Note from the author: A bakery on a tiny island closes and all of a sudden I have six weeks to pick professional brains, do a test run or two, pack up my kitchen, fly to St. Croix, and make a 3-tiered wedding cake for my oldest girlfriend. Here's Part One of how it all happened.
First thing on a frigid Thursday morning, I'm at Ron Ben-Israel's light-filled, sweet smelling cake shop in SoHo. It's nine a.m. and I'm barely awake, but around me the nimble fingers of half a dozen coat-clad pastry chefs are shaping sugar flowers, rolling out fondant, and meticulously decorating tiered, towering celebration cakes. I'd written about Ron before, and been amazed at the breadth of his skill and creativity, but at no time had I planned to come back for lessons on making a wedding cake—especially one I was to make in six weeks time.
I'd recently received a stream of texts from Rose, a friend in Northern California whose wedding I was attending on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands in April. The island bakery she'd ordered her cake from had closed, and she was pretty desperate. She asked me if I could make a cake for her, baking it out of her aunt's kitchen and assembling it in my hotel cottage. I've been a private cook and a pastry caterer and have had a baking blog for years, so her request wasn't completely out of left field, but I'd never tackled a tiered cake for a wedding. I immediately panicked—there were numerous question marks I had no idea how to begin to tackle, and I'd heard enough horror stories from professional chefs about on-event baking gone awry.
But Rose is my oldest girlfriend, and anyone who's been in a bridal party knows there are some things you just don't refuse a bride. I couldn't let her down.
I immediately tweeted Ron Ben-Israel, Thiago Silva, and Stephen Collucci, three of the most talented and friendly pastry chefs I know in New York City; "Me making a friend's wedding cake means @chef_Thiago, @StephenCollucci & @RBICakes will be getting some pleading, desperate emails soon."
Thiago immediately shot back, "I got u :)". Stephen, "We have your back girl!"
Stephen promised recipes and tips and to respond to desperate texts as needed. Thiago offered to walk me through how to build the platforms that would hold the cake and take me directly to the supply store to get everything I'd need to do so. Ron practically invented sugar flowers and has built cakes for the likes of Martha Stewart, so I hit him up in hopes he'd advise me in the process of decorating the cake with fresh island flowers as per the bride's request.
Despite his packed schedule as he geared up for his busiest season and having strong opinions against decorating with fresh flowers (their threat of pesticides, their inability to "behave like confectionary ones"), Ron saved me with a, "Since you're YOU, we'll find out a time to cooperate." This is why I'd punch someone in the neck if they took a cheap shot at any of the chefs I've worked with; they're all extremely generous people, on top of being crazy-hard working and immensely talented. I figured with these three at my back I could somehow figure it all out.
And so here I was, tackling the first of several lessons at Ron Ben-Israel Cakes, peppering Ron with questions.
I went in with this information: the bride wanted a three-tiered vanilla cake with white frosting (no fondant), and she wanted it decorated with fresh flowers—something "simple and classic". She guessed I was to make the cake in her aunt and uncle's home kitchen, which she had found out has zero baking equipment. I would store the cake in my hotel's fridge, and most likely decorate it in my room. I would have to bring from New York pretty much everything I would need to accomplish the task. With this knowledge, I made sure that I did everything as simply as possible, nailing down any controllable variables so that any uncontrollable ones wouldn't shake me the big day.
I was nervous, but I dove in head first, flooding Ron with questions, and leaving with a few more things to chew on. Here's what the day taught me:
Flower Decoration Lessons From Ron Ben-Israel
How do I decorate a cake with fresh flowers, making it look clean and elegant, when I have minimal control of what flowers I'll be using and have no experience decorating a cake with flowers?
Fortunately the morning I was visiting, Ron was decorating a 3-tiered birthday cake for 60 people. It was set on a Styrofoam base in which he was going to set his sugar flowers.
I had it in my head that I'd cascade the fresh flowers around my three cake tiers, but I immediately saw the advantages to decorating the base; without fondant, I would have to rely on the cake itself to hold potentially top-weighted flowers, which could then easily shift as the cake was transported or warmed at the reception. By only decorating the base, the cake could stay clean and the flowers would be secure.
Additionally, I could "mess up" placement of the flowers and fix them without continually fixing frosting and further stressing out my future self. Also, I loved the look of the cake settled amongst a bevy of flowers, and realized what a stunning presentation it would make. And even further, this meant I could decorate the cake on site the day of the wedding rather than wherever I was to be preparing the rest, insuring that the flowers could be as fresh as possible without threat of wilting.
How do I structure the cake for the sturdiest possible presentation?
When Ron creates bases for cakes, he uses Styrofoam because the wires attached to his sugar flowers can penetrate and sit accurately in it. This, he tells me, is not the case with fresh flowers; "You need to use Oasis, the green foam they sell at flower markets. But don't wet it. And because it's not as sturdy as Styrofoam, you need to use several dowels to make the structure secure."
On my supplies list goes Oasis. I'll cut it into a ring and attach it to a 14-inch board that will be the base for the 10-inch cake on top of it. When I hot glue the Oasis to the board, I'll fortify it with plastic tubes or a few dowels. I'm going to go into structure more thoroughly with Thiago, who's taking me to the supply store to make sure I have everything I need, but thankfully I've met Ron first, and now know I need an additional support layer.
How does he "design" the flowers and how should I go about it?
Ron doesn't map out any given arrangement of flowers, nor does he know exactly how many he'll be using on any given cake. Also, he admits that his style changes and evolves constantly. Yet there's somewhat of a formula involved; use the largest flowers first, varying them and playing with putting the same flower in succession now and then. Don't keep them all at one level, and let some be full, expanding outside of the cake a bit, while others nestle closer to it. Then come smaller flowers, set at different angles and covering the base structure. Finally, fill with leaves, remembering that sometimes leaves upside-down and at sharply contrasting angles are visually the most interesting.
To guess at how many flowers of varying sizes and types I'll need, he suggests playing with decorating around the base of the largest cake pan I'll be using. I wonder where I can get tossed flowers in the Flower District when I go get those sheets of Oasis.
Other Input from Ron:
Flower petals are a great way to hide icing problems; rinse them well and place them strategically around the cake.
Though Rose has requested no fondant, Ron offers the brilliant idea of placing a ball of fondant on the top layer, then decorating that with additional flowers, letting the top have a crown of beauty without placing non-edibles directly on it. Brilliant.
I leave Ron with a ton of other questions for myself; do I ribbon the layers, since nothing else will be directly on them? Should I look for other edible decorations, like any shimmer or sugar decals? How many layers of cake and frosting should I use for each tier (Ron uses four layers of cake), and should I bake them in sheets and cut them with rings or invest in new bake wear in 10-, 7- and 5-inch sizes?
These are all things I'll bring to Thiago and Stephen, and will report back on in Part Two.