After this weekend's wedding show, I definitely have something to get off my chest... and it's been a long time coming. As always happens when I'm about to tackle a big subject, I have no idea where to start!
How about this? Sheet cake is tacky. There, I said it.
I know, I know.. all of the wedding magazines are recommending getting a small "real" wedding cake, and supplementing with sheet cake. A lot of people are blindly buying into it, without any real thought. Let's compare and contrast, shall we?
Wedding cake: Any wedding cake from a baker worth their salt - and any cake that's worth having as your wedding cake - is going to be at least 3-4 layers of cake and 2-3 layers of filling per slice. It's a pretty thing - check out our Flavors page for some photographs.
Sheet cake: I wish I had a picture to share, but I don't do sheet cake at all*. Sheet cake is what you order from a grocery store for a kid's birthday party - about 2" tall, and frosted on the tops and sides. That's it, that's all - no torting, no filling, no pretty layers. Just a chunk of cake with frosting on top.
Yes, of course sheet cake is cheaper.. in the same way that it would be much cheaper to serve hot dogs than actual prime rib. It's not a matter of apples to apples, in the same way that hot dogs aren't a true comparison to prime rib.
What gets more amusing is picturing the logistics surrounding the wedding mag suggestions. Let's say you order a small 3 tier round that serves 74 people. You have a reception of 150 people, and decide to supplement with ~75 servings of sheet cake. How is it that you and/or your caterers determine who gets the beautiful, fully torted wedding cake slices, and who gets a chunk of grocery store cake? Is there an "A List" and a "B List"? What if the A listers and B listers are co-mingled throughout your tables?
And most importantly.. would you do the same thing with steak and hot dogs? Because there really is that much of a difference in quality, and in visual appeal.. and people DO notice. Check out some of the stories on Etiquette Hell from some of the guests that have attended weddings that featured "sheet cake supplementation".
Another, often overlooked aspect to the whole thing is this. Wedding cakes, and wedding food culture in general, is at a crossroads. Never has there been such a glut of talented designers in the industry, or such a focus on individuality and contemporary design when it comes to cakes. In addition to producing visually stunning cakes, there is also a much higher emphasis on flavor. From actual designers (I'm excluding grocery stores and big box discounters here!), wedding cakes aren't necessarily that dry, white wedding cake that has been looked at as "tradition". They're moist, flavorful desserts.
However, perception hasn't necessarily caught up to industry advancements.
Most people would not balk at paying $5-6 for a slice of cake at any restaurant. Sure, it's a nice way to end a meal. Of course, at many chain restaurants, that's not a fresh cake - it's been shipped in frozen, no telling how long ago it was actually baked and assembled. It's been mass-prooduced, and it's definitely not custom decorated for you.
Why is it then, that when it comes to wedding cakes, $5 or 6 is enough to make a person gasp?
Now, we're talking about a gourmet, *dessert* cake - not the dry white "wedding cake" of yore. Something that was custom designed specifically for you, baked fresh for your delivery date, and had an amazing amount of personal attention and labor put into it - no assembly line. (Again, grocery and big box retailers excluded here - you get what you pay for)
I think that, as a culture, people haven't wrapped their heads around the concept of wedding cake as an actual dessert yet. In their minds - whether consciously or subconsciously - wedding cake is still just a symbol, a decoration that people "don't really eat". It's something that's not really looked at as a dessert, and as a result of that, a lot of people will order a dessert from their caterer.
I ask.. why? If you want the symbolism of a wedding cake, if you're a fan of the look that wedding cakes have evolved to.. why not serve a delicious wedding cake as *the* dessert? Hell, most catered dessert tortes or whatever are usually pretty close to the $5/serving mark.. nevermind the 18%+ "service fee" that most caterers tack on to that price!
As an example: The caterer that did my wedding sells many dessert selections at $4.25/per serving. They tack on a 19% surcharge on all food orders, which comes to $0.81 more, or a total of $5.06 (pre tax) per serving. That is for a slice of torte (a cake!), just plated and served. No ceremony, no big glorious centerpiece for your reception, just an undecorated slice of cake on a plate.
With all of the amazing talent out there, it sometimes saddens me when people don't look at the big picture. $5-6 (or even more, when you order even more labor intensive designs) from any of these food artists is a great deal.
There was a time when all you had to do to make a wedding cake was slap some (cheap,not the Swiss Meringue we make!) buttercream on a cake,pipe a border, and call it a day. This wasn't all that labor intensive. Some companies (including the grocery stores and big boxes) still do it this way.. and that's why they can offer it very cheap.
When you get to looking at a work of art, it's important to realize that cakes have gone from slapped on buttercream, to something that may take most of a day to decorate,or even several. Especially when it comes to sugar work made ahead, many modern cakes can take several days worth of decoration labor.
Now that wedding cakes have come a long way, and can now be delicious desserts as WELL as a gorgeous centerpiece.. it's important to think of them that way - as a dessert. Of course the prices are going to look outrageous if you're comparing it to what wedding cakes *were* (or are, when it comes to grocery store cakes!)
If budget is an issue, and you want a gorgeous cake for your pictures.. forgo the catered dessert, and just buy a wedding cake that tastes good!
I've never understood the mentality of buying the cheapest wedding cake available, and justifying it as "well,no one eats it anyway". If that's really how you feel, then that's one time when fake cake actually DOES make sense! Personally, I think it makes far more sense to have the wedding cake as the dessert, and pay the few dollars extra (over grocery prices) to have a gourmet dessert-style wedding cake.
*To supplement main wedding cakes in the case of really large weddings, or when it's not feasible to include all the servings in the main cake for any reason, we do "kitchen cakes". These are slabs of cake that are the same height as the main wedding cake layers, torted and filled exactly the same. No one being served the cake can tell the difference between the kitchen cake and the main cake.