The face my husband made after I offered up a forkful of wedding cake was like the one a child makes when offered a first taste of an unfamiliar food. A wrinkling of the eyes, lips slightly pursed, his twitching nose betraying the search for comprehension of what this aroma was, exactly.
“Pork shu mai,” he said.
The almond cake with a custard filling had not smelled like that a year ago, when it was covered with fondant and flowers for our October 2013 wedding. That day, when Scott and I traded bites, photographer snapping away, I hadn’t realized it was the only taste we’d get. Greeting friends and relatives took us away from our plates for the rest of the night.
We hadn’t thought about the tradition of freezing the top layer to eat for an anniversary celebration, a custom that dates to when weddings cakes were liqueur-soaked fruitcakes, saved to celebrate the first child’s christening. But when the caterer sent us home with the top boxed up, well, what else were we to do? The cake, wrapped in two layers of aluminum foil, went haphazardly into the freezer as we rushed out the door for our honeymoon, forgetting it until the next year.
That haphazardness was our first mistake.
“I haven’t heard of anyone not enjoying it if they freeze it correctly,” said Meredith Tomason, pastry chef of the soon-to-open RareSweets at CityCenterDC.
Proper technique, says Tomason, starts with refrigerating the cake for a few hours to solidify the icing, whether cased in fondant or not. Once the decorations are removed, the cake should be swathed in plastic wrap and placed in a cake box or another airtight container, positioned so it is not touching the sides. That box should then be generously wrapped in plastic wrap, labeled and transferred to the freezer. Put some fresh baking soda in your freezer to capture odors.
You’ll have better luck with a chocolate cake than with vanilla, Tomason said, and fruit fillings don’t always freeze well.
You’ll also have an easier time if you’re fortunate enough to have enlisted the services of a high-end cake designer, like Maggie Austin. The Alexandria-based Austin — who received a shower of media attention for designing the cake for the Blake Lively-Ryan Reynolds wedding — provides a separate pre-boxed and sealed cake for couples to freeze.
Her anniversary cake does not look like the original.
“The anniversary tier is supposed to be the flavor that the couple enjoyed on their wedding day,” said Austin’s managing director and sister, Jessica Rapier. “You’re appealing to the taste senses of the memory that they had of eating the cake on that day. It’s not a visual repeat.”
For couples who don’t want to commit freezer space, Austin, as do most other wedding cake providers, offers an alternative: a fresh cake delivered on the anniversary. There are just too many variables involved in keeping a frozen cake in good condition, said Rapier. The anniversary cake is “an option for couples who are traveling after their wedding or live in a nano-apartment and can’t keep anything in their freezer, or they don’t trust Pepco,” she said. “Your power could go out, or it could mysteriously begin tasting like cheese.”
That’s why Tiffany MacIsaac, who recently started Buttercream Bakeshop, would like the tradition to die a frostbitten death, already.
“I want the experience to be as great as it was on the night of their wedding, not some sub-par, tastes-like-frozen-steak experience,” said MacIsaac, former longtime pastry chef for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group.
She tells couples that a top tier that won’t be eaten on their wedding day is a costly memento. “You’re paying a lot more for that five-inch cake than you would pay for a five-inch cake alone,” she said. Better to order another cake the next year — or do away with the tradition altogether.
MacIsaac might get her wish, if only because more people seem to be serving anything but wedding cake. A colleague of mine opted for doughnuts, while a friend’s wedding featured macarons. “When I feel in need of a wedding reminder, I just get a box at Paul,” my friend said. “They’re identical.”
Our own cake had been in our freezer for a year, next to fish fillets and smoothie-ready frozen fruit and, yes, pork shu mai. Days before our first anniversary, I began to defrost it. I’d already called Tomason for advice.
Though we feared the worst, we followed her defrosting instructions to the letter, transferring the cake to our fridge more than 24 hours before we planned to eat it, then letting it sit on our countertop for an hour to return it to room temperature.
We unwrapped the foil and peeled off the fondant. And then we ended up scraping off the rest of the icing, too, because of the aforementioned freezer odor. But the cake itself was surprisingly good: light and fluffy, with a custard that had retained the proper consistency. If you closed your eyes and imagined it as a grocery store cake, then it wasn’t too bad.
“It makes me wonder what the cake actually tasted like at our wedding,” said Scott.
Because that’s the thing about a wedding cake: You might not get a chance to enjoy it on your wedding day. And if you don’t do a good job of freezing it, you won’t enjoy it on your anniversary, either. You run the risk that the taste of year-old cake will replace the memories of those first bites at your wedding.
Only a year in, I’m certainly no expert, but one piece of advice MacIsaac offered for eating year-old cake struck me as applicable to marriage, too.
“If you have a good sense of humor about it and your expectations are reasonable,” she said, “It’s going to be fine.”