There's no need to quake over decision to bake

CAKE CONFIDENCE

June 02, 1996|By Joe Crea

Should you bake your own wedding cake?

Maybe the question is: Should you have your head examined?

Few cooking questions strike so much terror. Anyone who's teetered near the vortex of wedding plans-in-progress knows that few events are more stressful. With a half-jillion details awaiting execution, do you really need the worry?

Some people don't view it that way. First, they counter, it's usually a relative or close friend who takes on the challenge. While it's not impossible to imagine a self-sufficient bride frosting the layers while a beautician adjusts her veil, more often than not it's a friend or family member who makes a gift of a homemade wedding cake.

Sentiment remains one of the main reasons why someone chooses to bake, or accept, a homemade wedding cake. Ornate or sweetly simple, it is an incomparable gift of love.

Economy is the more pragmatic issue. Commercially prepared cakes range anywhere from $1 to $5 or more per serving. The cost for picture-book weddings is skyrocketing into the hospitality stratosphere. Although many Americans marry modestly yet beautifully each year, the bridal industry paints a far more grandiose portrait. The national average is $16,000 total cost for a formal wedding with 200 guests, according to Modern Bride magazine.

In these tough economic times, making your own wedding cake can be a valuable money-saver in a frugal yet memorable fete.

As long as you don't embrace the time-is-money philosophy, a homemade wedding cake can shave from one-third to two-thirds from the price of versions prepared by commercial bakeries or professionals who specialize in the art.

"You can save several hundred dollars, depending upon the size of your cake," says Nancy Stock, co-owner of Classic Cake Decorations in Garden Grove, Calif.

Artistry, of course, comes into play. Cake decorating is a lovely form of expression. Some brides (and families) cherish the artfulness with which a contributor fashions a truly personalized cake.

Quality is another important matter. Endless bakeries can turn out a picture-pretty cake, but the numbers drop dramatically when you factor in flavor. Who hasn't bunny-hopped to the buffet in time to nab a slice of powder-puff-dry cake factory-equipped with cloying, caulklike icing?

With practice -- a crucial factor in biting off this kind of project -- a competent home cook can make a fine cake.

Indeed, with practice, the proper tools and instructions, baking a formal tiered cake isn't necessarily some Stepford Wife's pipe dream. Here's what you need to know, according to a variety of experts.

Plan, Practice Ahead

It's not a job for a rank beginner, says Zella Junkin, director of the test kitchens for cake-decorating manufacturers Wilton Enterprises in Woodridge, Ill. "But anytime you make a wedding cake, or any large cake, it's really just a matter of planning ahead."

One rule everyone agrees on: Factor in enough time to make a test cake a couple of weeks in advance.

"I think it's important, because she or he needs to have a sense of the time involved and their skill level," says Duncan Hines' home economist Cindy Young. "That way, they can anticipate any problems that might arise. That would prevent a sleepless night before."

You can decorate the practice cake differently and use it for a shower cake or a tiered birthday cake. "That way, you can practice and still have a meaningful reason for doing it," Young says.

Consider taking a class in making party cakes. Wilton offers workshops and has a toll-free number you can use to locate a class.

Reliable Recipes

Surprisingly, a box mix may be your best bet -- especially if you're a relative newcomer to the ranks of party-cake bakers.

But don't just follow the directions on the back of the cake mix box. Duncan Hines, for instance, adapted recipes using its products by reducing the amounts of oil you add at home. It changes the structure of the cake. The result is a firmer, dense cake that still is moist but less tender -- desirable in most cakes, but a problem for wedding cakes where tiering might result in cracks and shifting. The adapted recipe is far more stable in a wedding-cake display.

"If you're only doing one or two layers, there probably won't be a problem [following the traditional box recipe]," Young says. "But if you're doing a full-blown wedding cake, you want to change gears.

"The biggest thing is 'follow directions,' " she adds. "[Corporations] spend a lot of time and money developing exact directions. So baking times, mixing times, pan sizes, temperatures, cooling -- the whole gamut -- have been taken down to a science. We've looked at all those areas, testing and refining, to come up with the best approaches."

Stacking Up

The layers and tiers of a wedding cake aren't merely piled atop each other -- they are supported. It is a physical structure, not just a layer of cake piled atop other layers of cake. If that were the case, the cakes would sink into each other, collapsing or toppling.

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