With an exponential increase in demand, wedding season is far from a cakewalk for cake makers. That’s why some local bakers have taken comfort in each others’ company
The aroma-induced bliss of cake batter and frosting was interrupted by the sounds of ring tones and email alerts going off inside the home of 44-year-old of pastry chef Kendall Barrett. These incessant sounds signal the calls of hungry, cake-seeking brides.
Wedding season has arrived and Barrett’s in-home bakery is in full, hectic swing these days. The wind-up to the cake-maker’s busiest time of year has its fair share of unique perils and problems, Barrett gets by with a little help from her cake comrades and some sweet chit chat.
“People look at you like you’re nuts when you’re like ‘Oh, it’s humid today, I don’t know what I’m going to do about my meringue!’ You know, it’s a foreign language,” said Barrett. “So, the first time Stephanie came over, it was like artists getting together.”
The aptly named 39-year-old Stephanie Baker of Falls Church’s Piece of Cake, while no stranger to the cake business, is a newbie to the area after bouncing around the country. After hearing about Baker through the grapevine, Barrett sought out the new kid on the block and welcomed her into the local cake club.
In a business rumored to be cut throat and fiercely competitive in cities like New York, it is perhaps unusual how well all of these local men and women get along. From sharing recipes to tips on how to improve their designs with new “cake toys,” as Barrett calls them, networking is key in a field that can be quite lonesome when caged inside a hot kitchen all day. Baker compared the first time she got together with her newly-founded baking buddies to finding long lost siblings.
“I turned around and asked to borrow this piece of pastry equipment and they all had it and knew exactly what I was talking about,” said Baker. “It was so great to feel like I was finally in my own species.”
Camaraderie isn’t the only thing getting these men and women through the frenzied 14-hour — or longer — work days that wedding season makes requisite. For some, it’s the classical compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach on full blast, caffeine breaks, or even family members-turned-baker’s little helpers.
“I mean, here, my son does the dishes, one of my kids does deliveries, my daughter helps dust the cakes, and my husband comes downstairs to help me make flowers from fondant,” said Barrett just after sending her high school-aged son out to get baby carrots for a carrot cake in the making.
Handling on average somewhere between three to six weddings per week, not to mention the regular birthday and other dessert orders on top of that. That rate far exceeds the two-to-three cakes per week average that is the norm from September through April.
In cake construction, each cake maker had a similarly sketched plan of attack: Prepare the fillings, bake the tiers, assemble the cake, decorate to meet tailored demands and deliver the delicate creation amid the unpredictable Beltway traffic.
“You can’t make mistakes with wedding cakes,” said Barrett. “There’s no room for error.”
While talk radio gets most of the working world through the back-to-back waiting game, it’s not meant for the kitchen. Like carols are to Christmas cookie decorating, carefully chosen music is an essential ingredient for setting the tone to decorate a cake sometimes assigned its own lighting crew at the reception hall. For this stress, bakers turn to the classics.
“Hard crashing, head banging music that chefs listen to can get you all crazy and you decorate poorly,” said Baker. “I listen to those classical songs you always hear at weddings, which might sound boring, but when I’m doing a wedding cake I need to get in the mood.”
Bridezilla stories were few and far between among the local baking bunch, but Baker’s roll-with-the-punches ability has been tested. While working for a caterer years ago, she received a phone call that one of her cakes had been partially smashed by a sheet cake pan during delivery.
“It was just an accident and everybody was afraid that I was going to be angry, which wouldn’t have done any good at that point,” said Baker. “Luckily, the bride was one of those brides who was like ‘I don’t care what it looks like, just make it beautiful.’”
After improvising with some of the on-site flowers, the once four-tier cake became three, with a floral array stuck to freshly smeared butter cream frosting. Baker’s quick thinking earned her a cocktail at the finish line from one of the wedding band members who had watched the whole spectacle in admiration.
“I felt much better then; I needed the cocktail when I got there,” joked Baker. “I almost cried when I first saw it because I knew how much time I didn’t have to fix it.”
While these cake makers have seen their fair share of tears over the years, not all of them have been bad. Like Baker, 56-year-old Linda Rothgeb of Cakes by Linda has racked up her own horror stories with happy endings. Most brides plan their cakes as early as a whole year in advance. This can leave room for a falling out with wedding planners, and sometimes, the person behind their frosted, tiered dream cake. Not seeing eye to eye with her scheduled cake maker led one desperate woman to Rothgeb a week before her wedding. The bride-to-be requested a cake that called for decorating techniques Rothgeb herself had never even attempted and 800 handmade sugar flowers, which must dry completely overnight before being added to a cake.
“I already had eight other weddings that week and those flowers literally took me day and night, but I got it done,” said Rothgeb. “The bride said when she went to the reception, she cried tears of joy because it was so beautiful, which was really neat to hear because I had worked so hard.”
Bossy brides-turned-reality TV fodder may spur a sour stereotype, but more prominent are happy brides at a good point in their lives, making an often demanding job a joy in most regards.
“It’s a perk to be dealing with people who are really happy about their day and they’re really excited that I care so much about what I’m doing,” said Barrett.
What most happy brides don’t always seem to understand is that — gasp — they are not the only bride having a cake made that weekend. Where 48-year-old Norman Davis and business partner Zane Beg of Annandale’s Sweet Life Bakery lack in horror stories they make up for in tales of the obsessively inquiring bride.
“I’m going to give a bride with a question about her wedding cake the same courtesy that I give all my brides. They are important to me no matter what,” said Davis. “But on that particular weekend, the bride who is having her wedding is my main customer.”
Sometimes having to wait to return calls until after the chaos of a typical delivery weekend has subsided, Davis and Beg make their rounds early in the week, answering the 20 or more emails they get a day. They’re not alone in the struggle of keeping in touch with countless worried brides during a stress-packed work week.
“The stress comes from the bride who doesn’t think you know what you’re doing,” said Baker. “It’s sort of like, then you do it if you’re so perfect. You hate to say that to someone because you know this is the biggest event of their life and they’re probably not like this all the time.”
Backing off and letting the expert do their job is not the only way brides can make the life of their cake maker easier. Davis and Beg agree that any type of correspondence is key.
After experiencing a handful of no-show brides for cake consultations, which then led to lost time potentially working on another bride’s cake, both advised that calling to cancel an order is better than leaving them guessing.
“I can understand that a bride doesn’t want to call us because they’re maybe embarrassed they’ve switched cake makers, but call us at midnight even to just leave a message,” said Davis. “Why shouldn’t we get the same courtesy that you give a doctor? That’s what bugs me.”
In the end, no matter how pleasant or in-touch the bride has been, heavy weekend traffic is the real monster that no baker delivering their carefully thought-out candied creation can fully predict. Equipped with signs reading “Caution: Wedding Cake Inside” they brave the traffic with fingers crossed that other drivers will show a little love via turn signals and a safe following distance.
Rothgeb admits sharing the road with people who ignore her caution signs is the scariest part of the whole process. She anticipates potential sugary fractures with a cake repair kit. Other pastry chefs nodded in agreement after hearing Rothgeb’s account.
“It’s especially tricky going into D.C. because I’ve been sitting blocks away from my destination and I’m trapped because there’s some big protest or parade going on,” said Baker. “I’m not going to take any chances. I’m going to stop at everything and if somebody’s impatient then they just need to get away from me.”
Whether it’s filling rare requests, combating a time crunch or fighting traffic, one thing’s for sure — cake makers everywhere brace for wedding season with a mixture of enjoyment and trepidation. Dealing with dream-like expectations and the perils of practicality can make for a stressful start to the summer for this bunch. Lucky for them, their friendly network of peers understands their unique plight and helps to lighten the load.
“It’s a lonely field if you don’t have friends who do the same thing,” Barrett said. “I’d give any of those women any of these recipes. I don’t think they’re going to steal work from me. I have plenty of work. It’s fine and it’s nice to have friends with the same interests.”
Meet Your Makers
Cakes By Linda: Linda Rothgeb has won favor at weddings for making her cakes’ lace detail resemble the bridal gown.
Kendall’s Cakes: Kendall Barrett adds gold dust to her Lemon Cake, her most popular creation. The cake is packed with lemon curd and topped with lemon butter cream.
A Piece of Cake: Stephane Baker believes that cake should bring us back to our childhood and considers her top compliment to be when a kid calls her creation "the best ever."
Sweet Life Bakery: Zane Beg adds the final touch to the shop’s famous White Chocolate Curl Cake. Beg invented the Rose Chocolate Curler decorating device himself and it is now sold to cakemakers everywhere.
What Bridal Mags Won’t Tell You
Inside insight from cagey cake-making veterans:
• If you’re going to have an outdoor wedding, then think about going with a fondant icing opposed to a butter cream one. The fondant acts more like a sealant and holds better in the heat, as butter cream is more apt to melt.
• Wonder why wedding cakes are so expensive? With the increase in food costs across the board, almost all the ingredients used to make cake have doubled in price. Gas prices have also spiked delivery costs, all in all making your cake more expensive. Remember, you are paying for the labor, which is a one-week process on average per cake.
• Think twice about having different flavored tiers. Guests are going to want to try every flavor, which may run you the risk of running out of cake. Experts advise either choosing just one flavor or having extra sheet cake as a back up.
Thinking Outside the Cake Box
While cakes are considered the standard dessert featre for weddings, there’s a number of emerging alternatives.
• Cupcake trees or mini cakes are coming back, but be ready to shell out more cash as these will run you more than one large cake since they take longer to make. They will also not stay moist as long as a whole wedding cake would, but offer a spectacular presentation.
• If you’re not a cake fan in general, shop around for possible alternatives. Does your honey love donuts? Donut towers made from donut holes are available at some places. Other obscure options might be pies or cheesecake even. Who said you have to be like everyone else?
• If you want to save some money, some couples are opting for a chocolate fountain with an array of fruit and cake bits. You may have to forgo the cutting of the cake photo op, but feeding each other strawberries could work just as well. Just beware the chocolate drip on the white dress!