Step 1. Figure Out Your Style
Your cake doesn't have to be white and round. There are so many other choices. To nail down a design, look to your venue, the time of year and, of course, your personal sense of style. If it's a springtime country-club wedding, you might go for a preppy striped cake with a few pink peony sugar flowers. Modern loft? Then maybe it's a tall cake with thin ribbon trim and a few orchids. As you're deciding on a look, browse tons of cake photos and save your favorites to show your baker.
Step 2. Learn the Basics
Let's start with cake shapes. Beyond the traditional round cake, there's a slew of other options. Square cakes are hugely popular -- and a great way to showcase a modern wedding style. But those are just the beginning: We've also seen hexagonal, oval, petal-shaped and even triangle wedding cakes! When it comes to icing, you'll have a number of choices. Buttercream (made from butter and sugar) is smooth and creamy, and it stays soft -- so it's easy to cut, color and flavor. Fondant is another popular option; it's rolled out before it's draped over the cake and makes a smooth, firm base for decorative details.
Step 3. Know Where (And Where Not) To Cut
Be prepared to pay anywhere from $1.50 all the way up to $20 a slice and beyond. And the more complicated the cake, the more you'll pay. Fondant is generally more expensive than buttercream, and if you want elaborately molded shapes, vibrant colors or handmade sugar flowers, you'll pay for the cake designer's time and labor. One cost-cutting option is to order the cake of your dreams made on a small scale for a price you can comfortably afford, and then order sheet cakes of the same flavor to be cut in the kitchen (some but not all designers will do this). Bottom line: Once you find your baker, you'll want to work with them to come up with a wedding cake design that falls within your budget.
Step 4. Search For The Perfect Cake Mate
Once you have a sense of cost and a rough idea of the type of cake you're looking for, it's time to find a baker. Start your research online: Read reviews, search TheKnot.com/cakes for bakers in your area and ask around. Also, your caterer will most likely have recs. Once you have your top three bakers in mind, set up appointments to meet in person and look at their portfolios. You'll discuss the time and place of the wedding, the degree of formality, the colors and what your gown is like. You also should bring pictures of cakes you like or even swatches of fabric from your table linens.
Step 5. Taste Test!
The biggest misconception about wedding cakes is that they're designed to look good but taste less than fabulous. Far from the cake being just a showpiece, it's what's inside that counts. When you meet with your prospective bakers, be sure to taste lots of samples (forget the diet—this is "research"). You might be surprised to discover it isn't average cake. Top designers are working with complex flavorings such as coconut and Key lime, blood orange and mango, and chocolate-hazelnut and mocha. (Are you drooling yet?) You might also go for flavors based on the season, with heavier combinations like chocolate cake with mocha-praline filling perfect for winter weddings and lighter sponge cakes with fruits, curds and preserves more ideal for summer affairs.
Step 6. Book Your Baker
When you think you've met your match, book your baker. Often, a deposit is required at this time, and you'll also be asked to sign a contract. Before you sign, there are a few important points to tackle: Find out how far in advance the cakes are made prior to the wedding day and who exactly will be baking and decorating your cake (it's not always the same person). Lock in your cake maker as soon as you can -- some top bakers get booked up a year in advance.
Step 7. Decide How You'll Display It
Have fun dressing up your cake table: Drape it with fabrics and decorate it with motifs, colors and flowers to match the cake (your florist can help). And don't settle for a generic cake stand -- showcase your masterpiece! For a ballroom wedding, place the cake on a tall, traditional cake stand; go for a wooden platform covered in fresh flowers for a spring garden wedding; or try a sleek, clear acrylic stand for an urban loft wedding. And make sure you have a lighting plan: Surround the cake with tiny votives, hang a canopy with twinkling lights over it or place a gleaming antique chandelier above it. Finish off the cake table by covering it with a solid or patterned tablecloth.
Step 8. Work Out Delivery Details
Just as you would with a fine painting, once you've decided exactly how your wedding cake is going to look, make certain that great care is taken to transport it in one piece to the reception site. Most cake designers prefer to deliver the cake themselves (or use their in-house, experienced delivery team to do the job), and we think paying the extra delivery fee is worth the peace of mind that the cake will arrive to your reception site in top form. Make certain that your baker has a contact person at the reception site so they can give the catering manager or event planner any pertinent information on handling the cake -- it might have to be refrigerated or stationed in a cool, out-of-the-way location, and you'll want to make sure everyone knows the plan.
Step 9. Schedule A Time To Cut It
Traditionally, the cake cutting signifies that the end of the reception is near (and cues the elder guests that they can politely slip out), so couples typically wait until an hour before the party ends to cut it. But if you don't want to interrupt your dance party, cut it at the beginning of the reception right after you make your grand entrance, while all eyes are on you. Most important, double-check that your photographer has your cake on his shot list so that you get a few photos of the cake (and of you cutting it) for your wedding album.
Step 10. Eat A Piece Of Your Own Cake
You'd be surprised how many couples don't get a chance to eat their own wedding cake -- don't let that be you! If you don't have time to sit down at the reception and enjoy a slice, ask your caterer to save some for you. Share it as a snack that night after the wedding, or taste it at the postwedding brunch. (Leftover wedding cake makes for the perfect menu addition to the day-after brunch dessert!) Either way, make sure you try it. You deserve to enjoy the cake you worked so hard to help create.