Unfortunately, Luscious Layers Bakery closed in December 2014. The work involved in creating wedding cakes is true for all good bakeries and I hope you enjoy this account. -Kelly
A wedding cake is not made in a day. I haven't watched the cake-making reality shows, but if they're telling you that it can be done in twenty-four hours it's not true. The process of making a large, tiered wedding cake, specifically, the production of it, takes a day to put together, bake, cool, and cut to make each layer precisely level. Then, it needs to be refrigerated to hold it's shape while layered and stacked. The next day, it is stacked with filling, and a crumb layer is frosted on the outside, and it goes back in the refrigerator to maintain its shape. The third day, the baker adds the outer layer of frosting and possibly decorates it. If there are gum paste flowers, shaped fondant, chocolate moulding, the decorator makes it during the week and adds it to the cake on the third or fourth day. Sometimes decoration is added onto the cake once it is delivered to the wedding reception.
Fun fact: cakes with fondant are airbrushed with a vodka (it evaporates) and color emulsion to smooth the finished layer. It's pretty exciting to watch. One afternoon at Luscious Layers I saw the decorator airbrush a cake in the shape of a Grammy award to give it a sparkling finish.
I spent a few afternoons at Luscious Layers bakery watching the bakers and decorators work. They work fast. After the cake is out of the oven and cool, a baker can use the cake-leveling serrated knife contraption and saw off the rounded tops of cake rounds, add filling, stack a layer, add more filling, and on, until all the layers are on, in a few minutes. Just that would have taken me about an hour and it still wouldn't be level. Bakers are thrillingly brusque with cake. At home, I treat cakes like Faberge eggs. Professional bakers boss cake around, picking up and slapping layers down like they're made of something sturdier than cake.
Bakers traffic in putting delicate food into dangerous situations. Heat is the enemy of cakes, and wedding season is May through October in Chicago, so wedding cake bakers are up against it.
They have some tricks. To give the cakes a fighting chance they run the air conditioning in the delivery vehicle at the coolest setting all the way up, so it's so cold that you have to wear a sweater.
Even still, with the temperature difference between a cake just out of refrigeration and the warmer outside air, small pockets of air well up between the cake and the frosting. The baker must gingerly pierce the small bubbles with a toothpick and gently smooth the frosting back in place. If that sounds simple, anything done to a cake after it's fully decorated is hair-raising. Imagine every adjustment done with a ree-reee-reeee horror movie soundtrack.
Cake deliveries are harrowing because there are no back-up cakes. If something goes wrong, it's going to stay wrong. And once the baker is out of the vehicle with the heaviest and most fragile thing in her hands, she is going to pass jokers: "Is that for me?!" Think of your own fun retort at home and pass it on to the baker in your life!
Ashley Galliart is the owner of Luscious Layers and I accompanied her on her Saturday afternoon deliveries to weddings and other events around the city. She had to make a delivery at an event at the far east end of Navy Pier. On a Saturday afternoon. With constructions detours. I wanted to yell, "Move away, people!" She has a CAKE! Don't you see!" But the crowd of teenagers and sailors and family reunions seemed to walk closer to Ashley as she walked two miles to the restaurant at the end of the pier carrying a layer cake--made for real people who were counting on it showing up looking like a cake.
I was afraid to ask about disasters because she is obviously a professional, but cakes are the most perilous part of the whole wedding business that I've encountered. It's a small miracle that a cake gets to anyone through Chicago traffic and heat and difficult parking and crowds, and stairwells, and other humans who are walking quickly or distractedly not expecting a cake coming around the corner. And, of course, we all expect a cake to look perfectly straight and smooth and never dry.
Let us take a moment to discuss the most dreaded criticism of Thanksgiving turkeys and wedding cakes, "It's dry." If you want a cake that is moist it needs to be baked the week of your wedding. Luscious Layers always does that; most small bakeries do. Luscious Layers is a small bakery and all of their work is custom to their clients. Their cakes start at $4.50 per slice. Premium fillings and design work are additional. Ultra-fancy bakers like Maggie Austin start at $13 per slice. You can find a cake for less than this (sometimes it's part of a venue package). But it was likely not baked the week of your wedding. It was made in a massive batch some time in the past and frozen until the week of your wedding (maybe wrapped, maybe not) and thawed, frosted, and decorated the week of your wedding. If you would like a moist, fresh-tasting cake that was baked just a few days before your wedding, a baker isn't going to be able to offer it at much less than $4.50 a slice.
Sidebar: The other thing to know about dry cake is that if you want a design that requires the cake to be molded into very special shapes, say cantilevered like Fallingwater, then the baker is going to have to curb the moisture in the cake to prioritize its shape-holding properties. So, if you want a moist cake, it should probably be a normal kind of shape. If you want a wild-shaped cake, it's probably going to be a little dry.
That is a wee glimpse into wedding cake production and delivery. What I'm not showing in any of the Labor of Love posts is most of the work of each wedding business. It's not the production. It's the communication with clients, suppliers, other vendors, and staff. That's not as visual as production which is the reason I'm focusing on it, but it is the majority of the work involved in getting the beautiful cake to the wedding looking and tasting exactly like the couple imagined.