I made a wedding cake!

18 March 2020

I made a wedding cake for my brother Zachary and his fiancee Hannah who were married on Saturday. Bringing the cake meant showing up in a big way for my youngest brother (we're 12 years apart), who had 50 guests cancel due to coronavirus, including my sister and brother.

Tony took this photo after I'd finished installing the cake on the morning of the wedding - I was completely elated, it looked like a real wedding cake :) My work friend Eleni described the weeks-long process that I documented on Instagram as a "wonderful drama", which just about sums it up.

The cake making started with a couple of test bakes to perfect the sprinkle layer, which I'd offered to include in the cake but had never successfully made. It was also the layer the bride was most excited about, so I really wanted to get it right.

Luckily my friend Danie clued me in on the secret ingredient - American sprinkles which are so much brighter than the ones you can buy here. You can order them from Brisbane, along with clear vanilla extract to make sure the cake stays white rather than yellow. I watched so many YouTube videos at various stages of the wedding cake prep, especially helpful at this point was this video of  Molly Yeh making the sprinkle cake recipe I used and this one of Christina Tosi making her famous sprinkle birthday cake (Alison Roman is in it too!).

The final cake had two tiers, eight layers and four different flavours - sprinkle, lemon, chocolate and coconut rose. It was inspired by a beautiful wedding cake that Molly Yeh made with multiple flavours inside, which I'd had a go at replicating one year for my birthday.

I started baking two weeks out, on weekends and some nights after work. Each layer was frozen, wrapped in multiple layers of clingwrap so they didn't attract any freezer flavour! But before that, they were levelled so they'd sit flat on top of each other. That meant cutting the bit that domed in baking, which was handy for taste-testing as I went along. I drew up a timeline, so I knew what cake I was making each weekend or weeknight, which also helped me feel like I was on track :)

Of all the steps, I took the fewest photos of the icing because it was very new to me and required my full attention. Three out of three friends who'd made wedding cakes recommended making Swiss meringue buttercream instead of regular buttercream. It's made from egg whites, caster sugar and a little butter instead of lots of butter, icing sugar and vanilla extract.

It took me awhile to get the hang of it and I only properly mastered it at 10.30pm the night before the wedding 😂 It can be temperamental (it can curdle or become runny) but when you do it right the texture is silky and it tastes light and marshmallowy. My brother and his fiancee wanted the cake to have a white finish, and Swiss meringue buttercream comes out bright white because it's mainly egg whites and sugar rather than butter. Plus, if you do stuff it up, there are plenty of ways to fix it.

I made all of my buttercream at home in Canberra while listening to a lot of Drake (thanks Derrick!) but didn't even think about practicing icing with it. If I could go back in time, I'd ice a cake with it, just to get a feel for it and build my confidence. And to save me a lot of stress the night before the wedding.

The wedding was in Sydney so I packed everything up and drove it down the afternoon before the big day. The frozen cake layers travelled in a lidded styrofoam box that my veggie store gave me - I'd seen Molly Yeh fly with cake layers like this and it totally worked for a three-hour road trip.

Driving meant I could bring a lot of stuff, including my Kitchen Aid to re-whip the icing and to have on hand in case I needed to make some more. I didn't love the idea of bringing it but am so glad I did, it would've been a very slow process without it. Also in the car, a cake turntable which my friend Angie gave me when I went through a novelty cake phase that included a rubber ducky and bus shelter cake, offset palette knives, and a brand new metal icing scraper.

I put the cakes together at my parent's place because while I'd booked an Airbnb with a full kitchen... I didn't double check the size of the fridge! My accommodation only had a bar fridge, but in the end it turned out for the best. It was so nice to hang out with my parents and brother the night before the wedding and have some company as I got to work. Their place was also much closer to the venue, which made moving the finished cake slightly less stressful.

This cake involved many firsts, including a cake soak! I've never used one before but they're meant to be great for cakes that have been frozen because they add moisture back into the cake. I used a simple syrup that was 50/50 sugar and water and brushed it onto each cake layer before adding icing. I also used dowels, which I'd previously never heard of (apparently if you're a Bake Off fan, this will make immediate sense). They're like extra sturdy straws that you put in the middle of the cake to keep the layers together, there were three in the middle of each cake. They also help strengthen the bottom layer so the top tier doesn't sink into it - aka one of my top wedding cake fears, right up there with dropping the cake. Speaking of...

This happened at around 9.30pm the night before the wedding 😑 It was the lowest point of the whole project, and the first time I wasn't sure I could pull it off. This is how it happened: my parents and brother had left to set up the church hall, which meant my dad wasn't around to hold the fridge door open as I moved the cakes in and out between icing them (I'm all about a good crumb coat). I tried to do it myself, holding the fridge door open with my foot while trying to move the top layer into the fridge. All the juggling meant I lost my grip on the cake and it toppled over - I caught it just in time.

I reckon the dowels were the reason the cake layers didn't go flying, so it could've been worse. Still, I was exhausted by this point and so disappointed. Throughout the whole process, I'd had a lot of support from my friends Le and Angie, so I sent them this photo as a bit of a distress signal. They both replied right away and no one thought it was a big deal. Angie encouraged me to take my time and enjoy the icing bit. So I took a deep breath, put on a podcast (Highly Enthused is back!) and kept going. My energy and spirits returned, and both cakes were finished and in the fridge by 11pm. The final layer of icing wasn't as smooth as I would've liked but I'd decided hours ago that that was fine.

Then came the bit I was most afraid of - driving the finished cakes to the venue and stacking them. I found it hard to sleep the night before and my stomach wouldn't stop flipping. I managed four maybe five hours max. But I found some focus in the morning and pretended I was at work. We got some coffee, picked up some flowers from my friend Angie who'd done a last minute dash at the markets (love her) and were back at my childhood home by 10.30am.

Tony took this pic of my family as the top tier was loaded into its special cake box! Zachary's groomsmen had arrived, my parents were in their wedding clothes and things were feeling festive. Tony ended up carrying both cakes to the car because I was a wreck at this point and the job needed a calm head and hands.

After some debate about who would drive, I put on a playlist and drove carefully to the venue, with the cakes in the boot. The night before (prior to the cake topple), Zachary and I were in the kitchen discussing whether the cakes should be stacked at all. Maybe they could just sit side by side? It seemed a bit risky for a first-timer.

But I'd come this far and with Tony's encouragement (and a second set of hands to spot me/catch cake), I used a palette knife to lift the top cake off one of its bases, slide my hands underneath it and somehow transferred it on top of the larger cake. Not without a bit of a thud, a gasp and some swearing but we were almost there.

I'd brought a small repair kit with extra icing and did some touch ups while Tony prepped the flowers. Angie had given us a crash course in making the food safe - basically we wrapped the stems in clingwrap to make sure no sap got onto the cake. There was no plan for decoration - Tony did a bit and then so did I. It ended up being asymmetrical, which I loved!

Zachary and Hannah had friends and family setting up the church hall with plenty of homemade bunting and fairy lights - the inspiration was Carson and Mrs Hughes wedding in Downton Abbey. The hall looked like something straight out of a movie. As soon as the flowers went on everyone started to get excited about the wedding cake taking shape. After 24 hours of last minute prep, I was totally thrilled with how the cake looked and was ready to focus on the wedding.

We dashed back to the house, ate some lunch, got dressed and headed back to the church, in about 45 minutes flat. I got teary when I saw my brother in his suit jacket and white tie at home. We took some photos together - all of which were blurry because I was so excited.

The ceremony itself was beautiful and I felt honoured to witness it. I thought about all of the firsts I'd seen this little guy - now man - do. From watching him take his first tentative steps down one of the hallways at home, a sibling or parent at each end to catch and encourage him, to his very first movie (Monsters Inc) that was memorable mainly because we made it through the scary bit together (I gave him my phone to play snake when he was sure it was time to go). And now, getting married to Hannah before moving into their first apartment (seeing photos of their place made me teary too!). 

I was so proud to be there for him as he married Hannah, who is clever, kind and extremely thoughtful. She's also excellent at sewing and made her own cheongsam for the Chinese banquet part of the wedding. The ceremony was also the time I thought most about my brother and sister who weren't able to be there.

I checked on the cake a couple of times during the reception just to make sure it was still standing. My uncle Mark pointed out that it had a slight lean, which it totally did from the base cake. Zac and Hannah officially cut it at around 4.30pm and while the original plan was for me to serve it, that job went to Tony and my cousin Max as it was cut while I emceed the speeches and read my brother Derrick's best man speech.

In the end, it was a relief to hand that job to someone else. It probably wasn't the best task to do in heels but also my time with the cake was done. One of my favourite bits was watching Tony and Max silently negotiate the cutting of it while the speeches went on in front of them. I saw them carefully take the top layer off - it wobbled as they put it down and I snuck this photo straight after they did it and congratulated each other.

I tried my best with the exterior of the cake but it's the interior I'm most proud of. It's colourful, fun and different to regular wedding cakes, and was perfect for Zachary and Hannah. The bride and groom chose which flavours would go together, the top layer was coconut rose on the base, sprinkle, lemon and another sprinkle layer. The bottom cake had coconut rose, sprinkle, chocolate and sprinkle. 

I packed up a box of the best looking slices for the honeymoon - one of my happiest memories from my own wedding was eating leftover wedding cake with Tony the day after the wedding. We had cups of tea on our hotel balcony and were still letting it all sink in.

Back at home, we have a lot of egg yolks to get through - leftover from both the buttercream and the sprinkle cake. So we'll be eating carbonara for awhile yet and maybe some chocolate mousse too! Apparently you can buy eggwhites in a carton at the supermarket to avoid a situation like this - but I couldn't do that to my brother. I only bought the best for this cake, investing a lot of money in Lurpak butter.

Throughout the whole process, I imagined plenty of things that could go wrong but not Zac and Hannah cutting into the cake as husband and wife. That bit was totally thrilling. Cake is always great but it's definitely even better when you're baking it for two people you're rooting for, who share it with the people they love most.

It's been a bit a shock coming home from such a happy weekend to bare supermarket shelves and a sense that things are changing quickly. I am on holidays this week and was planning to travel to Melbourne for the food festival and a work mate's exhibition opening and then back to Sydney for a hen's party. All of my plans have been postponed, which I totally understand. Instead, I've been chilling at home and slowly making some preparations for the weeks ahead.

I have a feeling that the satisfaction that came from making the wedding cake and the sheer joy that comes from watching someone you love get married is going to sustain me for awhile yet. 


P.S If you're making a wedding cake, I loved Smitten Kitchen's sensible break down of all of the steps, which includes cake maths.

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