The decision by today's couples to marry later -- most typically in their late 20s or early 30s -- has brought about a change in the overall style of their wedding day. Mature brides are choosing more elegant styles for the big day, and nowhere is this more evident than in their selection of the ceremonial cake.
As a result, today's in-store bakeries are faced with the task of satisfying a wide variety of wedding day personalities by offering cake options to suit every bride's tastes.
"Many couples simply don't realize what an enormous task it is to select their wedding cake," said Julie VanPelt, specialty cake shop manager at Dayton, Ohio-based Dorothy Lane Market. "I sit down with each couple for at least an hour to run through the entire wedding contract and discuss their options."
Aside from the couple, the wedding cake is probably the one item most talked about after the event is over. It certainly receives some of the most focused attention at the reception, with the traditional playing of "The Bride Cuts the Cake" and the newlyweds feeding each other the first piece. Long after the big day, guests will talk about the cake's colors or unique styling and decoration.
"This is a phenomenal merchandising tactic," commented Brian Salus, president of the Richmond, Va.-based consulting firm Salus & Associates. "Guests will naturally assume that if the cake is good, the bakery's other products must be good as well."
While some in-store bakeries seem to be doing quite well with their wedding-cake programs, there is a definite need to get the message across to consumers that a supermarket can produce a cake of equal or superior value to what they would receive from an independent bakery, he added.
"People tend to go to an outside bakery because they are looking for something more detailed and elegant," said Salus. "They feel as though they can form a relationship with a pastry chef in an independent bakery that would not be available in a busy supermarket."
VanPelt conceded that local, independent bakeries are their main competitors in this category, and said this is why Dorothy Lane devotes so much time to each of its wedding customers and offers them samples of its wares.
"They're usually excited, but also quite overwhelmed, so I try to keep the meeting fun and upbeat," she said. "I think they really appreciate the special treatment."
To stay active in this highly competitive area and keep up with today's hectic schedules, some supermarket bakeries have found it useful to promote their wedding and specialty cake programs on the company's Web site. Dorothy Lane has designed a special page within the bakery section of its site where basic cake options are presented to visitors, who are encouraged to contact the Cake Shop for a consultation.
At the meeting, VanPelt helps curious consumers "find the cake best suited to [their] taste, needs, and wallet." Prices for the cakes are quoted during the consultation and are priced by the serving. For example, VanPelt said, a cake made to serve 200 guests would begin at $1.75 per serving and increase depending on cake, filling, icing and decoration variations.
Dorothy Lane wedding-cake customers are privy to some of the more creative variations on tradition seen -- or rather, tasted -- today. There is the Italian Cream Cake -- which VanPelt labeled as its best seller -- filled with raspberries or strawberries and frosted with Italian meringue buttercream icing. For chocolate lovers, the DLM Select Chocolate Cake is a deep, dark chocolate cake filled with raspberries or chocolate ganache and frosted with raspberry buttercream icing. The Grand Marnier Cake is an orange cake with chocolate truffle filling that is frosted with rich Grand Marnier buttercream icing.
Those with a passion for fruit are likely to choose the Lemon Gateau -- a lemon cake filled with lemon custard or raspberries and frosted with lemon buttercream icing.
Dorothy Lane also features the Traditional Wedding Cake -- a light, moist cake in either white, chocolate, yellow or marble topped with buttercream icing. While some couples may still favor the traditional buttercream icing, the desire for a giant, sugar-coated tower, adorned with creamy, colored flowers appears to be fading.
"We see a lot of people going toward rolled and poured fondant, and even marzipan," said John Gallagher, a certified executive pastry chef and instructor at The Restaurant School in Philadelphia. "Brides are getting away from bright, garish colors and going for a more pristine, classic look."
Rolled fondant, in particular, has made quite an impression on brides as of late. A mixture of confectioners' sugar, glucose, water, glycerin and gelatin, the fondant can either be made in-house or purchased premade -- an option popular with bakeries that require large quantities. The fondant is rolled out, draped over the cake, and then smoothed to create a seamless finish. Sources compared its appearance to porcelain.
Dorothy Lane offers a rolled fondant icing on any of its specialty cake flavors. VanPelt, however, has her doubts about the rolled-fondant option.
"Most people who request rolled fondant love the smooth, flawless look," she said. "But in reality, it is difficult to work with. The cutting feature is poor due to its stiffness and, most importantly, it just doesn't taste as good."
She added that the time-consuming preparation commands a heftier selling price. Instead, she counsels couples that an experienced decorator can manipulate buttercream icing to produce a look that is just as smooth and flawless.
"Brides today are looking for clean, sharp lines," said Gallagher. "Even beyond the decision of icing, cake decorations have also become more simple and elegant."
The change from heavily frosted cakes has, indeed, paved the way for a different kind of decoration, as well. One trend in particular, which began on the West Coast and has now spread throughout the country, is the use of live flowers as opposed to pastry variations.
"There has been a tremendous increase in the use of live flowers," said Jane Salus, managing director of Salus & Associates. "The fresh arrangements provide a beautiful, natural look which has become quite popular."
Other options, which VanPelt said have picked up in popularity over the past year, include creating realistic-looking cake bouquets of flowers made from gum paste or sugar dough. The paste can be rolled thin enough to mirror the delicate detailing of live flowers, and features the added bonus of being edible. However, VanPelt added that the gum paste decorations are often saved as mementos for years because they dry so firmly.
Sources have even noticed a trend of late for the bride and groom to request a cake that reflects their lifestyle. Couples have requested themed cakes, a beach scene for instance, that may reflect where they met, where the proposal took place or where they will travel for their honeymoon.
"The best advice I give the brides I work with is to keep it simple," said Gallagher. "The cake should be a dignified showpiece. Guests should be compelled to come and look at it."
All the added attention to detail and precision creates a corresponding need for experienced decorators, trained in the art of cake decoration. Just as supermarkets have been incorporating trained chefs into their staffs, many are including pastry chefs as well. In some instances, stores are able to train novice bakery associates on-site, with the help of experienced staff members. This is the route Dorothy Lane prefers.
VanPelt said both she and her part-time assistant are self-taught decorators and she doesn't feel the need to bring in employees trained by culinary schools.
"This is the type of job that you have to have a feeling for," she said. "The talent has to be there to be expanded upon."
Wedding-cake options are clearly endless and should continue to expand as couples are increasingly choosing what they want as opposed to what they feel obligated to select. Sources expect the trend toward simple elegance and personalized cakes will continue. "There is a huge chance for growth with wedding cakes," said VanPelt. "The trend toward elegance and simplicity has opened new options for decorators and I would absolutely expect this trend to continue."
"There is no question the quest for fresh, natural and specialty cakes will certainly continue to grow," said Salus. "And since couples take what they see at other people's weddings and expand on it for their own -- the bar will continue to be raised."