Let Them Eat Cake (or not)

How caterers are meeting the demand for fresh wedding dessert options

By Connie Jeske Crane

If you stop and think about it for a minute, the shift we’ve seen recently in wedding desserts is pretty revolutionary. For a whole century, those white, icing-laden, multi-tiered wedding cakes—believed to have debuted at a royal wedding in the late 1800s—enjoyed iconic status. The giant concoctions towered at receptions and were a go-to option for everyday couples and luminaries alike.

Yet those same cakes, which couples used to feed each other in smushy bites and slice up for guests, have begun a slow slide out of favor.

Many caterers today confirm this trend. “About 35 or 40 percent of our weddings might not have any traditional cake or might just have the one-tier cake,” says Melissa Johnson, managing director of Cameron Mitchell Premier Events in Columbus, Ohio.

“With our weddings, I would say approximately 80 percent are not doing cakes anymore,” says Nicholas Waters, owner of Toque Catering in Victoria, B.C., Canada. “What I find a lot is people are doing ‘fake cakes,’ so a cake that’s just for the cake cutting, and then they’re moving to other desserts.”

Statistics back up what caterers are seeing. In 2018, in its annual wedding survey, The Knot found 58 percent of couples opted for a traditional cake; in other words, some 42 percent of couples chose to break with tradition.

To be blunt, what this means for caterers is opportunity. Especially if a caterer has been steering clients to specialty bakers in the past, today there’s growth potential in desserts.

So how to satisfy the dessert-time cravings of today’s happy couples? We talked to innovative caterers and noted some key trends.

Mini desserts are popular with wedding clients of Cameron Mitchell Premier Events in Columbus, Ohio.

1. Customer-driven food

In today’s less-traditional landscape, caterers like Waters of Toque Catering say listening to couples is a key first step. “We’re just having a lot of fun. We’re trying to find out what the client’s favorite desserts are, and then taking it and twisting it.”

In Ohio, Johnson of Cameron Mitchell Premier Events says, “When we’re talking to our sales team members and training specifically about weddings, we say, ‘Ask a few poignant questions, and then just listen and take some great notes.’” Dessert selections that reflect a couple’s preferences, travel or background and tell a “bit of a story” work really well, she says.

At the same time, with so many options and Instagram inspiration, Johnson sees a new challenge for caterers in helping couples balance visions and pocketbooks: “We try to find ways to bring some of those things to life while still staying truly within their budget.”

Dessert tacos by Roots Catering

2. Miniature versions of favorite desserts

So what are couples choosing over towering wedding cakes? Johnson points to the mini dessert trend. “You’ve got all sorts of different dietary restrictions you might be trying to accommodate,” she notes. “You can do that with a variety of mini desserts as opposed to just committing to one large cake, and I think some of these mini desserts are just really fun.”

Examples here vary depending on couples’ preferences. Craig Barbour, owner of Roots Catering in Charlotte, N.C., says his company has been serving pie pops—“basically a turnover on a stick”—and also push-pops filled with various flavors. “It could be cheesecake or raspberry curd and fresh fruit.”

Waters shares another scenario. “Say someone’s favorite dessert is cheesecake—we’re doing these cheesecake-stuffed strawberries, where we take the strawberries and hollow them out and stuff them with cheesecake and dip them in graham cracker dust.”

Dessert display by Cameron Mitchell Premier Events

3. Ice cream is making a comeback

Admittedly, there are some extra logistics to work out related to temperatures and serving times. Yet caterers stress how much wedding crowds are loving ice cream, whether mini cones, bars or sandwich variations.

Toque Catering does macaron ice cream sandwiches featuring both house-made ice cream and macarons, and Waters says he’ll create pretty much any flavor of ice cream for clients. “It’s more of a specialty one, but we even do a foie gras ice cream sandwich or cone.”

Macaron ice cream sandwiches by Toque Catering

4. Fresh, seasonal flavors

Around flavoring, Barbour notes florals are huge. “We’ve been doing them in sugar cookies, shortbread cookies, putting lavender into some of our flavors, like pear lavender pie pops. Anything that’s floral seems to sell really well.”

Waters is noticing “a lot of people are into different savory flavors, so we’re doing more savory crème brûlée and things like that, depending on the season. In the fall we have a parsnip one and a squash one.”

5. Cultural nods

Another great way caterers can add impact, says Barbour, is to help couples share nostalgic or cultural favorites at dessert time. He recently had couples that brought in sweets from the Dominican Republic and their favorite New York bakery. “Using that as an addition to your cake and your dessert display has been really popular.”

When clients wanted a French-inspired touch, Eggwhites Special Event Catering in Miami, Fla., recently included a flower-strewn mille-feuille tower, and a dazzling gold and white croquembouche at different weddings.

Croquembouche by Eggwhites Special Event Catering (photo by Emily Harris Photography)

6. Adding a cheese course

For clients who just don’t like cake, cheese wheel cakes offer an alternative—plus a stunning “wow” factor. In Madison, Wis., Ken Monteleone, owner of Fromagination cheese shop, started offering wedding “cakes” about seven years ago, and today ships them all over the country. Typically served during the appetizer or dessert course, cheese wheel cakes, says Monteleone, are catching on in the U.S.

Interested caterers can either hire cheesemongers as servers or receive instructions on cutting and serving. Besides topping the “cake” with a soft cheese for cake-cutting time, for dessert courses, Monteleone says, “we would focus more on some of the decadent triple crème cheeses. We have a great cheese called Délice de Bourgogne; it’s a triple crème out of France that in my opinion is better than ice cream and pairs nicely with rosé or sparkling wines.” Blue cheeses paired with figs, walnuts and port are another recommendation.

Farmer’s Daughter Cake of Cheese by Fromagination (photo by Todd Maughan/Fromagination)

7. New ways to serve cake

When couples opt for cake, you can always suggest new twists, too. Johnson says couples sometimes opt for elaborate single-layer cakes. She also keeps up with what’s trending in tiered cakes, like new black cakes. “It seems to add a little bit more sophistication and that moodiness. You can pop beautiful flowers off of the cake.”

An option Barbour likes is having clients buy a small cutting cake while he prepares a nicely flavored sheet cake in-house for a few dollars per person. This eliminates worries over cakes drying out or toppling, he says, and “you don’t have the disruption of having servers out there on the floor cutting wedding cake while people are trying to hang out and dance. You can have it all in the back ready to go, and have made money and made service a lot easier.”

Cinnamon roll cake by Cameron Mitchell Premier Events

8. Interactive, engaging serving formats

The best wedding desserts today, say caterers, offer guests a chance for engagement, fun and the unexpected. As Barbour says, guests today simply don’t all want “to sit down with a big slice of cake” anymore.

From a caterer’s perspective, this means some investment into new display pieces, like large grazing tables, dessert walls, florals and elegant stands for mini dessert displays, plus purpose-built trays for passing around desserts on the dance floor.

Adding interactive components is great, too, says Johnson, citing things like a meringue dessert, where guests can smash meringues, and DIY ice cream bars.

When you’re doing it right, you can see it in your guests’ reactions, says Barbour. “I really like when guests get to say, ‘Oh man, I thought that was it!’ and then you keep throwing new things at them throughout the event that keep them engaged and interested.”

Cookie display by Roots Catering

For More Information

Roots Catering • roots-catering.com
Cameron Mitchell Premier Events • cameronmitchellpremierevents.com
Fromagination • fromagination.com
Toque Catering • toquecatering.com
Eggwhites Special Event Catering • eggwhitescatering.com

Sweet Suggestions

Perfect for serving to guests with food restrictions, Vegan Chocolate Cake from Gem City Fine Foods is a moist chocolate two-layer cupcake topped with a creamy vanilla sugar frosting. Baked in a dedicated gluten- and nut-free commercial facility, the 6-inch cake is free from the top eight food allergens (milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybean). Easy to decorate, the cakes are baked in the USA, shipped frozen and available in foodservice quantities. • gemcityfinefoods.com

Add some sparkle to the dessert table with Bedazzle My Bonbons. The bonbons are available in 36 shimmery shades and eight flavors: Original (a custom blend of milk and dark chocolate ganache), Extra-Dark (darker chocolate, with 60 percent cocoa), Raspberry, Dulce de Leche, Hazelnut, Peanut Butter, Mint and White Chocolate. Bedazzle My Bonbons are custom-made for each event, and can be given as party favors, serve as cake decorations, add sparkle to centerpieces and more. Pictured are bonbons in two of the most popular colors—Precious Pink and Sophisticated Silver—in the popular two-piece box presentation, adorned with a silver ribbon. • bedazzlemybonbons.com

Dandies Marshmallows from Chicago Vegan Foods solve the problem of how to serve desserts featuring the iconic sweet treat to vegan guests. The 100% vegan marshmallows are all-natural, gluten-free, gelatin-free, certified kosher and Non-GMO Project Verified. Dandies are made with real vanilla and vegan cane sugar, and are free of high-fructose corn syrup as well as the common allergens of gluten, wheat, dairy, eggs, corn, peanuts and tree nuts. Sold in quantities starting at 15-pound cases, Dandies also melt like traditional marshmallows. • dandies.com

Chocolate dessert wafers from American Chocolate Designs are an ideal garnish for a cupcake, plated dessert or other confection. The company creates custom designs, such as monograms for weddings, in oval, square, round and heart shapes of various sizes, utilizing 26 edible print colors. Caterers can also choose from a library of standard designs. The wafer chocolate—either dark milk chocolate or white chocolate—is made from cocoa beans sourced from farmers using sustainable cocoa cultivation techniques, with pure cocoa butter, natural vanilla, premium milk powder and fine sugar. All wafers are produced at American Chocolate Designs’ facility in Atlanta. The company also offers transfer sheets for chocolate, in both customized and standard designs. • americanchocolatedesigns.com