Last summer, I tried on the hat of official wedding cake baker, and I baked for a gorgeous wedding with 200 guests! Today I am going to share with you the ultimate challenge of that adventure: the bridal cake.
After making this cake, I truly understand why wedding cakes are so costly.
The intricate detail, the careful timing, the insane pressure of delivering a perfect masterpiece for the most well photographed day of anyone’s life…
The lovely bride envisioned some very fancy decorations on her cake, with a swirly, lacy look and pearls and pretty much everything that a fairy tale cake would have, minus the ability to actually glow. (The bride would glow enough on her own!)
I was initially so worried about frosting a bridal cake with a brown frosting (can you make a cake look “bridal” when the natural color of the frosting is so dark? and not at all conducive to being dyed a pretty color?), but in the dark, romantic light of the country club where the reception was held, this cake stood tall and lovely, surrounded by pink flowers and twinkle lights, and it was a vision.
You can’t photograph flavor, but I can promise you that this wedding cake, with its dark chocolate crumb and rich espresso buttercream, was utterly delicious.
Although the groom’s cake was quite tasty, this intense mocha-flavored cake was what the newlyweds wanted for their anniversary cake, which I made fresh for them just before their anniversary.
I was quite glad they requested a small tier of the bride’s cake for their anniversary, because the cake and frosting recipes are so simple! (What made the bridal cake a stressful event was definitely all the piping, the need for visual perfection. You know my philosophy has always been flavor over form!)
This recipe makes enough for one average 9″ layer cake. Or, you can go completely wild and make three batches and turn it into a towering, tiered wedding cake! The beauty of chocolate cake, and this chocolate cake especially, is that it is typically so moist that it will still be amazing several days after you bake it!
The chocolate cake recipe is foolproof. When I was deciding what recipe I wanted to make, I literally Googled “perfect chocolate cake,” and discovered a recipe that thrilled and delighted me. (I have, of course, made many chocolate cakes in my adult life, but you may notice that I don’t often blog about chocolate cake. This is because, until now—with the exception of special needs cakes, such as GF chocolate cake, chocolate cake made with prunes or beets, or beer-infused chocolate cake—most of the chocolate cakes I’ve baked in the past haven’t been exceptional enough to write about on Smells Like Brownies. Until now!)
I found this cake recipe at Add a Pinch, and I followed it to a T. I made about a hundred (allow me a license for hyperbole here) batches of this cake, so I think I’m fairly expert. I could probably bake it in my sleep. And every single cake turned out exactly the same, and basically the best. Ever.
Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease and flour (or cocoa powder!) your cake pans. Don’t skip the flour! If you grease the pan but don’t add a powder coat to the edges, then the cake has a harder time rising and climbing against the slippery surface of the pan. Don’t forget to line the pans with parchment circles.
When that’s done, add 1 cup water to a tea kettle and set it on the stove. Don’t turn it on yet, because we don’t want it to lose a lot of volume through steam while you work on the rest of the batter.
In a large mixer bowl, whisk together all the dry ingredients: flour, sugar, cocoa powder, espresso powder (because coffee makes chocolate richer!), salt, and baking soda.
Now turn on the stove and set the water to boiling.
Meanwhile, add all the remaining liquidy ingredients all at once, the eggs, milk, oil and vanilla. I love when cake batters are simple, not requiring a ton of separate additions and extra dishes: there is really nothing so simple as an oil-based cake recipe!
Beat the liquid into the dry ingredients until thick and even. By this time, the water in the kettle should be starting to steam.
With the mixer on medium-low speed, carefully pour the boiling water into the cake batter. Scrape the sides of the bowl and beat until well combined, about 1 minute. The batter will be very thin after you add the boiling water, but don’t worry! It’s supposed to be.
Pour the batter into the prepared pans. If you are making a 10″ round cake, you can pour the entire recipe into the pan; if you are making 6″ and 8″ cakes, divide the batter between the two pans about 40:60, and test the depth with two toothpicks to make sure they are equal.
In order to make the bridal cake, I made three batches of this cake recipe, which I baked as one 10″ rounds and two each 6″ and 8″ rounds. For the assembled bridal cake, each of the bridal cake tiers was a different height, increasing in height as the cake got taller/narrower, which required different amounts of cake!
I also made four more batches of this cake, which I turned into two very tall sheet cakes, to be cut in the kitchen when the bridal cake was exhausted. Hey, 200 guests is a lot, and there is a lot less pressure in extra sheet cakes than in extra, very wide tiers added to the bottom of a bridal cake!
Bake the cakes until set in the center. It should spring back if lightly pressed in the center, and barely pulls away from the edges of the pan.
Chocolate cake keeps marvelously, particularly this one. It is so moist and rich, there is essentially no way it will dry out prior to frosting if you wrap the cakes and let them sit on the counter. This was important for me, since I had the huge task of making several cakes at once over the course of several days. I was grateful to this cake for being low-maintenance and delicious.
To wrap the cakes for a future date with frosting, simply grab some thick plastic wrap (I used Press’n Seal because I needed the confidence of an air-tight seal without the mayhem of stretching and restretching to make sure I had gotten the cling right) and completely wrap each layer. Don’t forget to remove the parchment from the bottom of the cake as you wrap the cakes! After you wrap these bad boys (er…lovely ladies?), you could freeze the cake layers if you have a week or more til time to serve the cake. Caution: Do not leave the wrapped but unfrosted cakes on the counter more than two or three days, as they will eventually start to mold inside the plastic.
The espresso frosting that went on this cake was also low-maintenance and amazing. I used a whole jar of espresso powder across all of the cake and frosting I made. I love Ferrara brand, which I can typically find near me in Giant stores and even Walmart!
I made about three pounds of frosting per batch, three batches total, in order to frost this cake and its accompanying sheet cakes! (In case you are counting, that’s NINE pounds of buttercream. Whoah.)
American style buttercreams are so simple: just beat butter with a mountain of sifted confectioner’s sugar (yes, must be sifted, or there will be lumps!) and a little milk and your desired flavoring, and you are good to go! For a deeply espresso flavored frosting to complement the chocolate cake, I dissolved a large amount of espresso powder in an equal amount of whole milk to make an incredibly dark, creamy espresso which I then mixed into the butter and sugar. Yum.
When you make buttercream for a wedding cake, the most important thing you can do (aside from taste test and make sure the flavor is amahzing) is beat it and beat it and beat it and beat it. Seriously. Just beat it. You want it to become incredibly smooth and creamy and light so that when you spread it, you won’t have to work super hard to achieve a smooth look on the frosted cake.
The first batch of frosting will go entirely to filling and crumb coating the tiers of the bridal cake, so there is no need to separate frosting that you need to keep “clean” or crumb free.
Time to unwrap those chocolate cakes!
For this bridal cake, as I mentioned in my post about the planning stage, each tier was a different height. The bottom, 10″ tier was the shortest, and I just used one cake round, leveled and sliced in half for filling. The middle, 8″ tier was made of one and a half cake rounds (yes, you read that correctly). After I leveled and halved one cake, I sliced the bottom off the second cake and then…I had a short, little round of extra cake! You better believe my family devoured that. The top, 6″ tier was the tallest, and it took two whole cake rounds, which I leveled but did not slice in half. This meant that the top tier looked like a two-layer cake, just the same as the bottom tier, but the layers were twice as tall.
I recommend working this one tier at a time, working from largest to smallest (because the largest layer is the hardest to frost smoothly, as there is so much of it! When you work in this order, you will feel like the job is getting easier as you go, rather than harder).
So. Level and slice the largest cake round in half. Make a little swirl of frosting on the shiny side of a 10″ cardboard cake circle and carefully lay the first piece of cake down on the frosting. This first swirl of frosting is structurally necessary, because it glues the cake to the cake board, and as we will see when I post about transporting the cake, the cake board really helps the stacked tiers to stay in place. Do not forget that little swirl of frosting!
For decorating purposes, you will also need to place the 10″ cake board on a larger cake board, 12″ or 14″. This larger board will not be part of the stacked cake, but it will provide a sturdy base to work on as you frost, and it will prevent you sticking your fingers in the frosting when you move the cake around. Use just a few dots of frosting to encourage the two cake boards to stay in place, but don’t glue them together too hard because you will need to separate them when you stack the cake tiers!
Generously fill the cake. Many bakers like to pipe their filling into the cake, working with a wide, round top and spiraling the frosting on to ensure an even thickness. I do that occasionally, but I also like just spreading the frosting and eyeballing the thickness to make sure I spread an even amount all around. Either way, aim for your filling to be about ¼″ thick all the way around.
Carefully lay the second piece of cake on top of the filling. Give your decorating stand a spin while you watch at eye level so you can see whether you stacked on center. Adjust if necessary, but never try to pick the cake layer back up, because it will surely break, and that would be sad.
Apply a thin crumb coat of frosting. Chill the cake in the freezer at least 10 minutes, and up to 45 minutes, to allow the crumb coat to become firm without actually freezing the cake. A firm crumb coat means that when you frost the cake with the outer layer of frosting, the layer that is supposed to be gorgeous and smooth, none of the little crumbs from the cake can escape and ruin the look. If you skip the chilling, then the crumb coat won’t provide much assistance in gluing the crumbs to the surface of the cake itself.
Fill and crumb coat the 8″ and 6″ tiers, and chill them while you quickly…erm…clean your counters….and then beat together a second batch of frosting.
Frost the cakes. Use the right tools (large straight frosting spatula, large angled frosting spatula, metal icing smoother/scraper), work methodically, and make sure the top is level when you are done, or the cake will end up being tilted.
I find that when I am smoothing the sides of the cake, there is usually a little back-and-forth where I spread a little more frosting in certain places and then smooth it (which removes frosting in the process) several times before I get the edges right. Be finicky, but don’t drive yourself crazy. You can even see in the photos of the finished cake that there are actually a few spots where the side frosting has a little more character and a little less pristine perfection, but the end effect after all the piped designs, was beautiful! My other word of caution is to be careful in the smoothing process not to scrape off too much of the side frosting and make it too thin.
You can always start again with frosting if you find the outer layer is not cooperating!
When all of the cakes are frosted, box them in cake boxes or place them in airtight cake keepers, separate, in the refrigerator, a minimum of one hour, but ideally overnight.
If you have any extra frosting, save it in an airtight container on the counter for the sheet cakes (or, if you aren’t bonkers and making nearly 300 servings of cake, for that liiiitle extra bit of cake you didn’t use in the middle tier).
Now. We must make a batch of white frosting for piping. Piping takes less frosting than you think it will. I made a half batch of the same frosting recipe, except that I skipped the espresso powder. I also used just a splash of clear, imitation vanilla instead of traditional vanilla, because I wanted the piping to be as bright and white as possible.
Before you pipe any designs onto a fancy cake, I highly recommend you make a plan. I drew the cake design on paper, then tested it on a whole separate cake before I did this bridal cake. I definitely used a ruler and the tip of a skewer to mark where the designs were supposed to go, so that I could end up with an even look. But even with all of that, every cake has a back side!
(Although, in the case of this wedding, the cake was fully viewable from every angle, so I tried very hard to make the “back” less obvious.)
Use a small, round tip to pipe the designs. I used a Wilton #3, which is small enough to make neat little dots and swirls, but not so small that the frosting is hard to squeeze out.
After I piped all of the little dots and swirls, I waited 20 minutes for the frosting to crust and then I gently patted all of the little tips in so that the design would have a rounded, rather than pointy, look. If ever I found that the piped frosting still seemed sticky, I just waited a few minutes and then tried again.
For the top tier, I actually used a fondant imprint mat to create the diamonds. The bride really loved the look of fondant cakes, and she was particularly attached to the diamond and pearl pattern of one cake she found on Pinterest. I told her I would try to make something like it with buttercream, originally having no idea whether I could make that happen. But a very lovely baker told me that if my frosting was a crusting frosting (you know, the kind that forms a sugary shell as it is exposed to the air, because of its super high sugar content), then I would probably be able to use a fondant imprint without making too much of a mess!
In the intersections of every line, I carefully placed a little sugar pearl. This probably would have been better with a proper tool, such as tweezers, but I honestly felt more confident using my hands, so I did that. I was so glad that this was a buttercream cake during this step, because the buttercream acted as glue to hold the pearls in place! If this cake had been fondant-coated, I would have had to do an extra step to actually attach all of the pearls so they would stay on the cake. More reasons buttercream is better!
A few of the sugar pearls also made their way onto the bottom tier design, to help tie the whole cake together. In the swirls of the design for the bottom tier, I incorporated the letter S to honor the new couple and the name they now share!
The middle and top layers of this cake were wrapped with ribbons. The middle tier was wrapped in a lace border and the top tier with a very, very long strip of thin satin. I used the white frosting to pipe a little dot and hold it in place.
Then, before chilling the layers, I added structural doweling to the bottom two layers, so that I would be ready to stack them on top of each other when they were cold.
Some bakers recommend cutting the food-safe wooden dowels before ever getting near the cake, pressing them only halfway into the cake, and then placing the upper tier on top of the raised dowels. The weight of the upper tier is supposed to press the dowels all the way down, and you can be sure to avoid making finger dents in the cake this way. However, I don’t really like this method, because it depends on the upper layer to be heavy enough to smush the dowels down. I have tried this before, with cakes I thought were quite heavy…but, as it turned out, perhaps not heavy enough to force the dowels down through a chilled cake. In that case, I had to carefully pick the top tier of cake back up (which I hate, because every time I hold it, there is potential for dropping it) and press all the dowels down, and then reposition the upper tier.
After that experience, I always do the doweling ahead of time. I would rather smooth over a small dent than drop a cake tier.
When you are doing the structural doweling, it’s also a good idea to go ahead and add an extra swirl of frosting on the top of the lower tiers. This swirl of frosting is what will stick to the cake board of the upper tiers. Remember, frosting is like glue, and the cake boards of upper tiers will become glued to the frosting underneath them. If you have a swirl of frosting between the nice, pretty tiers, all of the lower tiers will not lose their frosting while the cake is being disassembleed to serve!
I recommend chilling the designed cakes for 1 hour before stacking the tiers. The colder the frosting, the more resilient it is. Then if you accidentally touch it while you are stacking, chances are much higher that the frosting will stay in place where you want it.
Stack the cakes atop a very thick, foil-wrapped cake board for serving. Try not to hyperventilate. It’s only a cake, it’s only a cake, it’s only a cake. If your tiers have “back” sides (e.g., where ribbons meet, or where a swirling pattern is a slightly different size as it joined back to the beginning), make sure to line them all up.
Add a structural dowel through the center of the cake, to ensure all of the layers stay exactly where they are, and smooth the top frosting. Pipe white frosting pearls around the bottom of each tier to hide the seams and pull the whole look together.
Ta-daaaa! Wedding cake, done!
But next comes, perhaps, the scariest part of all: transport.
You know I love chilling cakes, so I definitely recommend you chill the stacked wedding cake for at least an hour before transport. I will share more about transport next time, as well as a few notes about floral accents for fancy cakes.
This wedding cake turned out so very well! I think the happy couple was pleased with it, and complete strangers approached me at the wedding to say how delicious the cake was.
Not to mention, it looked pretty spectacular all decked with flowers and standing tall on a table lined with tulle and twinkle lights.
Happy (belated) anniversary to a super cute couple! May God continue to lead you closer together and closer to Him!
Best Ever Chocolate Cake with Rich Espresso Frosting
cake from Add a Pinch
frosting recipe by Melissa of Smells Like Brownies
use 3 batches of cake and 2 batches of frosting to make a 3-tier bridal cake
one single recipe will make and generously frost a 9″ 2-layer cake
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
¾ cup cocoa powder
2 tsp. baking powder
1½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. espresso powder (Ferrara)
1 cup whole milk
½ cup canola oil
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water
Preheat oven to 350°. Grease and dust with cocoa powder either a 10″ round cake pan, or an 8″ and a 6″ round cake pan. Line the bottom of the cake pan(s) with parchment paper. (You will need to make three batches of cake for the 3-tiered bridal cake.)
Combine flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and espresso powder in a mixer bowl. Whisk thoroughly to combine, using the color to judge whether the ingredients are evenly mixed.
Add milk, vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla to flour mixture and mix together on medium speed until well combined. Scrape the sides of the bowl to ensure the dry ingredients are completely mixed in
With the mixer on low speed, carefully pour the boiling water into the cake batter. Continue mixing until well combined, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. The batter will be quite thin.
Pour the cake batter into the prepared pan(s). If making the 8″ and 6″ round layers, aim for about a 60:40 split of batter and test the depth of each with a toothpick to ensure they are equal. The cakes will rise above the brim of a 2″ deep cake pan while baking.
Bake until the cakes are set in the center and can pass a toothpick test; there should be no crumbs at all on the toothpick. For a 6″ cake, bake 38 minutes; for an 8″ cake, 43 minutes; for a 10″ cake, 48 minutes. Start testing for doneness about 5 minutes before each cake is due to come out. (If making a 9″ 2-layer cake, the cakes will be done after 30–35 minutes, as the layers will not be so tall.)
Remove from the oven and allow to cool 10 minutes in the pan. Carefully turn out onto a cooling rack and cool completely.
If not frosting the cakes immediately, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and allow to sit on the counter up to 2 days.
1 lb./2 cups unsalted butter, room temperature
¼ tsp. salt
2 lbs. confectioner’s sugar, sifted
5 tbsp. whole milk
5 heaping tbsp. espresso powder (Ferrara)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Beat the butter and salt in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment until light and fluffy.
Add about 1–1½ cups sifted confectioner’s sugar to the bowl and beat to combine.
In a glass measuring cup or small bowl, stir the milk and espresso powder together. Add the vanilla.
Alternate adding sifted confectioner’s sugar and about 1 tbsp. espresso mixture to the frosting, beating well and scraping the sides of the bowl after blending in each addition.
When all of the ingredients are mixed in, beat the frosting another 3–5 minutes on high speed, until especially creamy and soft.
You will need two full batches of frosting for a 3-tiered bridal cake.
Cake Assembly Directions:
Level the cooled cake layers. Slice the 10″ and 8″ rounds in half. Use a dab of frosting to stick one cake round of each size to an appropriately sized cardboard cake circle.
Fill and crumb coat the cakes. Chill the crumb coated cakes in the freezer, at least 10 minutes and up to 45 minutes, before applying the outer layer of frosting. (If you think it will take longer than 45 minutes before you are ready to frost the cakes completely, then chill in the refrigerator after crumb coating rather than the freezer.)
Make a second batch of frosting and apply liberally but evenly to the top and sides of the cake tiers, using large icing spatulas and an icing smoother to get the frosting as smooth and even as possible. Make sure the top of each cake tier is completely flat and even, so that the cake will not tilt when assembled.
Chill the cake tiers at least 1 hour before decorating. Decorate the cakes with contrasting frosting, if desired (using half of the recipe above, but omitting the espresso), and wrap the base of the tiers with ribbons, if using.
For more detailed doweling instructions, see this post. As an overview or reminder if you are already familiar with the stacking process: Add six structural dowels to the 10″ and 8″ tiers, to help support the weight of the tiers above them. Pipe an extra swirl of frosting on top of the lower tiers.
Chill the cake tiers separately at least 1 hour before stacking. Make sure to stack the tiers directly on a heavy-duty serving board so that it can be lifted later.
Stack the tiers, using a large, angled spatula under the cake board on one side, and your fingers on the other. Pay attention to where the “backs” of each tier are, and line them up with each other. Carefully set the upper cake tier down, centering it on the lower tier, and pulling your fingers and spatula away one at a time (in whichever order you are most comfortable; I typcally do fingers second, even though there is a greater risk of a finger dent, because it feels most natural to me).
Touch up any frosting that got dinged while stacking, and carefully bore a sharpened dowel through the center of the cake, through all three tiers. Repair the frosting on the top tier of cake, where the hole from the center dowel is. Pipe small frosting pearls around the base of each tier to hide the seams.
Chill the assembled cake at least 1 hour before transporting.
I will give you all my best tips for how to take your fancy wedding cake (or any tiered cake, for that matter!) to the venue, as well as a few notes about working with a florist in the event that the bride wants a floral cake topper.