A well-designed cake not only tastes good, but is elegant enough to double as reception décor. Cake designer Maggie Austin LaBaugh gives us the inside scoop on choosing the perfect wedding cake.
What are your thoughts on fondant versus buttercream?
I cover all of my cakes in fondant. For me, it’s a canvas—I can mold it, attach fondant ruffles to it, and paint it with a brush. Buttercream is delicious, but it doesn’t have the structure to support these techniques. Fondant gets a bad rap because some kinds have a lousy, chemical after-taste. Also, people tend to roll it too thick. I use a brand called Satin Ice, which has a very mild, vanilla flavor, and I roll it 1/8-inch thick. I put buttercream between the layers of my cakes, so the fondant really doesn’t factor into the taste at all. It’s important to choose a baker who has experience working with fondant, or you may not be happy with the result. Another nice thing about fondant is it acts as an insulator, helping to keep the interior of the cake cool and fresh. You can’t leave true buttercream, which doesn’t contain any shortening or preservatives, out on a warm day for more than an hour or so, or it will melt. A fondant cake can usually be displayed for the duration of the reception, but in high humidity it can soften and sweat. For this reason, we always ask that our cakes be kept in an air-conditioned room until the last possible minute.
What about sugar flowers versus fresh?
I love the art of creating sugar flowers—it’s one of the things that drew me to wedding cakes in the first place. I work with the floral designer to identify the specific flowers that will be used in the wedding, and I study them to ensure my versions are botanically correct. Then I’ll often add elements of fantasy you can’t get in a fresh arrangement. I’ve done a gold branch of shimmery silver orchids, hydrangeas with pearl centers that mimicked the beading on the bride’s gown, and poppies that protrude from stems painted on a cake. Fresh flowers are less expensive, but they have to be organically grown, which limits your choices. If cost is a concern, I’d go for a simple cake punctuated with one oversize sugar flower that makes a statement, as opposed to lots of small blooms, which are labor intensive and pricey. Sugar flowers won’t wilt and they are a nice memento of the wedding day: They are made on wire stems so you can display them in an opaque vase.
What other advice do you have for couples on a budget?
We give our clients the option of scaling down the cake and having some less expensive sheet cakes behind the scenes to make up the difference. Our decorated cakes start at $10 per slice, so if you can cut out 50 servings that’s a significant savings. I love this approach because we don’t have to compromise on the design at all. I would much rather create a pared down cake with beautiful details than a super-tall, but plain, tower.
How can you make a big impact with a smaller cake?
To give a smaller cake more presence, place it on a nice stand and make sure the table is proportional. Another idea I saw at a recent wedding: The florist created a giant picture frame on a stand and centered the cake in front of the frame. It looked so cool and really helped anchor the cake in the room.
How does the design process typically work?
It starts by going through my book, which has photos of my work organized by technique. There are sections for flowers, frills, ribbons, texture (such as wood grain and bas-relief), and painted designs. Sometimes a bride and groom want a replica of something they see, in which case we always try to tweak the design to make it unique to them. Other times, they have no clue what they want, so I will get them talking about themselves and their vision for the wedding. We see couples anywhere from six months to a year before the wedding date, so they are in various stages of the planning process. While it’s helpful to gather information about the location, linens, floral design, and gown, I find that the adjectives people use to describe their aesthetic—“modern,” “rustic,” “elegant”—tend to have the biggest impact on the design. Often, we’ll get a general idea down and finalize the specific flowers and colors later on.
What are your favorite flavor combinations?
We have thirteen different flavor profiles for clients to choose from. For tastings, we ask them to pick five that most appeal to them—any more than that can be overwhelming. I personally love our vanilla-sour cream cake with peach-apricot preserves and milk chocolate-Earl Grey buttercream. I steep tealeaves in chocolate to create a sophisticated, faintly citrusy flavor that compliments the preserves. Another favorite is our Vietnamese cinnamon-chocolate cake with hazelnut praline and cappuccino buttercream—it tastes like the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had.
How many flavors do you recommend including in a cake?
I like to include two distinct flavor profiles in a cake to offer some variety. If you have three or four tiers, and each one is a different flavor, it’s hard for the serving staff, and guests, to keep them straight.