It’s been rather quiet here on ¡dpm does!. You can blame the wedding. Yes, we decided to make it government official this October. It was marvelous and meaningful, with puppets and brass bands and parades and a lot of DIY fun.
When we got engaged, we considered celebrating as we always do, by making lots of food and having everyone over for a big ol’ dinner party (over to someone else’s place that is.) We really considered it: it wouldn’t have been the first time we’d have made thousands of empanadas, why not try it again for the people we most loved? Then the reality of planning and starring in an event took hold: it was one or the other, and though we weren’t much into the performance of it all, getting our performance kicks elsewhere, we realized that in order to truly be present and enjoy the overwhelming and amazing thing that is having everyone important to you in the same place at the same time, we couldn’t also be responsible for feeding them. Not literally.
So we struck a compromise of sorts with ourselves: we’d make the dessert. We’re dessert people, after all, and dessert for 130 seemed fairly manageable. And even if it wasn’t, how could we not make the dessert?
We’ve had the pleasure of celebrating the nuptials of many wonderful friends in recent years, and have, as such, eaten our share of wedding cake. And we have a confession: we’re not wedding cake people. And we’re not frosting people. We just aren’t. Still, being dessert people, we always eat the wedding cake, even when it’s cloyingly or dry or glopped with way too much buttercream. Because it’s dessert, and we’re dessert people. We like to think of it as research.
As the germ of an idea — let’s make the dessert! — started to take real form, we knew we weren’t going to try our hand at a legit, tiered and frosted centerpiece. Rather, we wanted a table overflowing with sweets we loved and which reflected us, and that we would look forward to feasting on. One friend noted that the most “on brand” thing for us to do would have been to make ice cream, since we make so much of it, and we briefly considered this option until we sussed out the schedule and equipment needs for the volume and realized such a decision would be utter madness.
And so, instead, we decided to build a dessert bar: our parents would make their signature sweets — French macarons, Argentine alfajores, and chocolate chip mandel bread — and we’d make some cake and caramels. ¡Que trendy!
The caramels were easy. We’ve made them dozens of times, and know how well and how long they keep. (Though we did up our game this time around, ordering some fancy pre-cut cellophane wrappers — so much easier than cutting parchment or wax paper ourselves, and guaranteed not to stick!)
The question was the cake: how much, what, and how?
As we set about planning and testing our part of the dessert bar equation, we tackled the following questions:
1. How much to make?
2. What to make?
3. How and when to make?
4. How to store and transport?
How much to make?
How much cake to make was the first question on the list, as amount would in many ways determine type. (It’s not that feasible to, say, make several mutli-layered torta de merengue with limited oven and fridge space, no matter how much wanted it as our wedding cake.)
Though we always eat the cake, we are in reality in the dessert-eating minority, and are usually disheartened to see the dishes of wedding cake gathering dust, abandoned after cake-cutting in the din of music and goodbyes. Keeping this in mind, we considered the following:
1. Not everyone likes dessert, or can eat it;
2. Dessert followed standard cocktail hour and a large buffet dinner, so there was a full factor to take into account.
3. Our presentation style — a mix of cake and cookies, pre-portioned and offered buffet style, with no official cake cutting — meant that if guests wanted something sweet, they’d have to serve themselves, which increased the chances that the dessert that was plated would actually be eaten. It also meant that the dessert eaters would eat more, because who doesn’t love options?!
We scoured the internet for tips and tricks in planning amounts, and found this rubric to be fairly useful. Option #5, “tiny desserts,” noted that for receptions with four or fewer options, one needed to have one of each per person.” Not counting the caramels, we had four types of dessert — three cookies and cake — so we figured we’d make enough of everything for our guests to try everything, cutting the cake into very slim slices, since there would be a lot of other things to try.
Thus, for our targeted 130 guests, we decided to make 130 each of the alfajores, macarons, mandel bread and caramels, and an additional eight, 8″ cakes, sliced into 16 skinny slices each. (The chocolate was so dense and intense that we actually considered slicing it into even more bits.) This would give us enough cake for everyone without overwhelming folks with too much sugar. It seems like a lot, and it probably would be for a less sweet toothed crowd, but felt appropriately Argentine.
What to make?
Weddings, as all the conventional blog wisdom will attest, are not the time to try out new things. We decided to make recipes we had made many times, which we knew we loved and which would throw us no surprises. More important than just familiarity with a recipe, however, we needed cakes that:
1. We could make in advance.
2. Would hold up well in transport.
3. Would look nice unfrosted, since we planned to simply dust them with powdered sugar, top them with a blossom and serve with whipped cream and homemade jam.
4. Were October-appropriate.
We settled on four recipes to start, knowing we’d ultimately choose one or two, once we tested their hardiness and focus-grouped their flavors.
1. A lemon olive oil cake, which we’ve made for you here before.
2. Orangette’s dense flourless chocolate cake, which calls for whole eggs (unlike our favorite flourless recipe which asks for whipped whites) and thus would hold up better to points #1 and #2 above.
3. An almond cake with kirsch syrup, an old family favorite culled, no less, from the pages of this (somewhat random) cookbook.
4. An apple cake passed down from Clara’s abuelita.
How and when to make?
The most important thing we needed to figure out was the schedule, as timing and logistics would in many ways determine what types of cake we could make. We were lucky to have the luxury of time — a week! — before our Sunday afternoon wedding to dedicate to wedding prep. However, we couldn’t deliver the cakes to the reception locale until Sunday morning, the day of the wedding, and we didn’t want to be baking on Friday and Saturday when peripheral festivities were to underway. We also didn’t have a lot of refrigerator space (since we didn’t exactly stick to our no-cooking rule and were cooking up some treats for a Saturday evening welcome. Plus we had to share space with the other desserts.) And finally, we didn’t want to buy any additional equipment, save for some cardboard cake boxes.
We needed a plan. Could we freeze and defrost the cakes? Could we make them a few days in advance and leave them out on the counter? How would we store and deliver?
We devised a test plan modeled after the wedding week:
Monday: we shopped for ingredients.
Tuesday: we baked Chocolate A and Lemon A, let them cool completely, wrapped them tightly in many layers of cling wrap and an additional external layer of aluminum foil to keep out weird freezer-flavors, and froze them. We didn’t have cake boards, and were concerned that the cumulative weight of the cakes would result in smushed cake. We froze each layer flat in the freezer, and stacked them to save room only once they were totally rock hard frozen. If we’d been working with a smaller freezer, we would have made some cake boards out of cardboard to separate the layers.
Thursday: We baked Almond A and Apple A, let them cool completely, wrapped them in cling wrap and left them on the counter.
Friday: Friday night, we moved Chocolate A and Lemon A out of the freezer and put them in to the fridge to defrost.
Saturday morning: We baked four cakes — Chocolate B, Lemon B, Almond B and Apple B, cooling and wrapping in cling wrap and keeping them out on the counter. (“B” being, fresh, would serve as the test.)
Sunday: We had some friends over for a blind tasting!
They had some useful advice:
And some conflicting opinions:
There was virtually no discernible difference between the A — frozen — and B — “fresh” — chocolate cakes. The frozen cake came across as a bit fudgier and more intense, which all saw as a positive more than anything. And there was almost no difference between the few-days-old and the new apple and almond cakes, as both those recipes turn out an extremely moist crumb.
As for the the lemon cake, the frozen version turned out more lemony, but the crumb did not hold up well to freezing and defrosting. The “fresh” cake, which we ate at two days old, showed its age. It was fine, but not absolutely delicious. It was decided that the lemon was a cake to eat the day it’s made, so it was out.
Tips and Thoughts
Turns out, deep frozen cakes do not defrost over night in the fridge, they stay frozen! We had to re-assess our defrost plan half way through, pulling the cakes out Sunday morning and leaving them at room temperature — still wrapped — for three hours. We unwrapped them only once defrosted, and they turned out nice and dry and ready to be eaten. Crisis averted, and duly noted — for the wedding week, we’d be sure to defrost over night.
Think about counter, fridge and freezer space carefully. For the wedding week, we were going to have four cakes in the freezer, four big boxes of macarons + caramels + mandelbread in the fridge, and four cakes on the counter. Plus, we were making food for the Saturday welcome and chilling cider and prosecco for said welcome as well. It wasn’t all going to fit. We called upon the kindness of neighbors, monopolizing one fridge with booze, and another with sugar.
With the lemon vetoed, we were left to decide between the apple, chocolate and almond cakes. While folks were split on their favorites, the overruling feeling was that the apple, though delicious, was too tea-time and not sufficiently festive for the occasion for which it was being made. And so! Our wedding cake was chosen: we’d make some chocolate, and some almond.
Here’s our final dessert-making schedule for wedding week. And the final menu:
How to store and transport?
The cakes, as noted in the final plan, had a fairly specific wrapping / freezing / counter storing / defrosting plan, which was working, but we didn’t feel like we could drop off a stack of cling-wrapped cakes to the Art Club and have them deal with it. And so, Saturday night we pulled the chocolate out of the freezer to defrost on the counter. And Sunday morning, we unwrapped the defrosted chocolate and almond cakes, mounted them on cake rounds, rewrapped them in a single layer of plastic wrap, and put them each in their own cake box. The alfajores were delivered in their tins, the mandel bread and caramels in freezer bags, and the macarons in skinny cardboard boxes that held them snugly.
We borrowed a neighbor’s kitchen (and fridge), which was key:
And the large trunk of a nice friend, also key. We secured the boxes with blankets, so they wouldn’t slide around, and sent them off with storing and plating instructions, hoping for the best.
Was it worth it?
¡Si! For us, taking the time to enjoy the process and spend creative time in the kitchen with our families in advance of the wedding was a perfect way to prolong and enjoy the celebrations in a way that made sense for us. It was calming – not crazy, as everyone insisted it would be – and the joy of making something sweet to share with our friends at the end of a long and lovely night was perfect. It’s not for everyone, but was for us. Of course, we couldn’t have done it without the help of our culinarily-talented parents, who like to and are good at throwing parties, and a rock solid production schedule to anchor us in the midst of chaos.
As for the budget, we’ve gotten this question a lot. Was making our own dessert cheaper than ordering a traditional wedding cake? That depends on how you count it, and where you live, and how big a cake you need and how fancy a bakery you order it from. All told, with ingredients (including test ingredients) and paper goods for storing and delivering, for all five elements we spent around $450, using really excellent ingredients and making more than enough dessert for 130 people. But we also spent days making everything, which most would see as adding to the value.
In retrospect, when assessing amounts, we did not consider that we’re known among our friends for our dessert, meaning that even those who don’t normally eat the wedding cake would likely try at least one of the things on offer, at least to be nice. We made enough for each guest to try all four desserts and have a caramel or two – and there was nothing left over!