The dramatic four-tier, black-and-white wedding cake stood on a clear glass pedestal in the center of a table, protected from the night air by a tall tent of white netting. Guests walking by on their way to the family-style Italian dinner could glimpse layers that resembled a stack of strikingly wrapped gifts. The top layer was studded with silver-painted chocolate cameos and crowned with family heirloom figures of a 1930s bride and groom.
To most of the 50 or so friends and relatives at Karen Urie and John Shields's July 12 wedding reception, the unusual cake was just another example of the avant-garde, highly personalized style of these two young chefs, whose tiny southwestern Virginia restaurant has been drawing national attention. If only the guests could have seen things eight hours earlier.
At 10 a.m. on the day of her wedding, Karen stood looking at her stark, undecorated cake and wondered what on earth she had been thinking when she decided to do this herself. "I thought it would be so easy," she moaned.
Of course she did. After all, Karen, 31, is a trained pastry chef. She spent five years in Chicago making desserts for the notoriously perfectionist chef Charlie Trotter and two years before that at Tru with nationally known pastry chef Gale Gand. For the past 18 months, she has been creating wildly inventive desserts, such as cold-smoked chocolate with curry ice cream and Indian spices; and yeast sponge cake flavored with banana, bacon and geranium, at Town House in Chilhowie, Va., where she works with her now-husband. The couple's four- and nine-course tasting menus have drawn diners from the Washington area despite the nearly six-hour drive to the remote, rural town.
This also wasn't the first wedding cake she had made. She had practiced by making her brother's wedding cake seven years ago, as well as her sister's five-tier cake last year. Making her own should have been a . . . piece of cake.
But on this warm Sunday morning in July, Karen was looking frazzled. She was standing with two friends in the spacious kitchen of the house her parents had rented at the Inn at Palmetto Bluff resort in Bluffton, S.C., the site of her destination wedding. Her dark blond hair was yanked back in a ponytail; her bangs hung lank and oily above her blue eyes. In just a few hours, she was due to have her hair and makeup done, which only added to the pressure. She was wearing a purple tank top and a short white skirt that looked as if it was about to slide off her slim hips. Already tiny, she'd lost five pounds in the past few weeks grappling with the seemingly endless details of her wedding weekend, as well as her insistence on making all the dessert treats herself.
It's not that she wasn't warned to take it easy. From the beginning, John, 32, tried to talk her out of making their wedding cake. "Not because I didn't think she could do it," he emphatically pointed out. "I just wanted her to be able to relax." When she insisted, he made her spell out exactly how she planned to make the cake, and when.
Veronica Laramie, a close friend and fellow pastry chef who volunteered to help with the baking duties, had given Karen similar advice. "I told you a year ago: Don't make your own cake," she said, shaking her head as they stood looking at the unadorned layers. Karen didn't even bother to reply.
Because, as Karen had bluntly admitted from the beginning, "I'm anal. I want every single detail accounted for, and then some." She knew that if she found someone else to make the cake, "I'd end up faxing them six pages of detailed instructions on everything they would have to do. I'd allow them no creativity of their own, and that wouldn't be fair."
But once Karen decided to make the cake, she kept adding to her to-do list. There was the mini replica of her parents' three-tier wedding cake that she decided to make as a surprise for their 40th anniversary, which was the same day as her wedding. And wouldn't it be great, she thought, to make chocolate-dipped honeycomb candy and whoopie pies (her own version, with the dark chocolate rounds sandwiching a creamy white chocolate filling, recipe on Page 20) for the guests' goodie bags? Plus, she had a super recipe for chocolate chunk cookies -- and maybe some oatmeal-nut cookies, too -- that would be perfect for the Saturday night buffet following the rehearsal. If all that weren't enough, she planned to spend most of Friday making homemade pasta and meatballs with her beloved 92-year-old grandmother, Flora Barca, for the wedding dinner; it was her grandmother's 71-year-old bride-and-groom topper that Karen had unearthed to use for her own cake. She had spread the craziness around a bit by asking her mother-in law to hunt down vintage lace placemats for the custom-made farm tables and her father to create ring holders by sawing an ostrich egg in half -- but mostly she dealt with the minutiae herself.