Cake Savvy

I was lucky enough to get a peek at the workings of the bakeshop of Sylvia Weinstock, the undisputed grand dame of wedding cakes. There's magic brewing in Sylvia's very busy, four-story townhouse in the hip downtown area of New York City. From within 50 yards of the front door one is tantalized by the scents of baking; not just the yeast and flour smells common near commercial bakeries, but the seductive scents of chocolate (100 pounds a week), eggs (1,500 per week) and lots and lots of butter (600 pounds per week).

Tip #1
Be aware of the style of the cakes as well as the type of materials a baker uses before you place an order. Not every baker can create the type of cake you want. To be sure the baker shares your vision of perfection, ask to see pictures of finished cakes.

I start trailing the Cake Lady (as she is often referred to) in her cozy office, where brides meet to talk with her about their cake concepts. On the day I visit, a bride and her parents have come from Niagara Falls to order a wedding cake.

Tip #2
Start cake shopping four to six months before the wedding. Have your basic information together—the date of your wedding, approximate guest list tally and site. Otherwise it's impossible to go forward and place the order.

To get a concrete idea of what this bride has in mind, Sylvia asks as many questions as a hardcore investigative journalist. "How do you envision your wedding? What color/design are your flowers? Is it a lunch or dinner? What's the theme? Is the meal a buffet or sit-down? Are you thinking of something offbeat or classic? What does your dress look like?" Sylvia is full of ideas after she discovers that the groom is from Barbados. "How about a cake topper showing the two of you riding a surfboard on a great wave? What about decorating the cake with hibiscus?" The family then contributes all sorts of possibilities themselves. That's the way the creative process is supposed to work.

Tip #3
Cut out photos, bring swatches and doodles—all sorts of inspirations for you and your baker to discuss. These don't even have to be of cakes, just ideas to spark your imagination.

The walls of Sylvia's showroom are covered with photographs of cakes in seemingly hundreds of styles. Many of these shots show cakes flanked by celebrities like Hillary Clinton, Eddie and Nicole Murphy, Donald Trump, and Cyndi Lauper. If a bride isn't inspired by any of this, perhaps she should consider serving oatmeal for dessert! The final touch to the meeting (and I've never seen it fail to clinch the deal), is the cake samples that are served. The baking crew keeps plenty of minicakes on hand for this purpose. No matter how often I've visited I can never resist having seconds—and I've found that I'm not alone.

Like all aspects of the wedding business there's a lot of behind-the-scenes preparation that goes into the making of a dream. Sylvia makes sketches of the cake during this meeting, taking notes on preferences. Then she lets her office take over. Marianne Lyden, Sylvia's cheery office manager with nerves of steel, takes all the information and breaks it down for the various departments and enters it into the computer. She prints out the particulars for baking, construction and design, and a contract is then sent to the client. Tina Eng-Caban, the head baker, orders the raw ingredients; Vilna Peters, who supervises the sugar-flower area, determines colors, variety and amount of flowers, and directs the staff of 12 under her. It takes a full-time staff of 24 to produce these admittedly expensive creations.

There is an entire basement construction department run by Ben Weinstock, Sylvia's husband, and Richard Harris, a carpenter. They direct the staff that cuts and saws the wooden disks for the cake bases, as well as the inner structures that are one of the tricks to wedding-cake production. Sometimes a Styrofoam layer must be built between two cake layers to support a heavy garland around a cake's exterior. Precision, weight and balance are necessary to avoid tilting, sliding, collapsing and other disasters. Michele Hickey, who's in charge of art production, fashions the wire inners that serve as the structure for the figures, and then goes on to mold and paint them.

When a cake is finished and iced, it sits in a very cold walk-in refrigerator for at least a day before it is cold enough to be delivered. Even the cake boxes are custom-made, and labeling is a no-room-for-error, collaborative effort. Sylvia often will travel with her cakes to personally assemble them—she has been to the Caribbean, France, Hawaii, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

Sylvia is vehement on the subject of cakes and bakers. A "Sylvia" cake is iced with pure Italian meringue buttercream or, depending on the season, whipped cream—not fondant or royal icing. Only pure fruits and rinds, and Callebaut imported chocolate are used: "What a ridiculous waste of calories to eat a synthetic dessert," she says. Sylvia and I agree that brides and grooms are vastly more sophisticated in their tastes these days, having developed their palates by the time they are ready to plan their weddings. Requested cake designs are often more whimsical and flavors are far more adventurous than in the past.

Tip #4
Talk to your baker about your menu. Will it be heavy or light? Are you serving a dessert and, if so, what kind? The cake should complement the meal.

Chocolate mousse filling in a chocolate cake is the most popular by far, but Sylvia's personal favorite is yellow cake with lemon cream. She remembers working with a bride who wanted her wedding cake to replicate the look of the topiaries used for her centerpieces. Sylvia delivered—right down to the icing flower pot. Currently, there is a wedding cake for a Parisian couple in the works, with two roosters being fashioned to sit on top; another cake will be topped by the Simpsons for a couple who are fans of the show.

Tip #5
Don't be afraid to let your personality show in your choice of cake topper.

As we finish our day, I ask two final questions: "Where do you see wedding-cake trends going?" "Lots of color, odd shapes, one-of-a-kind designs, and unusual flavors," Sylvia says. "And what's the best thing to serve with wedding cake?" "Why, champagne of course," she answers. My sentiments exactly!


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