In my family, we do not do store-bought cakes. We don’t go to the bakery to custom-order birthday messages written in icing; we do not do cake mixes.
We do sugar and baking soda and butter and eggs and melted chocolate. We grease and flour bundt pans and whisk together powdered sugar glazes, with maybe just a touch of ginger or a squeeze of lemon. We bake.
For occasions big and small, for birthdays and holidays and Tuesdays. We bake.
So, in early 2010, when I began planning my wedding, I knew immediately that my dessert would not be the standard wedding cake, a tiered confection dripping fondant, much-admired when on display but generally ignored when it comes time to actually eat dessert.
No, for my wedding, there would be a home-baking bender that would yield mountains of cookies and cupcakes and pie and fudge. And yes, there would be a cake, but one baked, assembled and frosted by my fiancé, Patrick, and me.
We were warned against the cake plan by friends and family who argued that it was just plain foolish to add more tasks to the already jampacked days before the wedding.
“You already have so much on your plate,” protested my mother.
But, on this subject, I was immovable.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to bake. I assume there was such a time — before I was old enough to grip a wooden spoon or dump the cup of brown sugar my mother handed me into the mixing bowl — but it is beyond the bounds of my memory.
My mother taught herself to bake because she wanted desserts that were fresher, more to her taste and just plain better than those she could get at a bakery. It was a process of trial and error, she says, but what she eventually learned, she passed on to my sister and me.
So, when putting together the plans for my wedding dessert buffet, I recruited family members with similarly strong feelings about baking to contribute to the bounty.
My mother would make her awe-inspiringly good chocolate cake, a dense and fudgy confection that is a universal and guaranteed hit. My father would fry up a hefty batch of krusciki, a Polish pastry that had been a specialty of my grandmother’s. My sister would make chocolate-mint cookies that have been a long-standing family tradition and cousins volunteered to whip up lemon bars and coconut cupcakes.
When circumstances prevented my aunt from making her legendary apple pie, we decided to bring
in substitute pies from the Oprah-approved Centerville Pie Co.
With the majority of the dessert menu lined up, Patrick and I were left to figure out the cake we wanted to make. We played with and rejected several ideas. Lemon cake with berries was too common. Something chocolate? My mother had it covered.
I spent weeks searching foodie websites and poring over cookbooks before we finally settled on nutmeg spice cake, from “Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe” (Keller and Keller, 2010) by bakery owner Joanne Chang, topped with brown sugar buttercream (adapted from a recipe in Bon Appetit Desserts).
I want to say that after that decision was made, the cake production process proceeded smoothly, proving my mother’s anxieties unjustified. And the test run we executed just a week before the wedding was, indeed, nearly flawless.
The cake had the warm flavors we both love — nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger — and the brown sugar gave the frosting a hint of caramel flavor that added richness to the whole thing.
We failed, however, to properly account for all of the complications of the wedding day itself.
The cakes and frosting were made ahead of time, as planned. But, on the morning of the
wedding, time was in short supply. By the time I had eaten breakfast, greeted well-wishers who stopped by, and directed the decoration of the ceremony site, it was time to shower and have my hair and makeup done.
All of a sudden the window for frosting the cake had disappeared.
My mother volunteered to take on the task but quickly discovered that the frosting, which had been stored in the refrigerator, was far too stiff to spread. After 15 minutes of adding milk and whisking vigorously, the frosting became usable.
I, however, was knee-deep in bobby pins and eyeliner and neglected to mention that the finished creation should be chilled until serving. I realized my error hours later, during the reception, when I glanced over at the cake and saw the frosting sloughing off the sides; Patrick has taken to fondly calling it our Dali cake, its dripping frosting reminiscent of the melting clocks in the artist’s most famous painting.
The response, to the cake, however, was unanimous: It may not have been beautiful, but it was delicious.
If the rest of the contributions to the dessert buffet were nods to family history, our cake was quite the reverse. It was, in fact, a lot like our wedding: imperfect but beloved, the creation of something new and wonderful, surrounded by the best of family tradition.
This story was published in the Cape Cod Times on November 9, 2012. Read the whole story, including recipes, at Capecodonline.com.