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Eating It, Too

A pair of novices dare to attempt the Everest of baking challenges, and survive. Barely

By Linda Perlstein and Hank Stuever
Sunday, June 27, 2004; Page W18

The "Special Day" wedding fantasy is so entrenched in modern lifestyles that when a marriage draws near, even the most eager do-it-yourselfers simply surrender the glue gun. Skilled professionals are given broad license to bring it on. Bring on the $10,000 ballroom! The $8,000 dress!

The $4,000 cake!

(Photo Illustration by Francisco Caceres)

Yes, the $4,000 cake. Marriage intimidates us so much we've become willing to pay as much as $20 a slice for dessert -- a dessert, we should add, that's rarely preferred to tiramisu. In addition to being overpriced, wedding cakes are notoriously dry. You hope chocolate-covered strawberries will magically appear on the side.

Is moist, yummy and free too much to ask?

Such were the seeds of a crazy idea that became a yearlong project: Post colleagues Linda Perlstein and Hank Stuever wanted to make a wedding cake for mutual friends who were getting married (Post reporters Amy Joyce and Steven Ginsberg). The cake would need to be big enough to serve 150 guests. Without knowing the first thing about how to do it, Linda and Hank plunged ahead, their previous baking experience limited to brownies and suntans. We present what happened as a love story, of sorts, and a few big messes.

* * *

Linda: I've long wanted to be crafty. In grad school I started knitting a sweater but gave up after three years, unraveling the bit I'd managed to complete and selling the $100 worth of wool at a yard sale for $3. There was a stained-glass class, but I dropped my project on the sidewalk before I'd finished. Then watercolors, for a few weeks at least.

Originally, when Amy talked in the summer of 2002 about keeping costs down for her wedding the following July, I thought about flowers. A friend of mine had done her own wedding flowers, and it had seemed so simple, a tiny but beautifully piercing prick straight into the heart of the matrimonial-industrial complex: Pick some pretty ones; stick them in cups.

Hank: Once in a while, I'm drawn to do something that looks difficult or dangerous, but not deadly. At first we joked about making the wedding cake for Amy and Steven, not because they needed us to, but because it would be sort of a strange thing to allow -- complete novices in charge of such a crucial part of the reception. It was a leap of faith for everyone involved.

In sitcom weddings, the cake always topples, and the message is always the same: We had fun; we were/are in love; this insanity, too, shall pass. I would look at cakes and understand exactly why they wind up costing thousands of dollars; think of all that work. The only thing harder to do would have been if Linda and I had offered to be the band. Almost immediately, we invoked the "Giant clause": If all else failed, we could get a sheet cake at the supermarket.

Linda: Everybody piled on their ideas about what constitutes a proper wedding cake: Make icing flowers. Use fresh flowers. Use fresh fruit. Decorate a styrofoam cake but serve from a secret auxiliary cake in the kitchen. Fondant, no fondant; chocolate, no chocolate.

Carrot, my mother proclaimed.

Amy and Steven were the only people in the world who had no suggestions. No preferences, no requirements -- only that it feed 150 people.

Hank: None of us liked the cliche wedding cakes with roses made of icing, or those frilly numbers with the pillars between the tiers. Linda wanted polka dots. I kept thinking the cake should look like simple, elegant ribboned hat boxes from the 1950s. I kept drawing cakes that way, over and over, with colored markers. Aside from drawing, all we did at first was spend money. We bought beautiful $35 books about cake decorating. We bought Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible. We bought a Lazy Susan, a KitchenAid mixer. Well into fall, we hadn't done anything except look at our pretty cake books.

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