reason recipes fail is because the tin is not the right size. Buy or rent the right size for the recipe. And for baking, an electric oven is much easier than a gas one, because it’s dryer.

    You could make a couple of smaller sponge recipes and glue them together with icing (but that’s another minefield)

    Or you could make lots and lots of little cakes, and pile them together – there’s a traditiional Italian celebration cake which is essentially a pile of choux buns filled with cream and drizzled with a lot of chocolate. Or the Nigella pile of cupcakes … in fact, there’s a lot of easy ideas for lovely wedding celebration cakes in her Feast – meringues, a pavlova, and a choux thing. That’s the route I would take if not a fruit cake.

    Good luck …. it’s such a lovely thing to do – and take Celia’s advice about decorating with flowers etc


  10. Celia – Love the idea of Maderia Cake and love the idea of truffles! Thanks!

    Johanna – Great advice, thank you! We definitely don’t want a traditional fruit cake as neither the couple nor I like it very much. Thought about the wee cake idea. Sounds very cute, I think, but Gen would like a proper cake. Will check out Feast, for sure. 🙂

  11. I know that this might be a tad scary suggestion but what about asking Lilian for advice? She makes great tasting cakes. However, i wouldn’t ask her, so …! All the above advice sounds good, especially regarding the tin size. Try the Jane Asher website for decoration tools, colours, glue etc. She has some lovely cutters. Good luck sweetie. I, too, am looking forward to following this saga.

  12. Shona – Lilian bakes? I didn’t know that. Not sure I’d feel comfortable asking her for advice… Don’t know her at all. Will definitely check out Jane Asher’s site though. 🙂

    David – Cheers!

    rkhooks – Will see if my local library has any of her books. I’ve ordered The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. “Bible” sounds reassuring!!

  13. What a lovely gesture and I’m sure you’re being overly hard on yourself. I agree with Joanna, maybe lots of individual cupcakes could look really pretty especially if you decorate them with pastel coloured buttercream icing. You could make different flavour bases as well.

    You might find that making a fruitcake is actually easier than sponge as you don’t have to worry as much about rising/lightness. Also it can be made in advance to mature so you don’t have ut hanging over you.

    Although, if the bride wants sponge, you’ve got to give it to her. I wouldn’t worry about not having a mixer, sometimes they cause more problems through overbeating. follow the tips above and make sure that you use a wooden spoon for your creaming and really beat the air in and a metal spoon for your flour folding (really do make a folding action).

    I am rubbish with formal icing so I can’t give tips there. Fresh flowers would be a lovely touch though and a lot easier. You could get them to match the wedding flowers. Alternatively US recipes for white frosting might look good and are probably more forgiving because you can make artistic peaks etc.

    Good luck!

  14. Wendy, I am so glad that I am that you are my friend! Seriously 🙂 I can only imagine the things you would do for me.

    Email me if you want a fool-proof recipe for a pound cake or if you want to try making my Christmas rum cake.

    I’ll be checking the space to see how things are progressing.

  15. Joy – Just looked up pictures for US frosting. It’s lovely! The bride is very keen on fresh flowers on the cake. 🙂

    Cynthia – 😀 Thank you for the cake offers. I’ve got a few recipes to try out at the moment but will definitely keep your email address handy!

  16. Hi Wendy!

    I asked my mom, the pastry chef/cake expert, if she had any suggestions. Here’s her reply:

    Sounds like there are alot of people with good advice. Mine would be; first of all, most wedding cakes are firm so that they hold up. We use one moist(sponge like) cake called red velvet. I’m sure you heard of it. We all cringe when it is ordered, it falls apart so easily. Certainly not stackable. But most of all I
    would warn her that royal icing is used mostly for the decoration as it becomes hard and not very eatable. I would use a simple buttercream to ice it.

  17. Stephanie – I’ve never heard of “red velvet” before (really not a baker) but will most definitely look it up. Thank your Mum for me!

    Maninas – I thought about that. They do look really really cute but the bride wants what the bride wants! 🙂

  18. Pingback: The Wedding Cake - 1 « A Wee Bit of Cooking

  19. I made and iced loads of a cakes yeras ago – I did pop some of them on the gallery here:

    I only made fruit cakes (but a nice light one) the recipe is here: or I made a madeira sponge – then froze it and iced it from frozen. If you are making more than one tier maybe do 2 different cakes to take off the pressure as the sponge you will be dong the night before.

    I used sugarpaste and finished with royal icing – it is far easier to work with and much easier to eat! I don’t think royal icing is an option with sponge.

    I can give lots more advice if you need it and can dig out the recipe for other tin sizes and find my madeira cake recipe too.

    Good luck

  20. Carolyn – Thanks for the links. Your cakes look scarily stunning! The idea of freezing the maderia sponge before icing is one I will almost certainly use. 🙂

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