Thirty-one years ago when I was a teen-age bride, I could barely boil water. So no, I did not bake my own wedding cake. And since my husband is still my only heartthrob, I've never had another opportunity.
My most memorable wedding cake experience, therefore, occurred when I attended a reception at which the wedding cake was served only to the privileged few at the head table. But then, that wedding also featured a cash bar, so there's no accounting for bad taste.
Of course, you want your cake to be the piece de resistance for everyone. But the wedding cake has not always held the place of honor it does today.
Once upon a time people considered it good luck to pelt a bride with nuts, grains and fruit. Then the ancient Hebrews refined the idea by adopting the custom of serving cake at weddings -- not for eating but for hurling at the bride.
The ancient Greeks threw pounded grain and honey cakes and the Romans, who followed suit, introduced the custom to the ancient Britons. The game of breaking cakes over the bride's head was popular in medieval Europe; a "bride's cake" of dry biscuit dough was used for this ceremony.
It was not until the 16th century that pastry chefs were able to use sugar, eggs and spices to turn wedding cakes into real desserts. Even so, wedding guests continued to toss the cakes at the bride, either during the reception or as she crossed the threshold of her new home.
Under the influence of the French during the reign of King Charles II, the bride's cake became transformed into a tiered, elaborately decorated confection, yet pieces still ended up being thrown at the bride. Finally in the 19th century the bride's cake was transformed into our familiar modern-day wedding cake.
But what sensible modern-day bride would take on this culinary task? "It takes planning, patience and about 12 to 15 hours of work," cautions Elizabeth Esterling, summertime pastry chef at Hampton Square restaurant on Long Island. "So ask a friend; then lend a hand with the decorating."
Ms. Esterling considers a wedding cake within the abilities of an experienced baker. But "keep it simple," advises my friend Lainie Forman, a caterer. In other words, skip the chef's specialties (fondant, royal icing, pulled sugar and marzipan decorations) and stick with easy-to-make buttercream or flavored whipped cream.
Consider your choices: traditional dark fruitcake; pound, sponge, chiffon, yellow or white cake moistened with liqueur-spiked syrup; chocolate cake drenched with Kahlua; framboise cake with raspberry buttercream and fresh raspberries; carrot cake moist with raisins, crushed pineapple, carrots and apples; mousse fillings such as lime, chocolate with framboise, white chocolate with Grand Marnier or cassis to go between layers.
Summer weddings are murder for wedding cakes because heat and humidity are killers. When the cake is transported to the reception, it may melt and slip, collapse or slide across the car seat.
Ms. Forman recalls the time she delivered a carrot cake with cream cheese icing to a wedding reception on a 99-degree, 99 percent humidity day. By the time she got there it looked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Undaunted, she inserted chopsticks to straighten it, re-iced it and hid the "multitude of sins" with fresh flowers.
To avoid these problems, Ms. Esterling suggests an easy-to-transport cake with a "melt-proof" buttercream icing. It's two-tier chocolate cake, first because chocolate is the cake of the hour and second because a three-tier cake must be assembled on site rather than at home. And her buttercream -- made with flour and milk -- "holds up better than pure buttercream in hot weather and tastes quite good."
ELIZABETH ESTERLING'S TWO TIER CHOCOLATE WEDDING CAKE
1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa
2 1/2 cups boiling water
7 large eggs
5 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
5 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons sifted cake flour
3 3/4 cups fine granulated sugar
4 tablespoons baking powder
1 3/4 teaspoons salt
15 ounces butter, softened
2 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
2/3 cup Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
THE BUTTERCREAM FROSTING:
1 quart milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 pounds unsalted butter, softened
4 cups fine granulated sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons vanilla
Line two 10-inch and two 7-inch layer cake pans with parchment or wax paper. Butter and flour paper. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Whisk together cocoa and water until smooth. Cool. In a small bowl, lightly combine eggs, 1/4 cocoa mixture and vanilla. In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add butter and remaining cocoa mixture. Beat at low speed to moisten dry ingredients. Then, beat at medium speed 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape down sides. Beat in egg mixture gradually in 3 batches, beating 30 seconds after each addition. Divide batter among prepared pans, filling pans no more than halfway.