What to Ask Your Baker

The following series of questions appeared recently in an article in Real Simple magazine. Below each question, I've included my own response (in red text) for the benefit of curious bridal couples and other readers.

What to Ask Your Wedding Baker
Chocolate, carrot, buttercream, three-tiered? The choices are endless, so here’s what to ask to ensure your cake is a sumptuous success.

1. How long before the wedding will the cake be baked?
Because it’s labor-intensive, making a wedding cake is usually not a one-day job. The layers may be baked in advance, but you don’t want frozen or stale cake. Two to three days before will be safe.

At Honey Crumb, if the cake is to be delivered on a Saturday, for example, the sponge cakes themselves will be baked late on Thursday. Any frostings and fillings are made fresh that Thursday, too. The cakes are allowed to cool, then filled and frosted the same day. Then, they're covered in fondant (if that is required), because they need to 'settle' overnight before being decorated. This helps to eliminate any bumps/ripples in the surface that can develop if the cake is stacked and decorated too soon after being iced. On Friday, they are decorated according to the planned design, which might include hand-painting, piping, styling of sugar flowers, etc. (The sugar flowers, or other complex edible design elements, are often made days or even weeks in advance, because they need time to dry and are made of a sugar dough that does not spoil.) The decorated tiers are either stacked on Friday and delivered as one 'unit' the next morning, or transported separately (especially if the cake has more than three tiers) and assembled on site. A wedding/celebration cake from us is fresh; never stale, never frozen. 

2. Will you personally transport the cake?
If you’re having the cake delivered, find out if the baker or the cake decorator will be on hand to assemble or to touch up decorations on site. 

Unless the bride/family specifically requests otherwise (usually for a small cake or cupcakes that can easily be transported in a suitable cake box without harm), Honey Crumb cakes are always personally delivered and set up by me (or a well-trained associate, during the busy wedding season!).  I always bring a 'touch-up' kit with various tools and supplies in it, in case the cake suffers some damage en route and needs repair on site (this rarely happens). 

3. Is there an extra charge for the platter or cutting and serving utensils?
Bakers may offer you a choice of display plates, which will likely require a deposit that you will get back when you return the plates. (Ask how much time you have to return them.) 

We have a range of display pedestals, cake plates, and adjustable clear acrylic cupcake towers for a small fee.  There is a refundable deposit, and we ask that the plate or pedestal be returned unharmed within five days of your event.  However, each of our cakes comes standard with a matching display board (usually a foamcore or Masonite cake 'drum' that is sturdy and attractive) -- no silver foil-covered cake rounds here!  The cake board is usually covered in fondant or Royal Icing for a smooth finish that co-ordinates with the cake's colors, and is sometimes more elaborately decorated with edible flowers, falling petals, hand-piping, etc, depending on the design.

4. I have guests with allergies. What are my options?
If your baker isn’t equipped to provide, say, a gluten-free cake, she may work with another local bakery that does. 

A range of dietary requirements can be accommodated in our kitchen - including vegan, gluten-free, and dairy-free cakes. However, we are unable to guarantee that our cakes and fillings/frostings are completely free from nut products or traces of nuts.  If that is something you require, we might be able to make an arrangement with a specialist bakery in town -- always feel free to ask us!

5. How will the cake be displayed?
The aesthetics of a gorgeous cake can be ruined if the cake is plopped on a foil-covered board. Ask about renting a cake stand, a mirror, or a silver platter. Or ask that any board under-lay be decorated to match the cake. You can also find inexpensive cake stands at www.ebay.com or local vintage and home-goods stores. 

See my answer to question 3.

6. Can I see pictures of cakes you’ve made recently?
You can show a baker a magazine clipping and he may say that he can do it, but seeing the kinds of cakes he makes most often will give you a better idea of his skills. 

I always bring a couple of design portfolios to every consultation. One portfolio contains photos of Honey Crumb cakes, cupcakes, and other confections, to give clients an idea of what our cakes look like, what sort of cake proportions look good, and what we're capable of producing.  The other portfolio is actually a kind of design scrapbook, full of clippings, drawings, and other designs from all over.  I jokingly refer to it as my 'grasping-at-straws' scrapbook, but its purpose is really just to give clients a sense of the (endless) possibilities. Having said that, it can come in handy if the clients aren't sure what sort of design they're after and they really need some extra sources of inspiration!

7. What if I want fresh flowers on the cake?
Ask your baker to accommodate the design―and find out the best way to coordinate getting blooms from your florist to the baker. Often the florist will arrange the flowers for you. Ask that the flowers be pesticide-free, and supply the baker with a sketch or a photo of the flowers as soon as possible so that she can design around it. 

Fresh flowers can certainly be incorporated into a cake design, provided that my clients or their florists can provide non-toxic, pesticide-free flowers for the purpose. (See a previous blog entry of mine on the subject of edible flowers.)  I will work with your florist, providing cake dimensions, color 'chips', ribbon samples, etc, to make sure things go smoothly and to ensure that enough flowers are set aside to achieve the look that we have in mind.  I can arrange the flowers for you, or leave instructions for your florist to do so.

8. How do you figure out the per-slice cost?
Most bakers have a basic per-slice cost; the price rises when you add “extras,” like a more elaborate design or a more exotic filling. 

We have two per-slice cost categories, which I call "Classic" and "Premium," depending on the cake flavors and fillings chosen.  Indeed, the total cost of your cake will rise in proportion to the amount of time and energy that goes into its creation.  Square cakes require more time and skill to ice than round ones, small piped Royal Icing blossoms take less time and talent to produce than oversize gum paste blooms, and so on. (See a previous blog entry of mine on how to cut costs and still get the cake you want.) Extras also include delivery outside of Eugene, the charge for a special cake platter or pedestal, any carving/sculpting work, monograms, ribbon trim, etc, some of which add only a modest amount to the total cost of your cake (e.g. ribbon trim), while others add considerably (e.g. hundreds of handmade sugar roses).  I always try to have a frank discussion with my clients during the consultation about their budget, and I try my best to be accommodating.  Sometimes, the most time-consuming elements of a design can be simplified (and made less costly) without much alteration to the final 'look' of the cake.

9. Can we taste a piece of one of your cakes?
You should be able to, though probably not a specialty flavor. Most bakers have the most requested flavors on hand.

When I schedule a cake tasting and consultation, I most often will ask the client(s) to choose three or four flavors to try, and will inquire as to any flavors or ingredients they'd especially like to include (or avoid!). At any given time, we tend to have freshly-baked Red Velvet, Chocolate, and Butter Sponge on hand, along with most buttercream flavors and some curds and preserves.  The rest will be made especially for your tasting, which is why it's always appreciated when clients let me know in advance that they'd like to reschedule their appointment.  The tastings/consultations are one of my favorite aspects of my work - we have a chance to get creative together and come up with something personal and (hopefully) show-stopping!