how to bake a wedding cake

Posted on August 5, 2012

Guess what? I’ve successfully baked my first wedding cake! It was easier and less stressful than I expected, and surprisingly, I’d even do it again. Now a most epic blog post about my adventure.

Last weekend, my friend Katie married her sweetheart and I baked her wedding cake. The bride wanted chocolate and the groom wanted vanilla. We needed enough cake for 150 guests—hands down my most ambitious baking adventure to date. After some thoughtful consideration, we decided on a three-tiered vanilla cake with vanilla swiss buttercream icing and three chocolate sheet cakes with chocolate buttercream. Once all the hard decisions were made, it was time to actually bake this monstrosity.

Research & Planning

The research and planning phase of my wedding cake adventure was by far the most crucial part. It involved lots of testing of cakes and frostings, lots of internet research and lots of math. As it turns out, making enough cake for 150 people requires a lot of calculating. Making a cake for 150 people in a tiny San Francisco kitchen with one oven, one standard Kitchen Aid mixer and one refrigerator, that requires even more meticulous calculating.

I tested a few vanilla cake recipes before landing on the final recipe. I was looking for a vanilla cake that was moist and flavorful, but dense enough to stand up to stacking. It also had to taste just as good after freezing, since I had to bake the cakes a few days before the event.

For the vanilla icing, I was looking for a frosting that would taste great, go on smoothly and not disintegrate in the Sacramento heat. The taste and texture of the frosting was key, especially since I wasn’t planning to cover the cake in fondant. In my book, buttercream wins out over fondant any day of the week.  My goal was to create a beautiful cake that was really, really delicious—even if the frosting job wasn’t fondant-pristine.

I knew I had the chocolate cake in the bag. I used my favorite tried and true chocolate cake recipe—it is always a crowd pleaser and easy to pull together. This cake is incredibly flavorful, moist and airy, but won’t stand up to hours of stacking. Sheet cakes that would be served already sliced—perfect!

After landing on final recipes, the calculations began. I had to figure out how much cake I needed to serve 150 guests, how many batches of each of the cake and frosting recipes it would take to create that amount of cake, and how much of each ingredient I would need to buy. I consulted Wilton’s cake serving chart, but decided it was a bunch of crap; 1 inch by 1 inch pieces of cake are not my style. In the end, I was conservative in my estimates on how much cake each person would eat, erring on the side of extra cake. More cake is always better.

For a wedding of 150 people, plus extra cake to be safe, I baked …

  • 2 – 2.5″ by 8″ rounds (serves approximately 15 people)
  • 2 – 2.5″ by 10″ rounds (serves approximately 25 people)
  • 2 – 2.5″ by 12″ rounds (serves approximately 35 people)
  • 3 – 18″ by 24″ sheets (serves approximately 120 people, 40 people per cake)

Which means I needed to plan for …

  • 2 – 8″ rounds = 7 cups of batter (1 batch of cake)
  • 2 – 10″ rounds = 12 cups of batter  (2 batches, minus 2 cups)
  • 2 – 12″ rounds = 16 cups of batter (2 batches, plus two cups from the 10″ cakes)
  • 1 – 18″ 24″ sheet = 14 cups of batter (2 batches)
  • 1 – 18″ 24″ sheet = 14 cups of batter (2 batches)
  • 1 – 18″ 24″ sheet = 14 cups of batter (2 batches)

Yep, that means 5 batches of vanilla cake and 6 batches of chocolate cake. When I went to the grocery store to purchase this insane quantity of  butter, flour, sugar and buttermilk  was when the scale of this task really hit me. Wedding cakes are a lot of cake.

I also purchased  3″ deep round cake pans in 8″, 10″, and 12″ diameters, wooden dowels, cardboard cake boards, cake boxes and rolls of parchment, tinfoil and plastic wrap. I was ready to go!

Baking

Because my kitchen resources were limited, I began my baking a few days before the wedding. I wanted to make sure I had enough time to bake everything before making the trip to Sacramento where I would do the frosting and assembly. Plus, you want the cakes to sit in the fridge or freezer for a day or two before you frost them. They are much easier to handle for stacking and frosting when they’re cold.

First, I cut rounds and sheets of parchment paper to size. Because you want the cakes to come out of the pan as cleanly as possible, be sure to butter the plan, line it with parchment, butter the parchment and then dust the bottom and sides with flour.

I also baked the cakes at 300 degrees for a longer amount of time than the recipe predicted. Baking at a lower temperature prevents the cake from mounding in the center, which reduces the amount of leveling you’ll have to do later.

I started with the vanilla cake. I mixed 2 batches and baked one 10″ and one 12″ cake, adding 1 cup of the extra batter from the 10″ cake into the 12″ pan. Then I baked two 8″ cakes, splitting a batch of cake. Then came a chocolate sheet cake. Then came another 10″ and another 12″ vanilla round. Then another chocolate sheet cake. I was able to bake all of the vanilla cakes and two of the chocolate cakes in one day, but it was epic (and seriously efficient for my tiny apartment kitchen!) baking.

I can now officially say that baking from 9 am to 5 pm is both intense and exhausting.  By the end, my kitchen was a flour and sugar covered disaster, but baking almost everything in one shot is the way to go. The next day, I finished up with the last chocolate sheet cake and it joined its plastic-wrapped buddies in the fridge.

Now for the cake recipes …

***

Vanilla Buttermilk Cake, from Smitten Kitchen
For one 8″ or 9″ cake with two layers 

4 cups plus 2 tablespoons  cake flour (not self-rising)
2 teaspoons  baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups buttermilk

Preheat oven to 300°F. Butter the cake pans and line with circles of parchment paper, then butter parchment and dust with flour.

Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. At low-speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined. The mixture will look curdled, don’t worry. Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated.

Spread batter evenly in cake pan, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 40 minutes to one hour. Cool in pan on a rack for 15 minutes, then run a knife around edge of pan and invert onto rack. Peel off and discard the parchment. Then cool completely, about 1 hour.

***

Best Ever Chocolate Cake, from Ina Garten
For one 8″ or 9″ cake with two layers

Butter, for greasing the pans
1 3/4 cup flour
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup cocoa powder
2 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
1 t kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee (I used decaf this time, but have used regular in the past)

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Butter the cake pans and line with parchment paper, then butter parchment and dust with flour.

Sift the dry ingredients into the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Stir to combine. Combine wet ingredients in another bowl. With the mixer on low, slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry. Add the coffee.

Pour into prepared pans and bake for 35 – 40 minutes. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then invert onto a rack to cool completely.

***

Once the cakes are completely cool, wrap them tightly and thoroughly in plastic wrap. Then wrap them in  a layer of tin foil and place them in the freezer or fridge. You’ll likely have to split the cakes between both fridge and freezer, unless you’re lucky enough to have industrial sized freezer hanging around.

Frosting

Now that you’ve baked the cakes and it is the day of the wedding, you’ve got to frost those buggers. First, do yourself a favor and buy a nice, long cake frosting spatula. It will save you time and prevent an anxiety attack at the wedding venue. Second, go purchase yourself six glorious pounds of unsalted butter!

For the vanilla cake, I made one massive batch of vanilla swiss buttercream thanks to an industrial scale recipe from Deb of Smitten Kitchen. I filled each of the layers with a unsweetened whipped cream.

For the chocolate cake, I made Ina’s chocolate buttercream and just multiplied the recipe.

***

Vanilla Swiss Buttercream, from Smitten Kitchen
For one 3-tiered wedding cake
2 cups of egg whites (approx. 12 large)
3 cups sugar
5 cups butter, softened (2 1/2 pounds, 10 sticks)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

For one 8″ or 9″ cake
1 cup sugar
4 large egg whites
26 tablespoons butter, softened (3 sticks plus 2 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Whisk egg whites and sugar together in a big metal bowl over a pot of simmering water. Whisk occasionally until you can’t feel the sugar granules when you rub the mixture between your fingers.

Transfer mixture into the mixer and whip until it turns white and about doubles in size.

Add the vanilla. Finally, add the butter a stick at a time and whip, whip, whip.

Don’t freak out when the frosting looks soupy, just keep whipping. It will come together gloriously, it just takes a while. Set the frosting aside, leaving it at room temperature.

***

Chocolate Buttercream, from Ina Garten
For three 18″ x 24″ sheet cakes
24 oz semisweet chocolate (I like Guittard)
2 lbs unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 egg yolks, at room temperature
4 teaspoons vanilla
5 cups sifted powdered sugar

For one 8″ or 9″ layer cake
6 oz semisweet chocolate
1/2 lb unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 egg yolk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cup sifted powdered sugar

Melt the chocolate over a double boiler and set aside to cool to room temperature.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter until pale and fluffy. Add the egg yolks one at a time. Add the vanilla. Add the powdered sugar and mix until combined.

Add the chocolate and mix until just combined taking care to scrape the bottom. Set the frosting aside, leaving it at room temperature.

***

Cut cardboard cake boards about 1/2″ smaller than the diameter of the cake layer. You’ll need one board per tier. Cover the boards in foil—you don’t want the moisture from the cake to make the boards soggy. The boards will help keep your cake from falling in on itself and will also make the stacking easier. I transported each of my tiers to the venue unstacked and then assembled the cake and did the final frosting there. This worked out really well for me and I avoided any heartbreaking cake-dropping disasters.

Another key component of avoiding cake dropping or sliding disasters was the cake dowels. I purchased wooden dowels and cut them into 4″ lengths. Each tier had dowels holding its two layers together. The dowels also help prevent the cake from collapsing in on itself. Insert the dowels in a circle about 3″ from the edge of the cake; the cake board of the tier above will rest on these dowels, preventing any collapse. Win-win!

First, level the cakes, shaving off a bit of cake at a time using a bread knife. Stack the first layer of cake on the cake board. Spread some whipped cream onto the cake and then top it with another layer of the same size.

Insert the cake dowels in a circle about 3″ in from the edge of the cake. Using the vanilla butter cream, smoosh a good amount of frosting in between each of the layers. Then frost the sides and top of the cake. Try and get it as smooth as possible, but don’t stress if it isn’t gorgeous. This is the crumb coat. The cake will get another final coat of frosting at the venue. Put the cake back in the fridge to allow the frosting to firm up.

I did a crumb coat of frosting for each of the vanilla tiers, put them in the fridge to firm up and then put them in cake boxes to transport to the venue. For the chocolate cakes, I just brought the frosting to the venue and took care of them there.

Finishing Touches

Once at the venue, I put the vanilla cakes back in the fridge. I frosted each of the chocolate cakes on the back of a cookie sheet and then slid them onto white cake boards that were about 1″ larger than the cake.

The chocolate cakes went back into the fridge because it was pretty dang hot in the venue’s kitchen. You want to serve cakes at room temperature so I took the chocolate cakes out of the fridge for cutting about 1 hour before dessert was served.

After finishing up the chocolate cakes, I did a final coat of frosting on each of the vanilla layers. I focused mostly on the sides of the cake since that is the most visible part.

With Jordan’s help,  we stacked the cake in its place of honor in the main room. Once stacked, I touched up all of the frosting, adding a bit more in between each of the layers so there weren’t any gaps.

When the frosting was as close to perfect as it would ever be, I decorated the cake with fresh flowers to match the bride’s bouquet.

Ta-da! It was done! And it was pretty! And it was delicious! I was very proud and very relieved. Now for a deserved break from cake.

-Emily