I’d like to start by saying that no, I’m neither a trained pastry chef nor a baker. You might wonder why then my friends asked me, shortly after their engagement last year, if I would like to make their vegan wedding cake. Yes, that’s right–they asked me if I wanted to make their wedding cake–all vegan, gluten-free, and with some other accommodations for the bride’s dietary needs.
So the story is as follows, my friends Kate and Keith–we actually met them on a hike in Maine, Acadia National Park and subsequently did an adventure rock climbing photo shoot with them, which really sealed the friendship deal–have recently gone vegan. Already conscious, caring, and minimalist people, they decided to cut out all animal products about nine months ago. It happened shortly after we had a deeper conversation about the reasons why, a couple of years ago, I chose to abstain from animal products. They embraced their decision and decided that their wedding this summer would have to be all vegan as well. I personally believe that this decision is admirable, especially because it shows how confident they are as a couple and how much they believe that this decision will not cause a problem for their guests. And it should’t, but we all know that social conventions can at times be overwhelming and create pressures on us as individuals that prevent us from sometimes fully embracing our true selves and living up to what we really believe in.
In any case, the vegan wedding decision was made, and once Kate and Keith announced this to me, they asked me if I wanted to make the vegan wedding cake. Let me specify that this wedding was an intimate one, with about 40 expected guests, but still, I had never made a wedding cake nor any cake for more than 10 people. But how could I say no to this? I was immediately touched and incredibly honored that they would ask me to make their vegan wedding cake. I assume that my blog and my extensive food pictures on Instagram had convinced them that I was able to take on a project like this. But man, what a daunting thought. It felt a little like crossing a thin bridge, with no hand rails left or right, above a wild jungle–I knew I could be focused and make it to the other side–or I could stress out and slip into the endless jungle.
So I decided to break down the challenge and not let it overwhelm me, by dividing the project it into bite-sized chunks. I had about five months to “train” for this and started by sitting down with Kate, the bride-to-be, so we could take inventory of things this cake could and couldn’t have. No gluten, no refined sugar, no coconut, mostly no nuts, and, of course, it had to be vegan. In addition to Kate’s list, there was also a list of things that I could have used without violating the ingredients blacklist but they would not work – like maple syrup–Kate can eat it, but it turns the frosting brown (and who seriously wants brown frosting…) or stevia–again, Kate can eat it, but my better half told me if I wanted for all the guests to NOT eat the cake, then stevia was the way to go. So I experimented, a lot. Looked through recipe books and blogs. Tried and tested on weekends, and about 50 pounds of gluten-free flour later, I finally had the dough and frosting recipe down.
Now, there was no way for me to make this wedding in my kitchen and transport it on the plane to Acadia National Park. And experienced bakers and pastry chefs will agree that all kitchens are different. In particular, ovens can throw you a curveball because 350 degrees is not really a universal temperature. I decided to bring my own spring forms (because I had developed an intimate relationship with every single one of them) and even brought my own parchment paper (again, I went through a bunch of different brands and finally found the perfect one).
The process of making the cake took about two days. No, don’t worry, I wasn’t baking 48 hours straight, but I decided to make the dough in one day and then bake it next day so I would have enough time to fix things if anything went wrong. A couple days before the wedding, we decided to increase the size of the cake. Instead of two 8-inch and two 6-inch layers, I would now also add two 10-inch layers. For all gluten-free bakers out there, you would probably agree with me that making a thin,10-inch gluten-free cake is risky because it’s relatively big, and the likelihood of breaking is higher. An additional stress factor was to increase the recipe size–I had to suddenly hunt down a bigger pot because the regular sized one wouldn’t fit all the dough. The icing caused me some headaches, too. Because I wasn’t using regular powdered sugar, as it’s super refined, I worked with evaporated cane sugar that I proceeded to transform into powdered sugar with a simple little coffee grinder. The issue, though, is that it’s not quite the same chemical reaction, so the frosting was a tad runnier than what I wanted it to be.
Around 1 pm the day off the wedding, I was done with baking and preparing the frosting, and was finally dressing the cake. As I had never made a cake of this size and that many layers in my practice runs, I experienced the laws of gravity and a slight shifting of the layers when I was staking them and dressing them with frosting. Lucky for me, another wedding guest, and wonderful soul, let me borrow her oversized wooden q-tips (made to detail and clean antique glass–yep, what a random utensil), so I could transform them into little holding sticks that would make sure my layers were not moving. Once the cake was all ready, decorated with fresh berries and flowers, we stored it in the fridge. I went on a run to distract myself but couldn’t stop thinking about the cake and had to check on it three more times before the wedding ceremony. Finally, around 6 pm, the cake was brought out–carried by another wedding guest who agreed to carry it for me because I was just too nervous. We safely placed it on its little moss decorated table, and there it was, my first ever wedding cake–all vegan, all gluten-free, and all love.
I realized in that moment that Kate and Keith had given me a selfless gift. By asking me to make their cake, they empowered me with the infinite trust. At no moment did they doubt my ability to deliver the cake. At no moment did they tell me that they hesitated or questioned my skills and abilities. They never asked questions, they never told me what to do. I have rarely felt so empowered and treated the cake as a thank you, a gift that I wanted to offer back to them for giving me the gift of trust and belief.
On a more personal level, I had another connection to this cake: my grandfather and grandmother owned a fairly famous pastry store in Luxembourg and growing up, I spent hours watching them in the kitchen prepare pastries and desserts. For a long time, though, I convinced myself that I had none of those skills, but after my grandfather passed away and I had transitioned to a vegan diet, I decided to give baking and pastries another try. I recently made my first vegan croissants and remember how much I would have liked to share that with my grandfather. And I feel the same about this wedding cake, that I put my whole heart in, for Kate and Keith and for my grandparents, who were true pastry artists.
Also by Isabelle: Why You Should Never, Ever Eat Fake Sugar (Hint: It Can Make You Gain)
Related: Planning a Vegan Wedding Menu
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Photo: Isabelle Steichen