Cynthia, my best friend, was not touched or overjoyed or even grateful when I told her I wanted to make her wedding cake. Her e-mail did not mince words:
Ahem. Have you ever made a cake for 120 to 150? I don't mean to sound like I lack faith, but this is what I fear: The caterer's assistants will have to be working around you as you ice the cake, the kitchen will be in an uproar, icing everywhere, the layers of the cake not adhering, and the assistants will have to pitch in to help. Besides, I really love our caterer, Gracie...
Some people might have found this reply discouraging, but it only piqued my resolve. Was I going to allow her to place more faith in the hired help than in me? A privilege of best friendship is to never take no for an answer, in the certainty that the person will thank you later. I was determined: I would make a cake she would forever thank me for.
Although my baking history is checkered, each cake's problems were unique, and, as I reminded Cynthia, only the initial experience was a half disaster. A decade ago, my first college friends, Annie and Mark, decided to become prematurely grown-up and got engaged. They had no money, and when the caterers informed them the cake would cost $500 (the standard fee), they were shocked. I told them I could make them a free cake in a jiffy.
Modern friendship sometimes strikes me as a sadly attenuated affair, more talk than action. I like a friendship with a lot of tangibles--and what is more tangible than a five-layer English fruitcake blanketed in marzipan? I was in graduate school then, with work to avoid, which I did for many a week by drying and candying cherries and apricots and pineapples, piping marzipan roses and converting the British recipe's measurements from pounds to cups. I was a tad anxious as I increased the baking powder tenfold. What if it rose a hundredfold? Would it explode? I felt as though I was making a bomb.
The layers did emerge from the oven as round as bombs, so they didn't balance on top of one another. (I didn't then know the trick of lopping off the curved tops with a dental-floss guillotine.) Far from stabilizing the layers, the glossy icing that went over the marzipan was slippery. On the day of the wedding, although I got the cake assembled on a table in the reception tent, it soon began to resemble the Matterhorn, the top layers sloping precariously to one side. When we got back from the church, it looked like an earthquake had struck: a deep fissure had formed, revealing the dark fruit-and-nut innards of a slab that appeared to be minutes away from toppling to the floor.
Panic. I downed a tall glass of Champagne, and the giddiness of catastrophe began to set in. The great thing about a baking disaster, I realized, is that it is, after all, merely a dessert; just because the cake is unsound doesn't mean the marriage will be. I repeated this to myself as I jury-rigged the cake with barbecue skewers and frosted over them; they held the layers together long enough for the pictures--but the ceremonial first cut couldn't be too deep.
My mistake turned out to be simple. A cake of substantial height and weight needs a supporting beam. I hadn't known that caterers use a special system of cardboard disks supported by dowels inside the cake to hold up the layers.
I didn't do any event baking for a long stretch after that. But when, five years later, an old boyfriend decided to get married, I saw an opportunity to redeem my previous maladroitness by making the groom's cake--a Southern tradition of having a second smaller cake of a different variety. I settled on a Lady Baltimore, an almond-flavored cake iced with a nerve-racking frosting. (Why had I volunteered? I wondered as I struggled with the frosting. To demonstrate I was happy about his wedding? I was happy, but not when making the frosting.)
A candy thermometer is a portent of trouble: A recipe that requires it is always a pain. My frosting required caramelizing sugar and then pouring it slowly into stiffly beaten egg whites in such a way that the boiling liquid doesn't cook the eggs and turn what is supposed to be a stiff frosting into a warm, soupy mess. Even if you manage all that, cleaning rock hard, caramelized sugar out of the pan afterwards will do you in.
I managed it all, however, and the cake was flawless. I was the only one who thought so, though, because the hotel staff forgot to serve it! Two hundred and fifty dessert plates went out to the guests with the hotel's Sanka-colored slice while my beautiful creation, dressed in white roses and ribbons, sat forsaken on a banquet table. I like to think the kitchen staff tasted it before they discarded it.
That might have been my finale if the experience hadn't been so maddeningly purposeless. But then, five years after that, my dear friend Elizabeth got engaged. Nuptial symbolism was anathema to her and her intended--they could barely bring themselves to call their small ceremony a "wedding." (The invitation was to help celebrate--in this order--their friends, their family, their new house and, finally, their marriage!) Elizabeth's only requirement for the cake was that it not look like a wedding cake. I decided to make a family favorite, a bourbon-pecan cake--or rather, three of them, each birthday-size.
Shortly before the wedding, I came down with pneumonia. So I ordered emergency cakes from my parents' local bakery. But when my father and I went to pick them up, they were so disappointing, with that awful faux look--why do bakery cakes look fake? they aren't--that my father offered to take the afternoon off and help me bake. I sat at the kitchen table drinking tea and coughing instructions as he chopped and stirred.
My father doesn't bake, he grills. But the bourbon-pecan cake--which he had eaten countless times, because I started making it when I was 10--is fool- and father-proof. It has three main ingredients: pecans (or walnuts), raisins (or prunes or dried cherries) and decent bourbon (Southern Comfort won't work). It's easy to make in any multiple without fear of a baking-powder incident, because it barely rises--and therefore can't fall. It's hearty: It can sit around for weeks, and it freezes more or less indefinitely. (Our record-holder kept for three years and still tasted merry.) Blessedly, powdered sugar suffices for frosting. The cake bears the same relationship to fruitcake that mock turtle soup does to real turtle soup: People prefer it.
The cakes were still warm when I arrived at the ceremony, trying not to cough on them. Everyone treated me like a hero. And although I forwarded the thank-you note to my father, I was not displeased to get all the credit.
But I had to have a last chance to make a perfect wedding cake. Cynthia apprehensively agreed. She and her fiancé, Jim, had turned away from their Christian upbringing but felt the formerly religious person's need for a ritual, so they'd decided to have a Wiccan ceremony--one modeled on the nature-based pre-Christian faith--in their 1740 farmhouse. The bourbon-pecan cake seemed right because just as red, the color of her dress, had been a common wedding-gown color in eighteenth century England, fruitcakes had been traditional for weddings before the advent of refrigeration. After the celebration, the cake was soaked in liquor, wrapped in cloth and eaten a year later, when it would still be good.
I had had the revelation before Elizabeth's wedding that what makes a wedding cake riskier than others is not that it has to feed so many but that it's one cake. If a single cake is supposed to represent the unity of the couple, I decided, a multiplicity of cakes could represent richness, heterogeneity or even a subversion of the genre. (Cynthia and I met in graduate school.)
Knowing that Cynthia liked vintage things, I spent a long evening on eBay searching for "vintage wedding" items and discovered scores of antique "toppers," the miniature bride-and-groom figurines that used to routinely adorn wedding cakes. I agonized between a pale porcelain childlike couple stamped "Made in Occupied Japan" and a hale 1954 California bisque couple, and finally--eBay mindset--went for both. Then I decided to purchase four more, so that each of the six cakes could have its own topper.
Surrounded by garlands from Cynthia's garden, the figurines looked great on the cakes. Gracie,the caterer, made caramel and fudge sauces to drizzle over the slices, which she served with cut-up strawberries, mangoes and kiwis. People asked to take pieces home.
A few days after the wedding, I received an e-mail with the heading "Apologia":
I apologize from the bottom of my heart for all my fears. Your flock of cakes was gorgeous beyond belief--like a Mardi Gras parade on the table. To have friend-made cakes gave the wedding a sweet, old-fashioned touch, as if we lived in the same small village instead of different cities. The cake toppers, a century's worth of happy couples, are now awaiting their next duties--as attendants at your wedding? I wonder who will make those cakes (she says, glancing around nervously). I know you said it was easy, but--really--how easy?
"Easy as duck soup! Quick as hasty pudding!" I wrote back. Two supposedly easy projects that I've yet to attempt.
--Melanie Thernstrom is the author, most recently, of Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder.