Takes the Cake (January, 2006)

Breaking bread together has been a married couple’s first act together since Roman times – an act that has evolved into today’s boisterous cake-cutting ceremonies. But the symbolic weight of the cake has long surpassed its role as food, and that symbolism does not come cheap.

More than 2 million couples marry each year in the United States and a big cake is still the focal showpiece at most wedding receptions. According to the Association for Wedding Professionals International, Americans spent more than $2 billion on wedding cakes last year alone.

But what are the chances that you’ll eat any? “Slim,” says Sam Godfrey, chef and owner of Perfect Endings, a baker that makes more than 100 cakes each summer. “I can’t tell you how many people don’t even taste the cake,” he said. “It just breaks my heart.”

According to Stephi Stewart, owner of, a web site that provides tips for saving money on weddings, caterers often instruct couples that they can safely order enough wedding cake for only half of their guests. “Most guests don’t eat the cake,” she advises.

Ron-Ben Israel, a New York wedding cake baker, agrees. “People assume that the cake is dry, the frosting tasteless and the decorations inedible.”

And, if you’ve ever pushed a piece of such cake around, you’d probably agree. According to the International Cake Exploration Society, the largest global organization dedicated to the art and business of cake decoration, the cost of the wedding cake has almost doubled in the last ten years to a national average of $4 per slice. So if it’s so expensive, why can it taste so bad?

Traditionally, wedding cakes are made using methods that stress engineering over flavor. Here is the classic blueprint. As much as a week before the wedding, the individual tiers are baked and cut into layers. Since the cake must cool completely at every stage, work begins well in advance. Each layer is brushed with liqueur or syrup (in an attempt to keep the cake moist), and then a creamy filling is slathered on. The layers are stacked into tiers, the tiers are assembled into a single cake, and then the entire cake is iced and decorated. Just making the icing for a five-tier cake can take six to eight hours.

At Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, NY, where the cakes have been rated by the Zagat guides’ voters as being second only to those of the star patissier Francois Payard, flavor is an obsession. Julius Walls, the company’s chief executive, is also the bakery’s self-designated palate and never stops tasting. “Our stuff has to taste even better to remind people that we do serious baking here,” said Walls. “Nobody buys our cakes just out of charity.

To help in this new world of cake design, Ben-Israel has built a multi-million wedding cake studio, complete with special low-moisture refrigeration units to protect his celebrated masterpieces. A high-priced craftsman who knows that beautiful cakes are useless if they are not delicious, he reaffirms, “There’s no reason why wedding cakes can’t taste good if you know what you’re doing.” gratefully acknowledges Julia Moskin for this article.