wedding cake

wedding cake

This is the post where I reveal to you guys what a weirdo I am, because I baked this three-tier wedding cake not for a wedding, or an engagement party, or an anniversary, but just for no particular occasion whatsoever. Whenever a friend gets engaged, I always think about offering to bake their wedding cake, but it’s not the kind of thing I feel comfortable just volunteering for without ever having done it. I mean, I’ve baked a lot of layer cakes, but never one that requires tiers and dowels and an entirely empty refrigerator. While there are a couple things I wish I had done differently, I’m pretty proud of my first try, which isn’t half bad.

Most importantly, the cake tasted amazing, which is not a given when it comes to wedding cakes. In fact, when we got married seven years ago, Simon and I gave up on finding a cake, and opted for wedding pies instead. Since then, I’ve come across a couple delicious wedding cakes, but they are few and far between.

This one is a cardamom gingerbread layer cake with rosewater buttercream, and I’m going to post a simple everyday recipe for this in a couple days (with a rosewater cream cheese glaze), so keep an eye out. There’ll be no special equipment or decorating skills required, and honestly I think it’s even prettier than this more ornate version.

wedding cake

I’ve been holding onto these photos for a while now, because I wanted to do something more useful than just post them—I thought about putting together a complete guide to baking a wedding cake, but there are so many good resources already out there (although if there’s interest, maybe next time!).

But after reading all the articles and watching all the youtube tutorials, I’ve got a few of my own tips I’d like to contribute. If you’re going to bake a wedding cake, definitely watch some soup-to-nuts videos to really understand the process, but here are some of my own thoughts to supplement:

wedding cake
wedding cake

1) cut a single tier’s dowels so that they’re all the exact same length

What are dowels, and why we use them:
When building a tall cake, you have to use dowels to give the multiple tiers structural integrity. This was especially important for this cake, which has an incredibly delicate crumb and would have fallen apart under its own weight. You can kind of see 3 little green ones (Starbucks straws, hehe) poking out of the top of the middle cake layer in the mid-process photo above.

The dowel strategy that didn’t work for me:
Dowels need to be cut to size, so that they are flush with the top of the tier, but the strategy in many of the tutorials I watched didn’t work super well for me. They suggested inserting the dowels, and then cutting the excess off right where they meet the top of the frosting. But if your layers are not perfectly 100% level (like, construction worker level), this will lead to a cake with off-kilter layers, which looks terrible, and isn’t structurally sound.

The dowel strategy that worked for me:
Insert 1 dowel into the center of the cake. Use your scissors to mark it with just a little snip on its side where you intend to cut it. Pull the dowel out. Take a few more dowels, and hold them together with the marked one. Tap the bottoms against a level surface to make sure they’re even. Cut across all of them at the same time, and tap on the counter again to make sure they’re all the exact same length. If they’re not, clip a little more off until they are, or start again more carefully. Insert the dowels into the cake, and stack on the next layer. If your cakes are pretty much level, there might be a 1-2mm gap on one side, but you can fill that in with decoration once you put the cake together. It’s better to have a teeny gap than to have a crooked second tier.

This strategy doesn’t work for a really crisp minimalist cake that won’t have any piping in the corners between the layers. Those cakes just need to be straight-up perfectly level. Sometimes the problem is that your frosting tops aren’t level, even though your cakes are. In that case, you can add more frosting once the dowels go in (but this only works if you insert them after the crumb coat, and before you frost them). Every cake is different, and this strategy won’t work perfectly for every decorating plan, but the goal should always be the same: dowels on a single tier must all be the same height.

wedding cake
wedding cake

2) Invest in a good turntable

I made this cake at my parents’ house, and bought an inexpensive little $10 turntable to leave there, thinking that it wouldn’t make much of a difference, but it kept seizing up in the middle of a rotation, and the jerky motion made it way harder to pipe the ruffled collars onto the sides. I hate buying expensive equipment for no reason, but sometimes it’s worth it, as in this case. So if you spend more money on one cake decorating item, make it a good quality turntable.

3) how to bake a multi-tear cake with just a few pans

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have room for more than a few cake pans. To bake this cake, I only had 1 6-inch round, 1 8-inch round and 1 10-inch round, but each of the 3 tiers is made up of 3 layers. In order to do this, I baked the cakes in batches and did some quick math to make sure I would be able to bake 1 of each at a time, and that the cake layers would all be the right height (if you think doing the math will take you longer than 10 minutes, you can just wing it, but it saves a lot of time if you happen to be a math person). Here’s the math for the recipe I had with the equipment I had:

Each batch yields 2 8-inch rounds, which is 100 square inches of cake per batch (a=πr^2)
A 10-inch round yields 79 square inches of cake.
An 8-inch round yields 50 square inches of cake.
A 6-inch round yields 28 square inches of cake.

So I needed to bake the following batches, to yield 1 6-inch, 1 8-inch, and 1 10-inch in each batch:
1) a double batch (reserve 20% of the batter for batch #3)
2) a double batch (reserve 20% of the batter for batch #3)
3) a single batch + leftover batter from the first 2 batches (this batch will be 7% taller, which is no big deal)

wedding cake
wedding cake

4) careful with the food coloring

Add food coloring to frosting a little at a time, and remember that it will become a little more vibrant as it rests (I don’t know why this is the case—but I’ve always noticed it, and I googled it and found that others have noticed the same thing, so I guess it’s probably true). Sometimes less is more, and if you’re going for a pastel look, start with just a drop at a time.

5) pipe a billion roses and then choose your favorites

Molly Yeh’s rose rose cake inspired me to play around with different rose piping styles (and inspired me to snap the above photo of my practice batch). Watching lots of tutorials is important to get the general idea, but it’s fun to try winging it on a few, to come up with your own rose piping style. I think my signature rose style is a little cabbage-like, but I’m okay with that.

wedding cake

cardamom churros & orange blossom chocolate

cardamom churros with orange blossom chocolate

The next six blog posts I have lined up are all desserts. I don’t know if that makes me the worst or best planner ever, but I guess you’re welcome/I’m sorry? If you’re already looking for a break from the holiday madness, feel free to check out my dinner archives, but if you’re excited for more holiday sweets, I’ve got these cardamom churros with orange blossom chocolate sauce to kick things off.

While I’ll always love classic cinnamon churros with hot chocolate, cardamom and orange blossom water lend a flavor profile that reminds me of really good baklawa. The orange blossom chocolate sauce is sure to please both orange-chocolate fans and skeptics, with its subtly floral, less punchy flavor. In fact, I sometimes think orange blossom tastes more like ripe banana than orange peel—but either way, it goes great with chocolate and cardamom. This recipe is perfect for all your holiday celebrations, but I think I’m going to make these again in a couple weeks for Simon, whose family always celebrates Hanukah with fried food in all its forms.

cardamom churros with orange blossom chocolate
cardamom churros with orange blossom chocolate

piping churros directly into hot oil

I did a lot of churro research and tried several recipes before coming up with this one, and I found that there are many different ways to make this wonderful Latin American and Spanish pastry. While all churros are made with some variety of choux pastry (recipes vary dramatically), I found that most fall into two categories:

  1. Pastry with more eggs, which needs to be piped directly into hot oil

  2. Pastry with fewer eggs and more butter, which can be piped onto a parchment-lined sheet pan and refrigerated until firm

I personally prefer the first kind, because they get that eggy/very slightly custardy hollow center, and crisp edges, and they have a curvy, wild aesthetic, which I prefer over the perfectly straight lines that you get from chilling them first (and you’ll see that my recipe uses quite a few eggs to get a more pâte à choux-like texture). I think people usually assume that the directly-piped kind are more challenging than forming them on a sheet pan first, but I found the opposite to be true, at least for me. Here’s why:

Since you’ve got to have stiffer choux pastry to pre-pipe it, the dough will sometimes begin to set in the piping bag as it cools, which makes it really hard to pipe out if you don’t work quickly enough. But a piping bag full of eggier pastry (like this recipe) will never solidify, and can even be kept in a pastry bag in the refrigerator overnight without setting. When it comes to making churros ahead of time, I’d rather have a pastry bag in my tiny fridge than a big sheet pan taking up an entire shelf (but it’s a matter of preference, and I’ve linked to a great recipe in the notes below mine, in case you’d prefer the second kind of pastry).

It takes a little coordination to pipe churros directly into hot oil, but as long as you’re safe and careful, it’s a lot easier than it seems. Make sure to use a heavy dutch oven, which should have plenty of room above the oil so it doesn’t bubble over, and be sure to place it on the back burner. Also make sure there are no little kids or pets around when you fry. As long as you get a really good grip on the pastry bag (twist and tightly pinch the empty part of the bag in the U between your thumb and index finger, and cradle the big part of the bag in the palm of your hand), and pipe them from right above the surface of the oil, everything should go great.

a quick roundup

Before I get to my recipe, I wanted to include a roundup of a few related recipes I love. Some are varieties of churros, and some are classic Latin American dishes with Middle Eastern influences.

Esteban Castillo’s Vegan Churros
Abeer Najjar’s Rose Cardamom Tres Leches
Serious Eats’ Tacos Árabes
my Jerusalem salad pico de gallo
my mujadara-style tacos

cardamom churros with orange blossom chocolate
cardamom churros with orange blossom chocolate sauce

cardamom churros & orange blossom chocolate

yield: about 30 to 35 churros
active time: 45 minutes
total time: 1 hour
make ahead: the pastry can be made ahead and refrigerated in the unopened pastry bag overnight
download a PDF to print

orange blossom chocolate sauce

  • 3/4 cup whole milk (174 grams)

  • 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon orange blossom water (19 grams)

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (or less to taste) (3.5 grams)

  • 250 grams / 8 ounces dark chocolate

  1. Bring the milk to a simmer over medium-high heat. As soon as it starts to simmer, remove from heat, add the orange blossom water, salt, and chocolate, and immediately cover it. Let it sit for about 2 minutes, then whisk everything together until it forms a smooth chocolate sauce.

  2. Pour it into a serving bowl, and then right before serving, microwave it just until it warms up and thins out (it won't take long to reheat—just 15 to 45 seconds).

spiced sugar

  • 3/4 cup sugar (180 grams)

  • a big pinch salt (or to taste)

  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon (4.5 grams)

  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom (1.5 grams)

  1. Mix everything together and set aside (you'll need to have this ready as soon as the churros are fried).

making the churro pastry, and setting up your fry station

  • 1 cup whole milk (232 grams)

  • 1 cup water (227 grams)

  • 4 tablespoons butter (57 grams)

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar (21 grams)

  • 3/4 teaspoon salt (5 grams)

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (5 grams)

  • 2 cups all purpose flour (exactly 319 grams)

  • 8 eggs (395 grams)

  • 2 quarts/2 liters of oil for frying (I used canola, but you can use anything with a high smoke point)

  • special equipment: a piping bag, a large closed-star tip, a deep-fry/candy thermometer (or an instant-read thermometer will work in a pinch), scissors

  1. Combine the milk, water, butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla in a medium sauce pot. Set over high heat and bring to a simmer. Once it's simmering, turn off the heat, add the flour, and stir until it comes together into a dough. Keep stirring vigorously until the ball becomes smooth and pulls away from the sides of the pot.

  2. Move the dough to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or use a wooden spoon, then hand mixer). Mix on low speed for about 1 minute, until the dough ball smooths out. Add 1 egg to the bowl and turn the speed to low. Once the dough doesn't have loose pieces flying around, increase the speed to medium and mix until everything is totally combined. Continue in this way, adding 1 egg at a time, until all eggs are incorporated and the mixture is totally smooth. The final dough should slowly fall off the beaters in a V shape.

  3. Set up a safe fry station on the stove or in a dedicated deep fryer. Turn the heat to medium so that the oil slowly rises to 350° F (177° C) and keep an eye on it while you work. To keep your fry station safe, find a heavy dutch oven, make sure you have several inches of space above the oil line so that it doesn't bubble over, and keep the pot toward the back of the stove.

  4. While you're waiting on the oil to heat, fit a piping bag with a large star tip (but do not yet snip the end of the bag), and fold the top of the bag outward so that you can easily fill the part closest to the tip. Fill the bag with a few spoon-fulls of the pastry (try not to leave any gaps). Slightly uncuff the sides of the bag to leave a few more inches of space, and then fill it with a few more spoon-fulls. Continue in this way until the bag is full, leaving about 3 inches of empty space at the top. Uncuff the bag, twist the end shut several times, until there's a good amount of pressure. To set it down, keep it twisted shut, and place the top under the weight of the full bag. The bag can be stored like this in the refrigerator overnight, before snipping. It does not need to come to room temperature to pipe.

Frying the churros

  1. Get your spiced sugar ready (above), and line a medium bowl with a few layers of paper towels.

  2. Once the oil is 350° F (177° C), push the star tip back a tiny bit, and snip the end of the piping bag so the tip can pop out. Twist and tightly pinch the empty part of the bag in the U between your thumb and index finger, and cradle the big part of the bag in the palm of your hand (like this). Hold it in one hand and make sure you have a really good grip on it (do not let it fall into the oil!), and hold scissors in your other hand.*

  3. With the tip of the bag at a 45 degree angle about a half inch above the oil, pipe about 4 to 7 inches of pastry directly into the oil, and snip it off with the scissors, and then pipe one more, snipping it again. Twist the bag once or twice to create more pressure and immediately pipe out two more churros into the oil. Twist the bag, and pipe one or two more, depending on how much space there is. Do not let them plop into the oil from far above—just inject them into the surface of the oil.

  4. Let them cook for about 2 minutes on the first side, and then carefully flip them once they're golden brown. Cook the other side for about 2 more minutes, and remove them with tongs once they're done (about 4 to 5 minutes total).** To make sure they don't get greasy, lay them almost vertically against the sides of the paper-towel-lined bowl, so their oil runs down their sides instead of pooling in the grooves.

  5. Let the first batch of churros drain while you pipe the next batch. As soon as the next batch is frying, toss the drained batch in the cinnamon sugar to coat, and set them on a plate or sheet pan in a single layer. Don't let them drain and cool longer than a couple minutes, or the sugar will have trouble sticking to the churros. Repeat with the remaining pastry, until all the churros are fried and coated. Serve immediately.

* If you don't think you are coordinated enough to do this (safety first!!), try this recipe from Cook's Country, which uses fewer eggs for a thicker choux pastry, which means you can pipe the pastry onto a sheet pan while it is still warm and maleable, and then chill it until it's firm. The choux pastry in this recipe (like most) will not firm up enough to handle it if you refrigerate it. But the up-side is that you can refrigerate the pastry in this recipe overnight in a piping bag, and pipe directly from the refrigerator.
** Monitor the heat to make sure it stays around 350° F (never going below 340 or above 370). If you need to pause to refill the bag, make sure you turn off the heat on the oil so it doesn't overheat (it'll still be hot by the time you're ready).

cardamom churros with orange blossom chocolate sauce