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Newlyweds are killing wedding cakes in exchange for cobbler carts and doughnut dioramas

Couples are opting out of wedding cakes for more distinctive sweets.

Move over wedding cake. Alternate sweets like pie and macarons have swept in to give a new sweet tenor to contemporary nuptial desserts. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post; Prop styling by Clare Ramirez/The Washington Post)

Millennials laid waste to paper napkins, put the final nails in golf’s coffin. And now, it appears, they’re in the process of killing wedding cake.

Three towering tiers of joy, rosettes clustered in filigreed buttercream bouquets. Like the marriage itself, it should stand the test of time, be sweet and tender, and everyone in attendance should sigh in the sheer rightness of it all. With rituals like the inexpert two-armed slicing and the face smush, wedding cake is a sacrosanct capper to the ultimate day.

Unless it’s not.

Cakes, according to caterers and wedding experts, are out. Nearly a third of would-be newlyweds are opting for other sweet endings, according to experts like Los Angeles power-caterer Lulu Powers, who does weddings around the country. Cutting the cake puts a pause on the reception. The buzzwords these days are “interactional,” “grazing” and “fun.”

Sure, millennials might be killing canned tuna. But not because they hate can openers.

“They want the party to keep going and that means roving desserts, often no fork needed.”

In cake’s stead? Cobbler carts and cookie bars with big apothecary jars of toppings. Macaron displays, fruit pies or a waffle station. Tiny desserts with little bourbon pairings. Individual sweet treats served on the dance floor. In large measure, this trend is not cost-driven.

Fueled by reality shows like Food Network’s “Ace of Cakes” and TLC’s “Cake Boss,” the increasing complexity and elaborate design of wedding and specialty cakes was well documented in the first decade of this century, but according to Powers and other caterers, young couples are turning toward less ceremonious — but often no less expensive — nuptial sweets.

Richard Markel, the founder of the Association for Wedding Professionals International, says that a good rule of thumb is that while wedding catering generally accounts for about half of a total wedding budget, cakes represent a real range, from about $8 per slice for a fully decorated cake up to celebrity Manhattan cake bakers who charge as much as $35 per slice.

All desserts are made from similar building blocks of flour, sugar, butter and eggs — relatively cheap ingredients — so it’s the expertise and workmanship that ratchets up the price. And new trends in wedding sweets, from doughnut walls to Mason jar parfaits, are disseminated at lightning speed through Pinterest boards and Instagram feeds.

The tradition of the wedding cake dates to ancient Roman times, when a hard barley cake was broken over brides’ heads to invoke the fertility powers of Jupiter.

In the Middle Ages, if couples could kiss over a mound of cakes or biscuits without upsetting the stack, it was believed they were likely to have many children. It was a French chef in the 17th century who first hit upon the idea of celebrating nuptials with a sweet, multitiered fantasy covered in sugared lard (proto-icing).

Sugared lard, as great as that sounds, is on the wane, making way for sweets that are more personal, more portable and more present-day. Hayley Richards, 27, will wed Cristin Barth, 32, on Nantucket on June 22, with Powers as their caterer.

“Something important for us is just doing things a little differently,” Richards said. “We knew music was going to play a big role. We’re having East Coast Soul, an amazing seven-piece band. The last thing we wanted to do is stop the party to have people watch us cut a cake.”

Barth explained their thought process about dessert: “We felt really strongly that after dinner we wanted to have everyone start the party, with a sweet that is super mobile.”

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The answer was cake pops in different flavors, served in a yet-to-be-determined dramatic but fun way. “We got pushback from our families about keeping some traditions, but cake wasn’t one of them,” said Barth. “For a lot of our family and friends this is their first same-sex wedding. I want people to come away from it saying ‘What a great wedding,’ not, ‘What a great gay wedding.’ ”

Matt Toigo and his bride-to-be Katie Hanley wanted something nontraditional for their wedding at Khimaira Farm, a converted goat farm in Luray, Va., something that would go with barbecued brisket and mac ‘n’ cheese.

“It takes a lot of work to make a cake, and a lot of pressure,” Toigo explained. “We didn’t want one big thing, but rather something more fluid and fun for our guests that would be a better fit for a farm wedding.”

They’d been to Key West and eaten their share of Key lime pie, and talk of Key lime pie begot visions of a profusion of pies: strawberry rhubarb and apple, strawberry cream and winterberry, arrayed casually on a serve-yourself table. Sugar, flour and butter were put to new uses, with fruit making it a little healthier but a bit more dry-cleaning risky.

“The baker made one fancier, more ornate pie for us to cut,” Toigo said. “People ate a lot more dessert because they wanted to try different pies.”

Toigo says pie might have represented a cost savings.

“We paid $13 per pie and had 16 pies for a 100-person wedding. This came to $208 total and assuming eight slices per pie, this was only $1.63 per slice, so it came in cheaper than a cake.”

Tiffany MacIsaac, pastry chef/owner of Buttercream Bakeshop, a go-to wedding cake baker in Washington, said she personally hasn’t observed a significant decline in wedding cakes, but she says many people are opting to add croquembouche (stacked cream puffs) and macaron towers to traditional tiered cakes. They are getting smaller cakes, sized to feed only half the guests, supplementing with other tiny, stunning desserts (she cites Key lime pie bars and “cronies” with layers of cookie dough, Oreo and brownie).

Buttercream’s tiered wedding cakes start at $5.75 per slice and go up based on the intricacy of the design. For dessert tables, Buttercream suggests cake for 40 to 50 percent of guests and 1.5 to 2 pieces of mini desserts per person (most of which are between $1.95 to $3.50 each). So, for a wedding of 100 people, that’s $287.50 for cake and another $700 in mini dessert — so this strategy can cause the price to balloon. MacIsaac says croquembouche can range from $4.50 to $7 per person, but cupcakes, at $3 to $3.50 each (customization is additional), can represent a budget-friendly option.

“The pivot usually has to do with a couple having a special experience that they want to convey through the dessert,” MacIsaac said. “For example, perhaps a couple got engaged in Paris and therefore want a macaron tower featured at their wedding. There is also a certain aesthetic appeal to something beautiful, and bit outside the traditional box. Towers are lovely as well because they function as finger foods. The pieces are easy to eat with a cocktail in hand or while tearing up the dance floor.”

This fits precisely with the other big wedding catering trends: reflective of a more personal, autobiographical narrative; accommodating of dietary restrictions and individual food choices; less tradition-bound; and a whole lot more portable and interactive.

Art Smith, once personal chef to Oprah Winfrey, says weddings are no less formal than they once were, but that wedding reception details have evolved.

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“What has happened is not that weddings have become casual — since Vera [Wang] made the wedding dress this icon, the dresses and flowers have become more outrageous — but there’s a high/low split. Tuxedos and tacos. The food has come to be simpler, more comforting.”

There’s something arch and subversive about embracing the lowbrow when you’re all fancied up. But the biggest driver of new wedding catering trends, according to Smith, can be summed up in one word: choice.

“We live in an age of dietary restrictions; the idea of stations has replaced tired plated food. People want to be able to make a choice, and I want my guests to be able to choose what they want. People are more passionate about food. They care more,” Smith said.

Couples want their menu to reflect their hometown, their families, their ethnic heritage and even where they’re going on their honeymoon. Throwing off the tyranny of wedding cake is an opportunity for additional autobiographical narrative — like the song (sort of) says: It’s my party, I’ll serve pie if I want to.