DIY Wedding Cake: Ron Ben-Israel Talks Cake With a Rookie

I started talking about how I want to decorate the cake, how I can make at least three layers, and how I'll even look into molding flowers out of fondant. Piece of cake, right?
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My name is Sara Cann and I have no idea how to make a wedding cake. A few weeks ago, my friends got engaged and I made them a cake. An ugly one (see below). If you look closely, you'll be able to see that the awkwardly tall figures are supposed to be lovebirds.


Thankfully the flavor trumped my botched decorating job, and perhaps it was for this reason, my friend, Theresa, had a moment of insanity:

Will you make my wedding cake?!

Fiercely flattered -- and deliriously thinking I know how to make a multi-tiered work of art -- I eagerly accepted. I started talking about how I want to decorate the cake, how I can make at least three layers, and how I'll even look into molding flowers out of fondant. Piece of cake, right?

The next morning, I realized my ego got in the way with reality. I've never made a cake that has more than two layers. I've never touched fondant. And not to mention, I'm not the best decorator (just look at the evidence above). I went to culinary (not pastry) school. So to keep myself honest and prepare for this challenge, I'm turning my yearlong, DIY wedding cake project into a column. In the next year I hope to learn the best cake recipes, impressive decorating tips, amazing frosting ideas, and key structural musts so by the end, this experiment will end with a cake -- a beautiful one. And each month, you'll be able to learn from my mistakes, and hopefully, have a painless experience if you ever decide to make a wedding cake.

So to kick start this project, I contacted the ultimate cake-making legend, Ron Ben-Israel, for some advice (and encouragement). The host of Sweet Genius and master pastry chef told me I was courageous!

"You are, indeed, a courageous person to undertake making your friend's wedding cake," admits Ben-Israel. "I admire that, as this is how I started my own career."

Though I have no plans of ever matching Ben-Israel's skills, I do hope that on the big day, my big cake is still standing. And to help me accomplish (and surpass) that goal, Ben-Israel gave me five pillars to follow as I go through this flour-filled journey:

Don't overdo it. Before I even turned on my oven, I was already guilty of making a mistake. "The process of making a wedding cake is complex on its own, from designing, mis-en-place, baking, frosting, structuring, decorating, to delivering," advises Ben-Israel. "So many things can go awry, so my advice is NOT to look at magazines at the latest trends, nor to try and copy a cake made by a baker with years of experience." I've probably spent a collective 10 hours studying cakes on Pinterest with the unrealistic expectation that I can mimic them. Whoops.

Keep it simple. Keep to a clean and neat guideline, with emphasis on freshness and flavor, says Ben-Israel. Less is more, right? I'm going to try and decorate this cake with natural flowers. Check back for a post on edible flowers suitable for cake decorating.

Stick to butter cakes and non-perishable fillings. Ben-Israel recommends using a butter-based cake like a traditional yellow cake. They're lighter versions of the traditional pound cake, but they're dense enough to keep their shape and moistness for a few days without falling apart. And when pondering what type of filling, avoid fruit curds, which are thickened with egg yolks and are extremely perishable. Instead, use fruit preserves or buttercream because they'll be more stable at room temperature, according to Ben-Israel.

Practice makes perfect. Don't leave the experimenting to the wedding day. Wise words. This blog will (hopefully) work out every potential kink before the big day.

Do your research. Read up on the subject before diving in. Ben-Israel recommends pulling from cake forums, YouTube, and books like The Cake Bible for a DIY education. If you can afford it, there are also classes on cake decoration at schools like The International Culinary Center where Ben-Israel is a guest instructor.

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