How Sweet It Is

By Sara Perez Webber

Dessert buffets are taking the cake at weddings, as the mini trend gets bigger, and couples say “I do” to new tastes and traditions

A tale of two wedding cakes: At one end of the spectrum, there’s a five-foot show-stopper evoking a full set of Louis Vuitton stacked luggage, completely edible, with chocolate cut by hand into 200 logos and expertly molded to create a leather-looking texture. At the other end quietly stands a single-layer cake with smooth white frosting topped with fresh berries.

Both have found a home at nuptial celebrations—at the Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas and at a Taste Catering wedding at Villa Montalvo in Saratoga, Calif., respectively. Yet it’s the latter type of cake that couples increasingly desire, as the traditional wedding cake steps out of the spotlight and into a supporting role—smaller, more modest than ostentatious, and usually on a dessert buffet.

“Wedding cakes are getting smaller and smaller, and are becoming a décor accent piece to complement the dessert buffet, rather than a stand-alone item that is a big deal,” says Hayley Seed, director of sales and marketing at Taste Catering & Event Planning in San Francisco. “Most couples are opting out of the cake-cutting, but still have a small cake on display as a subtle nod to tradition.” In fact, most of the presentation wedding cakes constructed by Taste Catering have only one edible tier, for cutting purposes, with the rest made out of Styrofoam.

Simple two-tier cake from Taste Catering

Simple two-tier cake from Taste Catering

“By far our most popular wedding dessert is a dessert buffet of petits fours—a colorful assortment of delectable miniatures,” says Seed, mentioning such guest-pleasing options on Tasty’s summer wedding menus as Bergamot and Meyer lemon confit tartlets with baby lemon macaron, litchi popsicle and raspberry rose sorbet, and lavender flower-infused ganache bites. “This trend really took over from the mini cupcake and French macaron craze.”

Even that trend is evolving, as Seed notes she’s seeing the dessert buffet become more of a “‘patisserie boutique,’ where white-gloved pastry chefs plate up as guests point to their favorites. Interactive, chef-attended dessert stations are also very popular—from ice cream sundaes to cotton candy to a crème brûlée station, anything that offers variety, vibrant color and an elevated, interactive guest experience.”

“What we’re seeing more of is the experience of dessert,” agrees Mary Ellen Murphy, founder and chief inspiration officer at Off the Beaten Path Weddings in Yountville, Calif. “The traditional wedding cake—where you have one big, formal cake, and you slice it and hand it out—has almost gone away.”

For Murphy’s clients, that experience usually means having a small cake for a symbolic cutting and a dessert bar “full of dessert comfort food—recognizable things in little portions, like cupcakes, miniature donuts, milkshakes, pie in a jar,” she says. “It’s more comfort food as opposed to over-the-top.”

Flavor profiles that harken back to a couple’s youth are particularly popular on Off the Beaten Path’s dessert bars, adds Murphy. “Maybe it’s a peanut-butter-and-jelly dessert in a jar, or apple pie and cheese, or apple pie and ice cream, or butterscotch pudding,” she says. “Why do people like s’mores so much? Because it brings them back to Girl Scout camp, or camping with mom and dad. It’s just that happy place. That’s what people are trying to create for their guests.”

The “Wow” Factor

Caterers are also amping up their creativity when it comes to desserts to ensure that the wedding reception is memorable for their clients and guests—whose expectations have been raised thanks to social media, according to Ercan Ekinci, executive chef and partner at Green Turtle Market in Indian Harbour Beach, Fla.

Stacked macarons from Green Turtle Market

Stacked macarons from Green Turtle Market

“With sites such as Pinterest and Instagram, people are becoming more knowledgeable about the culinary universe and taking their desserts a little more seriously,” says Ekinci. “Old-world desserts are slowly diminishing, with buttercreams and fondants no longer a factor in the equation. With that, colorful desserts are emerging with unexpected elements, artisanal elegance and stylish, smart designs to stop everyone in their tracks.”

Unexpected flavor combinations are another result of this creativity, says Ekinci. “In the world of desserts, popcorn is an old-time favorite that is making its way back to center stage with a gourmet twist,” he says. “Chocolate cake with salted caramel popcorn can’t be beat.”

Murphy also notes the popcorn trend. “One thing we did a lot this last year and people went nuts over were very cool popcorn bars, moving away from sugary and more toward savory,” she says. “We do duck fat popcorns, and you can put your own items on the popcorn—cheddar cheese, truffle salt. It’s a nice way to have another food experience.”

Murphy’s clients in Napa Valley also appreciate cheese as part of the dessert experience. Off the Beaten Path has presented a cheese board station, with local cheeses, honey, nuts and chocolate. “The wedding cake could be tiers of cheese wheels, with berries and nuts,” she adds. “To make it more interactive, we might have a port bar or a late-harvest Riesling bar,” with guests tasting and then choosing their pairing.

Eye Candy

When Erica Tucker, owner and founder of Sweet E’s Bake Shop in Los Angeles, opened her business in 2009, “traditional wedding cakes were still the trend,” she says. “But from 2011 on, we really started to see dessert stations and mini desserts taking over from the wedding cake, and not being an add-on.”

In fact, where once the wedding cake stood as the center of attention, the dessert buffet is serving as a focal centerpiece at the reception. “I have clients who want it right at the entrance to the ballroom, because they’re usually pretty eye-catching and exciting to look at,” says Tucker.

Among Tucker’s clients, “mini cupcakes and cake pops are still going strong” on the dessert bar, she says. “Besides that, French macarons are a big hit, and then there are a lot of gourmet delicious desserts like pie bites and tart bites, and things that you’re used to eating in a big slice but in mini size—mini classic cookies, shot-glass desserts. We fill a mini shot glass with cheese cake or chocolate mousse cake. Many times we’ll fill a shot glass with milk and put mini chocolate chip cookies on top of that. Many people are asking for chocolate and candies, so we’ll fill beautiful apothecary jars with chocolates to match the aesthetic, with scoops for serving.” For one particularly extravagant wedding, Tucker created bowls made out of chocolate and adorned with sugar flowers to hold the truffles and candies, and displayed them throughout the event on tables and bars.

A cake decorated with fruit and flowers from Off the Beaten Path Weddings

A cake decorated with fruit and flowers from Off the Beaten Path Weddings

“People want us to do something that will be exciting for their guests and not necessarily seen before,” adds Tucker.

For Jerry Edwards, CPCE, president and corporate chef of Chef’s Expressions in Timonium, Md., “small, pick-up desserts are going over very well” at weddings. Topping the list are landslides—layered parfaits served in tall vodka-style shot glasses, with flavors including strawberry crunch, sea-salted caramel and chocolate, mango papaya, Key lime pie, lemon chiffon, and orchard peach and blueberry—as well as banana cream pie in a demitasse cup, and macarons in a tower.

In addition, says Edwards, action dessert stations are a big hit with his wedding clients. At Chef’s Expressions, those include making sorbets and gelato tableside, with liquid nitrogen added to the flavored mix and chefs whipping the desserts to order. At the station for handmade crepes—which are “back in full force,” says Edwards—the crepes are sautéed in several choices of butter (orange, pineapple or raspberry), folded into a triangle in the pan, and then flambéed tableside with Grand Marnier, elderflower liqueur or Chambord, respectively. A dollop of sweetened crème fraiche tops off each crepe. And then there’s the Pie Man Station, where guests have their prebaked, handmade pie shell filled with either lemon curd, chocolate mousse or fresh fruit compote, and topped with whipped cream, streusel crumbs or merengue—which is torched before their eyes.

“We don’t often serve plated desserts for weddings, as we really want people to get up and start mingling or dancing after the meal is served,” says Edwards. One extravagant exception is the Smoking Strawberry dessert. Served in a caviar bowl, the base holds water and dry ice, while the glass cone on top is filled with a strawberry semifreddo topped with lemon sabayon and fresh strawberries.

Simple Pleasures

Even with all of the possibilities, Edwards estimates 95 percent of wedding clients still choose to have a cake as part of their dessert array. Geometric-shaped wedding cakes are popular, but the top request from couples is for a naked cake—unfrosted on the sides and topped with fresh fruit and powdered sugar.

The demand for naked cakes seems to cover the country. Green Turtle Market on Florida’s Space Coast works with local pastry chef Stephanie Enriquez from CakeKrush in Melbourne, who’s known for her naked hummingbird cake, made with light vanilla buttercream and fresh banana filling, and Green Turtle’s Ekinci sees the trend continuing through 2016.

“With respect to the wedding cake, we had many years of ‘the bigger, the better,’ but that’s becoming a thing of the past,” says Ekinci. “Simple touches can make any cake elegant, from monogrammed cake toppers to something as easy as a ribbon or even burlap.”

“Naked cakes are a huge trend” at Sweet E’s in Los Angeles, says Tucker. “They’re stacked and layered like a traditional cake, but the outside is just barely frosted, with the intention of showing the actual cake. It can be accented with fresh flowers to go along with a natural, rustic look, or with strawberries or chocolate chips, if it’s a chocolate chip cake. People are going more toward the natural look.”

Off the Beaten Path Weddings has been doing a lot of naked wedding cakes, says Murphy, noting that in addition to fruit, twigs and olive branches can be used as adornments. “It’s back to that rustic, elegant kind of look,” she says. “It’s using what’s in nature and what’s in season. That’s not going to go away.”

Bergamot and Meyer lemon confit tartlets with baby lemon macrons from Taste Catering & Event Planning.

Bergamot and Meyer lemon confit tartlets with baby lemon macarons from Taste Catering & Event Planning.

And in this era of nonconformity at weddings, extravagant, over-the-top wedding desserts still have a role to play as well. The Louis Vuitton luggage cake was created by pastry chef Jean-Luc Daul at the Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas for a bride who was fanatical about the brand. It took a week to make at a cost of $6,000, with each piece of luggage built out of chocolate to provide the structure, filled in with two flavors of cake—chocolate sour cream sponge cake with bittersweet chocolate mousse filling, and vanilla sponge cake with Bavarian cream and fresh berries.

The Four Seasons Hotel Austin frequently receives requests for University of Texas-themed cakes. Pastry chef Julia Doubleday created one emulating the university’s mascot, Bevo. She molded the Texas longhorn steer shape out of Rice Krispies, then covered it in white chocolate and painted the final design using cocoa butter dyed with food coloring to achieve the different hues.

Taste Catering recently served baked Alaska to order for 60 wedding guests. “Our executive pastry chef, Rick Griggs, was on-site to personally torch each one before they were paraded by 30 waiters to a single long table in the middle of Sonoma wine country,” says Seed. “It was over-the-top dramatic, exciting, delicious and beautiful.”

Sometimes the small touches can leave just as big of an impression, however. Tucker often creates dessert party favors, sending guests home with a sweet treat at the end of the night accompanied by a corny-yet-cute message. The Sweet E’s cinnamon buns that guests at one wedding took home came with such sayings as, “A delicious bun to keep up the fun,” and “We laughed, we danced, we shed a tear. Now get your buns out of here.”

What it all comes down to, says Murphy, are couples who want to make sure their friends and family enjoy their celebration with them—and what’s more enjoyable than dessert? “It’s less about things like, ‘This is my dream day,’ and more about, ‘How can we make our guests happy?’” she says. “They’re more focused on their guests and less on themselves.” l


“The traditional wedding cake—where you have one big, formal cake, and you slice it and hand it out—has almost gone away.”

—Mary Ellen Murphy, Off the Beaten Path Weddings


“Simple touches can make any cake elegant, from monogrammed cake toppers to something as easy as a ribbon or even burlap.”

—Ercan Ekinci, Green Turtle Market


For More Information

Chef’s Expressions


Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts


Green Turtle Market


Off the Beaten Path Weddings


Sweet E’s Bake Shop


Taste Catering & Event Planning