The Slice of Life 

Let them eat wedding cake.

Is a less-than-perfect cake at your otherwise picture-perfect wedding your worst nightmare? Things could be worse. Back in the day -- we're talking way back, likely dating to the Roman Empire -- it was customary for the groom to take the cake and smash it on the bride's head.

Back then, the wedding cake wasn't a cake at all. It was barley bread that was baked for the occasion, and the protocol required the groom to eat part of the bread and then smash the rest over his bride. The act symbolized the breaking of the bride's virginity and the dominance of the groom. Then the wedding guests would scramble around to get their piece of the cake -- excuse me, bread crumb -- to ensure their own fertility.

Today, couples spend between $500 and $1,000 on both the wedding and groom's cakes, and for that kind of money, they expect nothing less than perfection (and definitely no barley bread). With an abundance of bakers to choose from -- commercial bakeries specializing in wedding cakes, grocery stores, home bakers, family friends, and sometimes even the bride herself -- it shouldn't be hard to find the right cake for every budget and every bride.

"That perfect wedding cake that all brides dream of and see in magazines doesn't exist for us," says Karen Barnes. Barnes, the owner of Delicate Designs, has been making wedding cakes out of her home kitchen in Memphis for nine years. "I will always find something that can be improved on a cake that looks absolutely perfect to everyone else," she adds.

The competition in this business is great, the brides are very particular, and the responsibility to make the couple's special moment even sweeter weighs heavy. It's understandable that many soon-to-be-weds choose the reputable commercial bakery.

"[Commercial bakery] Miss Muff'n does beautiful wedding cakes," says Heather Ries, a pastry chef who just started Sugar Shack, a small wedding-cake business in her home kitchen in Hernando Mississippi. "That's what they specialize in, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting a cake from a bakery like that. But if you get a wedding cake from someone like me it's often more personal, and it's absolutely fresh. I don't have much storage space or a big freezer. I make every cake to-order from scratch, which means I have to gut my refrigerator and sometimes even use part of my mother-in-law's fridge."

If you're wary about going the home-baker route, you shouldn't be. Just check their credentials, look at pictures of cakes they've done, meet with them to discuss your cake, and get everything in writing. Most home bakers started with smaller special-occasion cakes before they ever sold their first multi-tier wedding cake.

"Most people who take our fundamental cake class don't plan on making wedding cakes their business," says Jim Farmerty of Mary Carter Decorating Center, which offers cake-decorating classes at his store year-round. "They usually want to make cakes for their family and church or their children's birthdays. The wedding-cake business develops over time."

That's how Karen Barnes got started. When she was a little girl, she watched her grandmother bake and got upset at her own inefficient Easy-Bake Oven. Since then, she knew that baking was her thing. Now she makes several wedding and special-occasion cakes a month.

"I want couples who don't have $500 to spend on a wedding cake to be able to get a good-looking and good-tasting cake," Barnes says. "Sure, they can get a cake for just over $100 from Wal-Mart and it might look fine, but you'll definitely taste the difference."

Farmerty also knows all too well that money is often a key issue when it comes to the final decision on who is going to get the bid. He's been in the business long enough to know how couples do the math: "People don't understand how a cake can cost $250 when a box of cake mix sells for 99 cents. What they don't consider is the time it takes to bake, decorate, and assemble a four-tier wedding cake from scratch."

And it's not just the baking and decorating that takes time. Wedding cakes that seem like a good deal might come with surprise costs such as a delivery fee or accessory rentals. Home bakers usually just charge for the cake and will go the extra mile when it comes to cake delivery and set-up. "To do a four-tier wedding cake takes about 24 hours of straight work time," says Ries, and Barnes agrees.

The bottom line: Wedding cakes don't come cheap, especially if you want a cake that tastes as good as it looks.

"It is common to charge between $3 and $5 per serving for a wedding cake," says Ries. "A cake for 100 people costs $350 on average, and that's pretty good compared to places like New York, where people charge between $7 and $12 per serving."

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