Let them eat cake

courtesy photo

But not your ordinary cakes, we’re talking wedding cakes

Ah, the wedding cake. It is often held up as an essential symbol of the traditional wedding, something to be treated with reverence like a fine family heirloom, but it’s important to remember that in reality, it’s just a large, fancy and potentially delicious dessert. It’s just a cake. At least that is what Allison Sayles, wedding cake maker extraordinaire for Sugar Pine Cakery in Tahoe City, keeps trying to remind herself, while she maneuvers her beautiful creations through busy summertime traffic. No lives are in danger here. Only large quantities of deliciousness. Customers might think otherwise when they understand the stress level that some folks go through to make sure one of those beautiful multi-tiered creations arrives in pristine condition.

Barbara Vogt, co-owner of the Tahoe House Bakery in Tahoe City, has been in the wedding cake business for many years. She says the process of planning for your wedding cake is fairly simple, and the key is to begin the process early. First, she meets with whoever is in charge of the cake. Sometimes it’s a wedding planner, or the bride and the bride’s mother, or it could be the bride and groom, although it must be noted that while we have made great strides towards an enlightened society in which men and women possess equal opportunities, when it comes to wedding cakes, men are still firmly entrenched in the back seat. Vogt says that from her experience, “grooms are excited to get any kind of input. Sometimes the brides let them pick one of the flavors.”

Armed with information on what type of cake they would prefer, Vogt next puts together a cake tasting. She can even make a mini cake to take home and share with the family. Once the decision is made, she collects a deposit and then asks the bride to call her two weeks prior to the event to make sure they are still getting married. Vogt says, “I’ve had a couple of brides over the years who I’ve called and left a message just a few days before the big day, ’If you are still getting married and want a cake you better call me.’… They do.”

At Lake Tahoe, it’s common to choose a beautiful outdoor setting for weddings. While a lovely green lawn with the deep blue lake in the background makes for spectacular wedding pictures, it can be a challenge for the cake makers. Vogt remembers a wedding at the Ehrman Mansion on the grounds of Sugar Pine Point State Park. The mansion sits in a magnificent wooded area on a grassy knoll just above the west shore of Lake Tahoe. A dance floor had been set up in front of the mansion overlooking the lake, and just around the corner was the cake lovingly set up for all to see. Also closely watching the chain of events was a bear (who was apparently a big fan of the movie Wedding Crashers). Once the dance floor filled up, the bear moved in to devour the cake. While there wasn’t much left when the bruin was finished, the guests did obtain some unforgettable photographs. Another memorable wedding along the lakeshore at Chambers Landing brought a smaller marauder, in this case a squirrel, who also quickly made off with nibbles of the sugary concoction.

Sometimes, the groom does get a little input into the cake, unbeknownst to the bride. Vogt remembers one instance where the groom contacted her five days before the wedding and asked for a secret decorating addition. Apparently, it had taken the couple a long time to make the decision to embark on the marriage because right where the couple was set to cut the cake Vogt was instructed to add the word, “Finally!”

Sugar Pine Cakery’s Sayles says that once the sampling is done, and it comes time to make the wedding cake, it’s a three-day process. First she bakes the cake, then on the second day she fills the inside and puts a crumb cote on the top, and then on the last day, the frosting and decorations go on, hopefully as late as possible so that the cake is as fresh as it can be once the bride and groom take to the knife.

Sayles says a popular alternative these days are gourmet cup cakes. Couples can have a small showpiece cake at the ceremony, and then provide the guests cupcakes. They are less expensive and easy to transport, and don’t require plates, or silverware.

Once the cake is completed, that’s when the scary and dangerous part of the operation occurs—delivering and setting it up. In the summer, Sayles is often delivering three cakes at a time, “I get the air conditioning going in my car for a while, trying to get it as cold as possible,” she says. Then, she delicately stacks the cakes in the car, and often has her husband drive while she holds on tight to her little babies in the back. Every bump in the road, and the frequent honking they inspire with their slow driving, increases her stress level. She says she needs to get a bumper sticker which says, “Caution, Wedding Cake on Board.”

“You worry about Tahoe summer traffic,” Sayles say. “Then, when you get there, you have to carry it over God knows what uneven surface to what is hopefully a shady space.” She has to time it so she can get in and set up the cake before the crowds arrive, but late enough that the cake will still be fresh when the bride and groom take their photo op.

Whoever is in charge of guarding the cake should arrive at the location before the always present gang of kids start hanging around with their long fingers waiting to dip in for a quick lick when the adults aren’t looking, or grandma wants to give her lengthy two cents about the horrible cake decoration choices made by her granddaughter-in-law. In the late summer and fall, wasps are a frequent visitor to the sweet stuff. Sayles remembers an extremely elaborate cake last year, adorned with flowers and peaches, that was soon swarmed by the hungry wasps. Oh, and then sometimes it rains. While Vogt had to deal with a bear at the Ehrman Mansion, Sayles’ reward at the lake side location was a tromp through deep puddles in a drenching rain.

Once, against her better judgment, Sayles was convinced to set up a lovely butter cream cake on a temporary dance floor. While, as is always the case, she was not there to witness the unveiling of her artwork—the cake maker is never there to enjoy the cake, they are long gone and back baking cookies for the non-wedding crowd—she was informed by a frantic wedding planner that the combination of clomping feet and a temporary dance floor led to the frosting grumbling on the cake. Another time, she remembers setting up a cream cheese cake on a sunny Tahoe beach in June when the temperature was 90 degrees. She did everything she could to set it up just right, but as she was leaving she thought for sure it was tilting slightly to the right. After both of these incidents, Sayles later received letters from the brides … saying how scrumptious and delicious her cakes were. Perhaps, it really is just a cake.

In the end, while everybody loves her cakes, and Sayles is close to being booked solid for this coming summer, she is not sure why she keeps taking on the challenge. “You have to keep your humor. You don’t want to disappoint people. It is absolutely nerve wracking.” While making cakes for strangers is a challenge, she says, “making my sister’s cake was the worst, I couldn’t watch people eat it.”