I DIY'd my own wedding cake, and it was a disaster!
No, that lovely white cake is not the cake I made, I wish!!! Years ago, long before I became a professional cake maker, I DIY'd my own wedding cake. In-fact, it was quite literally the first tiered cake I ever made. Now, I can't even look at pictures of that cake without harboring a sense of regret, and not just because it makes me cringe to see the lopsided tiers, wonky icing, and bulges- but because I robbed myself of a wonderful experience. The experience of having a cake designed for me, the experience of being a bride; an experience I aim to give every bride and groom that walks through my door.
So, I wanted to take a moment to talk about what it means to DIY your own wedding cake, and to possibly offer my personal experience, that of a bride who did DIY her own cake with no experience, and now, as a professional (with perspective).
The Naked "home-made" look wedding cake is fuelling an increased trend for DIY!
Though they may look easy, there's a lot more to these cakes than meets the eye!
Why Did I DIY My Wedding Cake?
Well, I've thought and thought about this, and ultimately I think it boiled down to two reasons:
1: I was 22 and we had no money, we were paying for the majority of the wedding ourselves.
2: I enjoyed baking, I had an artistic background, and I thought, "how hard can a wedding cake really be?"
Let's explore the first reason. I was barely 22 years old. I remember that when I got engaged, having a centerpiece wedding cake was part of the grand dream. I purchased a wedding cake book by Peggy Porschen and I fell in love with the idea of having a beautiful fondant wedding cake adorned with delicate sugar flowers. I went with my mom to a local wedding cake maker's studio, and browsed her portfolio. Her cakes were astonishingly beautiful- I fell in love with design after design. I didn't fall in love with the price. Back then, 10 years ago, I was quoted $400 for a cake to serve roughly 72 guests. Ouch, I thought.
Now let's consider the second. The initial sticker shock got me thinking, "I love baking, I'm artistic, I could totally make my own wedding cake. I could save hundreds by making it myself, it will be an amazing experience."
The Dream: A Peggy Porschen Wedding Cake.
So what happened?
Well, let me tell you what really happened....
First, I purchased a set of rather beautiful cake pans, they set me back almost $100 but I reasoned that they would get years of use, so the investment was a sound one compared to a one time wedding cake purchase (my mom still has those pans, and I've never used them since).
I purchased cake decorating tools and supplies online, notably fondant smoothers, palette knives, flower cutters, rolling pins, lace stencils, etc. Actually, over the course of several months, I sunk probably another $200 into various cake supplies.
I also purchased gumpaste and fondant to practice. Back then, I didn't know the difference between gumpaste and fondant but I quickly found out that they are quite different. Initially I tried making roses from fondant following the steps laid out in Peggy's book, only, they didn't look anything like hers. They looked like crumpled, dried-up mounds, because that's really what they were. After several weeks of practice, my roses still looked like thick, clumpy lumps and it was at that moment I was forced to abandon the idea of having an elegant wedding cake with sugar-roses, because, I just couldn't make them...and in that moment, my wedding cake dream died right along with it, and it was replaced with "the compromise".
They Make it Look Sooo Easy!
It isn't! Trust me, I'm a mad baker!
Baking the Cakes
I was, even back then, a pretty proficient baker. I made cakes quite regularly with my family. I knew my way around a stand-mixer, I could cobble together a pretty decent buttercream. I thought, "hey, I totally got this." Except, I didn't. I had never baked anything larger than an 8-inch round sponge cake before. I had no idea how long a recipe would take to bake, or even how to appropriately scale that recipe to fit into an 11-inch pan that was 3-inches deep.
The batter was Delia Smith's Victoria Sponge recipe, and i'd used it countless times before without issue. I popped my 11-inch cake in the oven, pleased as punch that i'd lined my tin beautifully with parchment. An hour later, I took the cake out of the oven and inserted a skewer, it seemed done- the edges were brown. I let the cake cool, and about 20 minutes later I returned to check on my cake and noticed it had completely sunk in the center. I pressed my finger into the sad looking batter and noticed it wasn't cooked. I panicked..."what do I do? I can't make another triple batch of batter, it's my wedding tomorrow, I don't have time to run back to the store." It was my well-meaning Dad who suggested sticking it, you guessed it, in the microwave!
Oh the cake gods are turning in their graves.
I mean sure, we've all put a mug cake in the mic. for a quick treat, but an 11-inch wedding cake? Even microwaves have their limitations folks! Three minutes later, the microwave pinged and I opened the door to a steaming cake. The center was risen and cooked but the cake had a decidedly rubbery look about it.
"No matter," my mom assured, "No-one will really eat much cake."
So, I continued on, my DIY-wedding-cake-dream going up in flames by the minute. I baked the other two tiers which, thankfully, turned out a lot better than the previous tier. Cooled and ready to fill, I trimmed each cake, added a layer of raspberry jam and a generous helping of buttercream and plopped the top on, then I crumb-coated the cake ready for the fondant. I looked at the cakes and thought, "Hmm, well, they do look a little uneven, and the filling is spilling out a bit, but I am sure the fondant will fix everything."
Wrong!! One thing fondant does not do, is turn a wonky, uneven cake into a smooth beautiful masterpiece. So, there I was in my home-kitchen, the day before my wedding, wrestling a piece of fondant into a round shape, in 90 degree heat, with my mom's small pastry pin, and confectioners sugar flying everywhere. I rolled the fondant to about 1/2 an inch thick, and layered it on that sucker. There were tears, holes, and bumps everywhere. I trimmed the bottom and tried to smooth it. It was at that moment that my sister showed up and, bless her heart, saw the state I was in and stepped in. She sat there smoothing those cakes for an hour- they still looked like they'd been run-over by a party bus.
Wedding Cakes need Dowels like a Wedding Dress needs a Corset!
Wedding cakes need support...or they sink, or tip, or collapse, or fall. The last element was stacking the tiers. I'd read about using dowels in the Peggy Porschen book, but I didn't really understand them, I don't know what happened, but I almost certainly didn't use enough. The saving grace was a rather large ribbon (about 2 inches wide) that wrapped around each tier of the cake and concealed the damage. The topper was a simple posy of fresh flowers, tied with a little pink ribbon.
Wedding Cakes Need Support
Each cake needs to be individually doweled and then the entire cake should be centrally doweled for stability.
I surveyed my work - well, it was NOTHING like the beautiful cakes from the wedding cake studio I had admired; which had inspired me to make my own...and it had been microwaved, so I wasn't sure how it would taste- but at least it hadn't cost me $400, right! Or had it? Actually it probably cost me a great deal more than that in ingredients and supplies, not to mention sanity. I had probably spent close to $500 in reality.
Delivery Day Deceptions
Another aspect of the DIY'ing process that I had completely overlooked was the delivery and setup. After all, I was the bride as well as the baker, so its not like I could go and drop it off on the morning of the wedding with my curlers in- the venue was a 45 minute drive from my home. So, in a last-minute flurry, we called the venue and they said we could drop it off that evening, and they would "set it up". My lovely sister volunteered, and two hours later she returned, all smiles, and said it was all set-up and looked gorgeous. HA! She was lying through her teeth- what had actually happened, and what she only told me after the wedding, was that she showed up, they had no where to set-up the cake, and that weekend also happened to be the hottest weekend of the year- with temperatures in the 90's, and the venue had no AC (it was the UK- THEY DON'T NEED AC). The refrigerator at the venue was too small to store a stacked cake, so the chef had to un-stack my tediously-smoothed cake tiers, take off the ribbon and decoration, and pop the tiers in the fridge. It's probably a good job she hadn't told me, because I might have had a bridal melt-down.
Delivery Disasters happen to the best of us!
Do you know how to deliver a tiered wedding cake? Could you drive tens of miles, in the heat of the summer? (Not my Cake)
It was the wedding reception when I finally clapped my eyes on my $500 DIY wedding cake...and it looked, well, like a DIY wedding cake. It was wonky, uneven, bulging at the sides; the ribbon - which had been placed back on the cake was not attached fully and was hanging off the cake. Thank god we had a professional photographer, because with some serious filters, good-lighting, and a generous scattering of rose petals, she made it look almost presentable.
Did it taste amazing? It tasted...OK. It was nothing special - it was a piece of plain cake - and a bit rubbery.
What did I learn? Well, years later (after a serious three-year baking hiatus) I started making cakes again when I had children. And, six years after that, I am now a professional cake decorator; and I make beautiful, delicious, fondant cakes with sugar roses on them for lots of brides. I look back on my experience as a DIY bride and I just sort of roll my eyes at the ridiculousness of it all. I was so utterly convinced that I could actually do it, I really believed that what I was going to make would be somehow equivalent to the portfolio of cakes in that bakery I had visited, worryingly, I am sure there are thousands of brides who convince themselves of the same thing today. Whilst I did make a tiered wedding cake, it wasn't a very good one, and it certainly wasn't what I had dreamed about.
Yes, I have regrets about not hiring a cake decorator to make my wedding cake...I missed out on the experience of tasting cakes, of having someone take away all that stress and anxiety from my wedding, and, importantly, of having a beautiful and delicious cake. I KNOW, I missed out on bonding time with my bridesmaids because I was faffing over an ugly cake. I missed out on enjoying my own wedding for goodness sake because of some ridiculous fantasy that I could save myself a few hundred dollars.
The Wonders of Photography
My photographer did a pretty wonderful job of making it look presentable! Airbrushing 1: Cake 0
I'm writing about this now because I want to save other brides from the same fate. If you are looking at the price of wedding cakes and wondering, "could I DIY my own cake?" READ THIS FIRST!! Truly consider what you're signing yourself up for. It's not as easy as it looks.
You won't end up with a professional looking cake. So right away, reconcile yourself to this fact. Your guests will probably tell you it looks beautiful, so did mine!
It will cost you more than you expected. Ingredients, decorations, supplies - they add up.
If you're a laid-back bride and you truly don't care about the look of your cake, then heck, who am I to say you shouldn't make one, have at it and go on with your bad cake-making self...but if you do care....
Consider the following...
Do it for the right reasons
If you think you're going to save hundreds of dollars- then think again. Ingredients, supplies, time-away from your own wedding might not be worth it. If you're doing it because you're passionate about baking, you never not considered making your own cake...that's admirable, but consider these other points.
Keep it Simple and Know Your Limitations
Don't expect to create a Pinterest-worthy cake, unless you have prior training, it just aint gonna happen. What you can do, is make a simple, good-tasting cake, that probably won't knock anyone's socks off. Bake what you know: If you're a novice, now isn't the time to start experimenting with flavors and ingredients you've never used before. Keep to tried-and-tested, familiar recipes that don't cause a lot of stress. If you've never used fondant, skip it. If you've never made gumpaste flowers - give it a miss.
Make as much in advance as you can, you can freeze cakes, as long as they are wrapped well, and fully defrosted before being served. Remember that being a bride is one of the most stressful and busy experiences of your life. Do you really want to miss out on all those pre-wedding rituals because you're handling the catering? You'll never get that time back. Also, don't ask a family member or a friend to do it for you, just don't...unless they offer, earnestly. Don't put that pressure on them. It's not their job to make your life easier by making theirs a whole lot more difficult.
Health and Safety
Remember, you're working out of a home-kitchen, (un-inspected) the potential for disaster is a bit higher than you might think. Are you certain that your guests don't have allergies that could be triggered because you baked a cake in a tin you made peanut-butter brownies in the week before? Could you handle a situation where your guests got sick? Or someone bites into a molded strawberry because you didn't know how to store a cake with fresh fruit? Consider the health and safety precautions before you proceed.
DIY'ing takes Time
Set aside at least an entire day to make your cake, possibly more. And, that's a modest estimation. It takes many hours to shop for ingredients, prepare your work space, mix batters and frosting's, bake the cakes, cool the cakes. Then you have to torte and trim them (cut into layers) frost, decorate, store...deliver....you get the point. It's really not as simple as making a cake for home. Also, be prepared to bake cakes over again. If you're not experienced at baking large, deep cakes, you could be prone to over or under-baking.
Yes, delivery day nightmares- like mine, can and do happen. Have you ever transported a wedding cake? Have you ever stacked and doweled a tiered cake and then driven it to a venue in the summer? Make sure you take a Valium! Six years in this industry and deliveries are still the stuff of nightmares. They take careful coordination and planning. I have to take helpers, who sit and watch the cakes as I drive two miles-an-hour around corners and bends to make sure the cake arrives perfectly in-tact. My husband will tell you, he's heard some pretty colorful language during those trips. Do you know where the cake is going? Do you know who is going to be responsible for it while you're being, ya know, the bride?
Have a Plan B
You're a novice - you're basically winging this whole thing. So, you better have a back-up plan. What happens if disaster strikes? Make sure you're prepared to drive to a grocery store for a sheet cake.
If you're going to DIY your cake, make sure you do lots of research, and also, have a serious google of "real DIY wedding cakes" before you proceed. I mean real ones, not the one's that bloggers post that aren't actually DIY wedding cakes, but the work of professionals. This post here on The Spruce has some great examples.
The cakes I create now, are no comparison
Three years ago, my lovely little sister got married, the first piece of advice I gave her as her older, wiser sibling? Buy your cake! She did, she ordered her cake from the wedding cake maker I thought was over-priced. It was one of the most beautiful, delicious-looking cakes I'd ever seen..and I had total bridal envy!