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!
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.
Linda: I wanted each tier of the cake to have alternating layers, chocolate-yellow-chocolate-yellow, raspberry filling in between. For the chocolate, I adapted a recipe for Martha Stewart cupcakes and figured out the necessary ingredients for tiers with diameters of 8, 12 and 16 inches. We called it "Yum." It was extremely moist and dense, nearly impossible to work with. It never came out even and always stuck to the knife. But it was so damn yum it was worth it.
We knew we needed something simpler for the yellow layers. All the recipes we'd tried had turned out boring as a scone. For expedience one night, we used a boxed mix, and it was perfect -- smooth and even on top, yummier than Yum. We'd still have a lot of construction to practice in the months ahead, but at least we'd have consistent building material.
Straight from the box: This is what many professionals do, we'd heard. It was immediately obvious that we had to give in for the yellow layers. Equally obvious was that nobody needed to know.
* * *
Hank: By winter, we'd established Cake Night at Linda's, once or twice a month, where we would force ourselves to confront a single issue: a baking strategy, theoretical or actual flavor, or a wild decorating scheme. Later, as our test cakes got bigger, Cake Night would expand into two nights -- one to bake, one to decorate. Cake Night was sometimes a hassle, with work looming, or ingredients we forgot to pick up at Giant. The mixing and baking and gabbing would always calm me down.
Linda: When you grow up and grow busy, you never get chunks of time like this anymore with your friends. And when you are single, you never get it with anyone, and I hate that. Hank and I got to talk, a lot. On Cake Night we talked about the important things: reality television, sex, movies, our odd childhoods.
Somewhere along the way Cake Night added a new, exciting topic: Michael, the cute photographer, who was becoming what one could officially call a boyfriend. Hank would tell me how they raced each other down the Mall, explored museums, and I loved that this story was so different from all Hank's other stories.
We talked about the guys I was meeting -- Why would someone keep asking me out but never kiss me? Why would someone want me one day and not the next? -- and Hank would try to answer these questions, but he couldn't.
Hank: A cake with a 16-inch diameter is many years beyond the Easy-Bake Oven or after-school brownies. It's ugly. The cracks, the blisters. The frequent, unwelcome hump in the center. We learned about Magi-Cake strips, which are long, narrow insulation pads that you moisten and wrap around the outside of a cake pan, slowing down the baking time but making your cakes more even and perfect. Magic, indeed.
Months went by, and we had made some pretty lackluster cakes, plain, with nothing so bold as frosting yet. The beautiful cake books were beginning to seem useless and almost like fiction -- the cakes in the picture were fantasy compared with our reality.
Linda: My kitchen is small, the kind that never, ever gets a wondrous transformation courtesy of a home magazine. Once we laid out the ingredients, there was little room to work. There were pounds of ingredients, piles -- butter, eggs, Softasilk flour, Hershey's cocoa, various sugars, Crisco Sticks. (There was something odd about seeing so much Crisco in an otherwise Whole Fooded kitchen.) Sealed bags of raspberry filling from the cake store stacked like sandbags. Boxes of Duncan Hines lined in a row.
Hank: I was getting worried about how much we didn't know. We still hadn't baked and frosted an entire tier, and knew nothing of building sturdy multiple tiers. We needed a cake Yoda. On the Web, we found B. Keith Ryder, a baker who also taught decorating classes at a little cake shop in a strip mall in Alexandria. We signed up for wedding cake construction in March, four months before the July 26 wedding. In the days leading up to class, Linda made up a song about B. Keith Ryder, the lyrics to which consisted entirely of "Beeeee Keith Ryyyder . . ." He was our hero before we even met him.
Cake class made everything seem suddenly more real, more scary, but also more manageable. B. Keith Ryder turned out to be a tall, bearded teddy bear who very calmly taught Linda and me (and about 10 other women -- I was the only male student) in one Saturday afternoon how to horizontally slice, or "tort," cake layers. Torting is both practical (you don't have to bake as many separate cakes) and artful (once you get the hang of it). After torting, you spread filling between the layers, stack them, frost them and mount them on plastic plates. You then cut plastic dowels with a small power saw and build the cake like a parking garage. B. Keith was the first person who didn't think it was strange or impossible that Linda and I could make a wedding cake for 150 people.
Linda: In March, Cake Night talk all of a sudden took an intriguing turn. I had actually met a man who wanted to kiss me and didn't want to leave me. With John, I quickly realized that a man could be clever and worldly without benefit of a subscription to the New Yorker, that in the right company, even a trip to Ikea could be transcendent, that romance could be easy.
* * *
Hank: Things I never thought we would use to make a wedding cake, but did: a power saw, a metal sewing ruler, dental floss, a shish kebab skewer, a Sharpie marker, pantyhose.
Linda: When torting, one of us would turn the Lazy Susan, and one would slice. The turner would tell the slicer which way the knife needed to be slanted. But, really, you could never get a perfect read on it.
If you screwed up, you'd wind up with two slanted layers, or one fat layer and one skinny layer, or, worst of all, one fat layer and one skinny layer with a hole in the center from where the knife poked through. Hank and I didn't like each other very much when that happened. And it happened often, whether we went fast or slow, Hank or me, straight or crooked.
Hank: Torting is like performing delicate surgery. I'm of the school that you just have to make the cut, quick and sure. Linda always kept saying stop, slow down, back up, move the knife, keep it level, lock your elbow. I feared for the patient every time. Our early cakes were all about malpractice.
Linda: Hank was not a good scraper, and it drove me mad to hold the bowl and watch. He always missed parts. Plus, scraping was my favorite! So he let me scrape. And my parchment-paper circles to line the pan were always jagged and pathetic, and the Sharpie I used to trace them would leak onto the cake. Hank was much more methodical about circles, and he thought to use pencil, so that became his job. Which I felt bad about, because it didn't look like fun, certainly not as much fun as scraping.
Hank: One Cake Night in April we decided to just go for it and use whatever skills we'd acquired thus far. We made a small two-tier cake, torted it, added fruit filling, covered it in white Wilton-brand fondant and built it with plastic dowels. We decorated it with blue candy wafers along the edges and blue ribbon. The cake was oddly shaped and sort of sad. We fed it to our respective new boyfriends, who raved about it, not entirely truthfully. What I liked about this moment was the realization that Linda and I had acquired boyfriends along the way. Nice boyfriends who weren't flaky, who weren't dry, who weren't tasteless, who weren't emotionally frosty. I sometimes wonder if the act of making a wedding cake had somehow made the act of falling in love seem possible.
Hank: Sorry. Sugar rush.
* * *
Linda: Even the most obsessive bride has no idea how much architecture goes on behind that frosted facade. I loved this. You have no idea, I'd tell people. After we cut the hollow plastic dowels to just the right size and attached them to the little parchment-lined platform on which the next tier would sit, I'd push the whole contraption firmly but gently through each layer of the cake and feel a satisfying, smug blip as each new layer was penetrated.
Hank: I secretly don't like weddings, and it turns out, neither does Linda. It's not because I don't love the couple. There's always this abstract sense of dread while parking my car and walking into the church alone. I'm usually the funny gay friend the bride knew in college. The invitation is almost always addressed to me, and me alone.
Linda: There was so much cake. We fed our colleagues, we fed our neighbors, we fed our boyfriends. I never tired of licking the batter -- sometimes we would scoop it from the bowl to our mouths in handfuls, our faces dripping over the sink -- but I did tire of eating cake. We would occasionally just slide an entire tier into the trash can, because there was no homeless shelter next to my apartment, and we had plain run out of people to feed.
Hank: A few times, I brought slices of our test cakes over to Michael's house and put them in the refrigerator, and then popped some Advil and crawled into bed. The next day, his female housemates would eat the cake. When Michael told them how Linda and I were going to make a wedding cake for a couple, they reportedly got tears in their eyes. They thought it was the sweetest, most touching thing. All I saw was bad cake.
Linda: Once somebody asked Hank and me how we did it, all that time together crammed into my tiny kitchen, such a big project. How did we not hate each other? I said that the key for me was to let Hank have his way, just nod and go along with his suggestions, even if I disagreed. Hank looked at me and said, "That's what I do with you."
Hank: We signed up for another of B. Keith's classes in May, this one on fondant. Fondant -- a mixture of sugar, water and glucose that is boiled and then cooled into a doughlike substance -- is what you see on all trendy wedding cakes now, and our hopes were pinned on using it. It's rolled out in a thin layer, then draped on the cake and smoothed, in theory, into a satiny surface. It looks great, but often tastes rubbery. We bought two buckets of fondant, for $55 each. In class Keith had us practice kneading and rolling the fondant on the table. We placed the fondant on a Styrofoam cake. It occurred to me then that most of the cakes I'd been admiring in books might very well be Styrofoam.
Linda: We crowned our practice cakes with the humorously inappropriate: a ballerina, a gay couple, a bar mitzvah boy. When we realized we were running out of time to find the real topper, as it's called, I spent hours on eBay. Most toppers were either too kitschy or too frilly, with ceramic tinkling bells and plastic trellises, Minnies and Mickeys and kittens with tails curled into precious, pukey hearts. Hank wanted superheroes, and I loved that, but when we went to Toys 'R Us, we saw that action figures had been drinking their milk; they'd gotten so big that they would have toppled off their eight-inch stage, overwhelming our cakey splendor and weighing themselves straight down through the skating-rink-smooth fondant.
On our second trip to Toys 'R Us, we found a line of plastic toys revolving around a sporty gal named Polly Pocket, bendable, perfectly sized and colored in aqua, lavender and white. Polly's boyfriend's name was Steven, just like the groom's -- and he had a shirt that said so! There were motor scooters! There was a friend with brown hair, like Amy's! I was giddy. At the craft store, I found edible silver pearls and big, flat, white candy hearts: our polka dots.
Even better, the cakes were getting smoother now, tastier.
Hank: But with six weeks to go, getting a perfect, uncracked fondant onto a cake larger than 10 inches in diameter was still mostly a disaster. With our work and traveling schedules, we really only had about two practice cakes left.
One night I flipped past the Food Network just as it was showing the making of a wedding cake at Disney World. There was a giant machine into which the cake decorators dropped globs of fondant the size of basketballs. At the other end, the fondant came out of the machine smoothly onto the cake, like a perfect linen bed sheet. I screamed at the television in a state of astonishment and revelation. A few nights later, I had a dream in which I solved our fondant problem by rolling it out between sheets of wax paper, which prevented the fondant from tearing while we lifted it from table to cake. This turned out to be not so brilliant in practice. The last night Linda and I tried fondant, it tore again, and we got angry at each other, and the cake we made looked like a Tiffany blue garbage bag cinched around a boulder. So we admitted defeat and decided instead to frost the ultimate cake with a pale blue buttercream. On the drive home, as I was coming around a curve, a layer of that bad fondant cake slid onto the floor. I left it in the dumpster behind my building. Throwing a whole cake in the trash is very Julianne Moore in "The Hours." It felt like hiding some dark, domestic secret.
Linda: To hell with rolled fondant -- spackling the icing on is one of the most satisfying parts of cake-making. Creamy, smooth, shiny (all that butter).
* * *
Hank: With a week left before the wedding, Linda and I decided we didn't have another practice cake in us. We had this date with destiny. It was either going to happen or it wasn't. Amy and Steven came over on our next-to-last Cake Night, and brought us pizza and presents. We were supposed to give them their first sample of actual cake, but instead we frosted Styrofoam cakes with buttercream. I liked the look on Steven's face. I don't think he believed we'd actually ever made any cake.
A mixture of fear and confidence propelled us toward Saturday, the wedding day. On Wednesday night, we bought the rest of our ingredients and took inventory of our supplies. By now we'd spent about $1,500. We went over our refrigeration and transportation plans with military precision; I had already inspected the kitchen and met the manager at Sea Catch restaurant in Georgetown, where the reception would be held. Cake Night was about to become Cake Day.
Linda: Thursday and Friday, we took off from work. Day One, as always, was mixing and baking and making the frosting. We leisurely baked three chocolate and three yellow cakes, no griping, no rushing. We even went out for sushi while the layers cooled.
For the icing, we had two KitchenAids going, a new one (mine) and an old borrowed blue one. We could have used four. We had to mix and color the icing in several batches. We used a potent food coloring gel that stained fingers and tongues and off-white dining chair cushions. It was impossible to match our original barely cornflower blue, or match the batches against one another. The frosting I tried from one bowl tasted metallic, so I bent over the sink and spat and spat, and made some more.
Hank: While torting our 12-inch chocolate layer on Friday, I cut it crooked and we had to pronounce it dead. We immediately went into rescue mode. Within minutes, we were mixing batter for a new layer. We were so serious, so efficient, and it was at this moment that I finally realized we were going to pull this whole thing off.
The day of the wedding, I couldn't wait to get over to Linda's and look at our finished, frosted and still-chilling cakes. We took them out of the refrigerator and did some partial assembly, measuring and driving the plastic dowels and tier plates into the firm cake surfaces. Michael came to get us in his Volvo wagon. We boxed up and carried each layer down two flights of stairs -- the 16-inch tier felt like it weighed about 30 pounds. Outside, it was a drippy, hot day, and the frosting started to melt immediately. Linda, conveniently tiny, climbed in the back of the Volvo to help make sure the cakes wouldn't slide around, which of course they did, frosting smushing into cardboard all the way down Wisconsin Avenue.
Linda: At Sea Catch, carts waited for us. We felt very triumphant as we wheeled our cake boxes inside, past the bartender stocking bottles, past the managers placing chairs, past Steven's sister-in-law sticking flowers in cups. Is that the cake? everyone was buzzing, or at least that's what we imagined.
Yes, that was the cake, headed down the elevator into the kitchen, with its chilled pastry table and walk-in refrigerator. We entered the frosty fridge in our shorts and sweaty T-shirts, and there we stacked the melty tiers and touched up the icing -- the damage wasn't as bad as we'd feared. We applied pearl after pearl after pearl, with my eyebrow tweezers.
* * *
Hank: Oh, the wedding itself? I vaguely remember going. I tried to pay attention, but all I could think of was the cake, sitting there in the restaurant refrigerator. I hoped it was okay. Michael and I walked the six or seven blocks from the church to the restaurant. I took him up the elevator to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. "Look," I said, pointing to it, covered in pearls, glistening and blue. "Wow," he said. "You did it."
Linda: Amy was beautiful at the wedding; she is in real life, too, but was even more so now, and it's always good to see two people get married when you know it's just right. During cocktails at the restaurant, my boyfriend, John, and I drank Seven-and-Sevens and made small talk with my co-workers. They were meeting John for the first time, and I was so happy to have him with me, this man who was so handsome and sweet and who might even dance with me if I got enough drink into him.
Hank: About an hour into the reception, we decided it was time to bring the cake down for its moment of . . . I'd say glory, but I never was sure. As the manager and I were wheeling the cake into the elevator, the automatic door triggered and started roughly pounding against the cart. In a flash, I saw it was going to bump into or perhaps knock over the cake, and I put my fingers between the door and the cart to stop it.
Once the scooter couple was in place on the cake top, we lifted the whole thing onto the table near the dance floor. Linda and I scattered silver Hershey's Kisses and white candy hearts around it for decoration. Guests were coming up to ask us about the cake: Why did we do it? How did we do it? Have we done it before? Will we do it again?
Linda: At dinner, Hank and Michael and John and I made small talk with a couple from Seattle, while I watched across the room as the cake sort of sweated. Scooter Amy and Scooter Steven sank a little into the icing and tilted leftward.
Hank: Michael and I were sitting at our table, watching John and Linda dance, and I noticed a few couples dancing near the cake table. A woman set down her glass of Diet Coke perilously near the cake, and it was teetering on a white candy heart. I had a vision of it spilling onto the bottom tier of the cake. I didn't know if this was the kind of wedding reception where people would be okay with two men dancing together, but action was required: I took Michael's hand, and we danced through the crowd to the cake table, where I picked up the glass of Diet Coke. "Oh, I'm not done with that," the woman said. "It makes me nervous here," I told her, and relocated it to a dinner table.
Linda: After the dancing, the cake was ceremonially cut, and all of a sudden there we were: Eating it, eating our cake with the patient couple from Seattle, who had to listen to Hank and me prattle on about how good the stripes looked and how good the chocolate Yum recipe tasted. Around the room, people were eating without evident revulsion, and I would have loved to hear some praise about the icing, about the moistness, but by now my feet were killing me in my stilettos, and I wanted to go home and sleep.
Hank: I left drunk and relieved, carrying a plate of leftover cake slices.
Linda: Amy's a busy newlywed, and I haven't seen much of her this year. I still see lots of Hank, and he still makes cakes. He'll occasionally get some pans from the bin in my closet, or ask me the address for a supply place in Wheaton, or describe the chocolate mint or red velvet project he's planning.
Our unopened fondant tub, which we weren't allowed to return, sat on the floor by my front door for two months. The $54.99 price tag mocked me until I finally ripped it off. A few weeks later, I lugged the bucket to the trash room.
I've made one cake since the wedding, a flourless chocolate raspberry crowd-pleaser for John's mom's Passover seder. For a while, I used the KitchenAid to make John chocolate chip cookie dough to keep in his freezer, but I haven't lately. (He doesn't open the car door for me anymore, either.)
Hank: I thought I would never make another cake, but after a couple months, I felt the urge. I made Michael's 30th birthday cake, enough to feed 40 or 50 people. I'll make him one next year, too. And the year after that, and the year after that.
Meanwhile, I still feel protective about Amy and Steven's wedding cake, or what's left of it. They have the top layer in their freezer, and when and if they take it out for their anniversary, I would like to supervise the cutting, to make sure it's done absolutely right, and have a little taste. With Linda's help, of course.
Linda Perlstein is a reporter for The Post's Metro section. Hank Stuever is a reporter for the Style section. They will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 2 p.m. on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.