Project Wedding Cake

wedding cake love

When my little brother Timothy asked me to make his wedding cake, I was intimidated but also intrigued. While cake-making has become a hobby over the past couple of years, I’d never attempted a tiered cake or transported a cake more than an hour away (he and his now-wife Kelsey got married in middle Pennsylvania, a good 6.5 hour drive from us). But I figured I had some time to practice, plus it was an honor to be a part of their special day — so how could I say no?

Well, the big day finally rolled around last weekend. My baby bro is now married…and Project Wedding Cake was a success! I thought I’d share a little about the process, both for myself (should I — *fingers crossed* — get the chance to make another one) and for any other first-time wedding cakers out there.

wedding cake closeup

wedding cake cutting

Cake Flavors and Design

I had a bit of freedom with the cake recipes. Tim and Kelsey requested earl grey as one of the layers, but other than that the flavors were up to me. I eventually went with cardamom and strawberry for the top tier (6-inch) and earl grey and lemon curd for the bottom (8-inch). Both tiers were frosted with white chocolate mascarpone buttercream. I was initially nervous about using a frosting with cream cheese and mascarpone on a cake that would be in an non-air-conditioned room for several hours in the summer, but the lady who made my wedding cake (plus many others) recommended it — and it held up beautifully!

For the cake layers themselves, I developed recipes based off my favorite vanilla cake — a formula I love because it’s moist, sturdy, and keeps well for a few days refrigerated and/or frozen. Since we were traveling a fair distance, I made the cakes a couple days ahead of time and froze them, wrapping each layer in plastic wrap and foil. I also made the fillings (roasted strawberry balsamic jam and lemon curd) at home and brought those along. Kelsey’s family was kind enough to let me use their kitchen to make frosting and assemble the individual tiers, which I did the day before the wedding. Each cake layer was also brushed with simple syrup / earl grey syrup during assembly for extra moisture and flavor.

To match the overall wedding theme (they got married on a farm), I kept the decor simple with a rustic finish for the lower tier and a semi-naked finish for the upper. Their florist provided some gorgeous fresh blooms and I am thrilled with how the final design turned out!

Top tips:
If you’re using fillings, pipe a thick frosting dam! During my trial run some of the filling oozed out while I was icing (I just used a thicker layer of frosting on the outside so it was all fine in the end), so for the actual wedding cake I doubled up the dam ring just for extra security. No leaks! I also spread a thin layer of buttercream on each layer before piping the dam and filling with jam/curd, which added stability.

Use an inverted cake pan to store your cakes in the fridge between frosting coats. Normally I just keep my cake on the turntable between the crumb and final coats, but because I was doing two at the same time I didn’t have that luxury. Most fridges have a little lip on the edge of each shelf that makes it tricky to slide cakes out, so it’s definitely a good idea to pop them on something elevated to make your life easier.

Tiering and Transportation

Stacking and transportation were my biggest worries for this whole project, because prior to this month I’d never stacked a cake! To prepare, I watched a bunch of videos on YouTube and ended up doing a trial run the week before just to put my mind at ease. The “dress rehearsal” really helped the real deal go very smoothly. (My sister-in-law and her fiance had a big BBQ the weekend before so there were people to help eat that one, hehe.) Plus, this cake was pretty small in the scheme of things — just two tiers. But a great size for a small (under 80 people) wedding and a beginning wedding caker!

wedding cake ready to decorate

I built the bottom layer on a very sturdy 10″ cake drum and used five bubble tea straws as dowels. I definitely recommend the straw method — they’re sturdy, cheap, and slid in really easily.

I built the top layer on a six-inch cake board taped to an eight-inch board, just for easier moving. I moved the individual tiers to the venue in cake boxes in a cooler (they fit really snugly) and stacked them at the venue the evening before the wedding. The cake was kept in the venue kitchen overnight, and the final decorations and moving were done the morning of the wedding around 9am. The cake was cut and eaten around 2pm. Yay!

Top tips:
Chill, chill, chill. It really helped to chill the cakes as much as possible — before doweling, before moving, before stacking. Cakes are so much sturdier when cold, and you can handle them with your hands without worrying about messing up your frosting.

Use cake boxes for transportation! They were inexpensive and honestly took the stress out of moving the tiers. Just make sure you get sizes that exactly fit your cake boards so they’re super snug!

Use a cake board to mark out where your tier is going to land. To make sure the top layer was centered, I just plopped a six-inch board on top of the frosted and chilled bottom layer and marked a few spots with a knife as guide marks. Way easier than trying to eyeball it.

Have a repair kit on hand. I packed extra frosting, a piping bag with a small tip, my offset spatula, and an icing comb for touch ups at the venue. I didn’t need to do any repairs, but I did pipe a bit of frosting on the bottom layer to “glue” the top layer on, plus some around the seam where the two tiers met.

All in all, Project Wedding Cake was a fantastic experience. Developing the recipes and planning the execution was a fun creative challenge; and it was so satisfying to see the final product come together. I’m grateful to my husband for patiently listening to my cake ramblings and helping with the moving and child-wrangling, and to Tim and Kelsey for entrusting me with this part of their special day. Congrats again, kids!

wedding cake backlit

Cooking on a budget

slice of bread
Between buying a new house and preparing for baby #2, my husband and I decided a few weeks ago that it wouldn’t hurt to keep a close eye on our spending. We’re grateful that we’ve always had more than enough to live comfortably, but buckling down now and then never hurts. So we budgeted a conservative amount per week to spend on food/gas/miscellaneous, and went from there.

Since I do the majority of meal prep in our house, I’ve been particularly keen on cooking budget meals and finding ways to save on groceries…without sacrificing on taste and nutrition (having both a growing toddler and a pregnant lady to feed). Constraints often force the discovery of new ingredients and preparations, and this has definitely proven true even just a few weeks into this exercise. A few principles — none new, but diligently practicing them is another ballgame — have helped with belt-tightening:

Practice portion control
This has less to do with how much we eat per meal, but with how much we prepare and buy. I’m finding that for our family of 2.5, preparing food for 4-6 leaves us with enough for dinner, plus a couple lunches. That’s plenty. If there are too many leftovers, they inevitably hide out in the back of the fridge and go bad. Similarly, while buying in bulk is sometimes cheaper, the savings are canceled if you buy more than you can use.

Stretch meat
We do enjoy meat and are in the habit of buying less expensive cuts (think chicken thighs and certain Asian market cuts of beef), but we’ve also taken to using just a little less per meal — for example, using just two sausages in a soup instead of the called-for four. On-sale meat is something I do buy in bulk, then freeze in ~1 pound portions (butchers will often portion it out for you if you ask).

Rediscover rice and beans
Rice has long been a staple in our house, but we are learning to appreciate different types of beans and legumes. I have to say, the Instant Pot has really helped out here as it takes only ~20 minutes to cook up a batch of beans instead of a couple hours! We’ve also started trying more dal recipes using different types of lentils, and they’ve been a big hit. Fresh spices are key here; and this is another instance where I’ll buy from the local bulk store — not because I can buy a whole bunch but because I can get just the amount I need — 30 cents worth of tumeric, for instance.

Plan meals
I’ve never been much into weekly meal planning before; and I’ll probably never be the type to detail everything I’ll cook in the coming week. But I am trying to plan out at least the main courses several days in advance now, rather than just a couple. Mainly this is to cut down on unnecessary trips to the store where inevitably extraneous groceries make it into the shopping cart. I am in the habit of shopping the weekly grocery ads (the Flipp app is super helpful), which definitely helps determine what we’ll be eating.

I’m also trying to be more regular about preparing things that can be quickly thrown together for nutritious breakfasts/lunches — for example, boiling a dozen eggs and baking up a batch of granola at the beginning of the week; chopping up cheese cubes; baking a batch of muffins and freezing a portion. And of course a loaf of sourdough bread is almost always available.

Shop your pantry and freezer
One of the first things I did when we started this exercise was to take stock of what we already had at home. (Favorite rice vermicelli recipes, anyone? Because I have a lot…) Since we’re moving soon anyways, it makes sense to try to use up what’s in our pantry and freezer. I’m pretty good about knowing what meats we have in stock, but not so great at remembering our dry goods stash. (This ties back in with the first principle — don’t buy more than you can [remember to] use…) So I’m trying to do a better job of working in the wealth of neglected pantry items into meal planning.

Eat seasonally
Fruits and veggies get a bad rap for being expensive. If you’re buying strawberries in December, sure…but as long as you eat with the seasons, fresh produce is very affordable. (Plus, in-season always tastes better.)

What are some of your favorite budget recipes? Here are a just a few we’ve used for inspiration:

Recipes

Auditioning for the Great Canadian Baking Show

great canadian baking show sign
At the Great Canadian Baking Show audition!

If you had told me three years ago that I would spend last Saturday auditioning for the Great Canadian Baking Show, I would have thought you were ridiculous. Three years ago I had never made a layer cake, much less a loaf of sourdough bread. But life can take some funny twists.

How it all started

Thanks to getting married, immigrating to Canada, and the subsequent funemployment while waiting for my work eligibility to kick in, I decided to delve into something I enjoyed but had little experience doing: baking. At that point I didn’t have any specific goals or recipes I wanted to master; I just needed to keep my hands and brain busy learning. And since it was gobsmack in the middle of a bad Canadian winter, staying inside next to a warm oven seemed like a good hobby to pursue. So I started checking out books from the library, perusing a few food blogs, and trying recipes that looked good.

Eventually I started gravitating towards certain types of baking: notably pies, cakes, and bread. I have a tendency to get slightly obsessive, especially if something doesn’t turn out the way I planned (read: I can be a perfectionist and generally don’t believe in half-assing things). So for example, if I made a bad pie crust, you’d better believe a bunch more pies would show up in the next few weeks (after an appropriate amount of internet research on how to fix pie crusts and comparison of dozens of recipes). It sounds a little crazy and it probably is; but that’s how I learned: I made mistakes and tried to fix them. I read a lot and bugged baker friends with questions / advice / requests for recipes. And I just baked a lot, typically 3+ times a week. And somewhere in there I started this little blog to keep track of recipes. (Writing things down has always helped me understand processes better, so even if I use a recipe from somewhere else I usually rewrite them to include steps and tips that make sense to me.)

The Application

Fast forward to earlier this year. A couple months ago, my husband forwarded me an article about a casting call for the first season of the Great Canadian Baking Show. I didn’t think much of it except, “Oh cool, the Great British Bake Off is the best and I’m glad they’re bringing it to Canada.” Within a day a couple other friends had sent me the same link with encouragement to apply. I figured I had nothing to lose; so one evening I sat on the sofa in my sweatpants and filled out the online application.

I didn’t think about it at all, really, until a few weeks ago when someone from the network called me for a phone interview. I was honestly just thrilled to know I’d made it past the first cut. When an email came a couple days later with an invitation to a live audition, I was shocked (and super excited)!

The Great Canadian Baking Show Audition

The chocolate raspberry cake I almost brought to my audition.
The next few weeks were spent preparing for the audition. Not much information was given, except that we were to bring a “signature bake” and would be asked to bake an undisclosed recipe using the equipment and ingredients provided. I focused my efforts on practicing techniques I wasn’t familiar with (to get used to being uncomfortable); and on deciding what to bring as my signature bake. It was a toss-up between a layer cake or a loaf of sourdough bread (the two things I like making the most); so I decided I’d make both and see which one turned out better. The week of the audition I prepped the ingredients for the cake (chocolate raspberry, of course) and made the same loaf of bread multiple times so that I’d have the best chance of success when it counted.

The morning of the audition I still hadn’t determined what to bring as both bakes had turned out as well as I could have hoped. My first instinct was the cake, because it had more immediate visual impact. But my husband nudged me to bring the bread, pointing out, “This is your recipe and a true signature bake; if you’re proud of it, you should win or lose with that.” (Have I mentioned my husband is the best? Taste-tester, child-wrangler, ingredient-buyer, soundboard, voice of reason — I’m truly blessed.) So in the end, I packed up my humble loaf of bread and a jar of homemade cultured butter and drove off to the audition site.

sourdough bread signature bake
My “signature bake” — a loaf of sourdough bread.
Due to NDAs I can’t divulge much about the actual audition itself (sorry, you’ll have to audition yourself to get the full scoop!), except to say I had a blast! I had imagined myself in front of a scary panel of judges, trying to slice my bread without shaking or cutting myself and hoping I wouldn’t make dumb mistake like mixing up the sugar and the salt. In reality it was more like hanging out with a bunch of other baking nerds, whipping up delicious things and eating really good food (yes, we got to try each others’ stuff!). I felt totally relaxed throughout the whole process, and in the end I believe bringing the bread was the better choice (thanks again, husband!). It was well received and stood out in its simplicity (and lack of sugar).

I don’t know if I’ll make it any further in the Great Canadian Baking Show process, but I certainly have no regrets about trying. At the end of the day I was more inspired than ever to keep baking, learning, and improving. It was refreshing to meet a variety of other people — from engineers to students to salespeople — who bake just for the love of it. And I was reminded of the joy of creativity. Whether you cook, bake, sew, write, build — what a vital and refreshing part of the human experience. I’m thankful that I can make my cake…and eat it too.

audition group shot
A big happy (and maybe slightly sugared-out) baking family