Mehnaz Kahn apply the frosting to her cake.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Food & Drink

Inside the final exam in Cabrillo’s Art of Creating Wedding Cakes class

Whether they’re looking to take the next step professionally or wanting to show off for friends and family, the students in Anne Baldzikowski’s Cabrillo College class learn to assemble wedding cakes from the bottom up. Laura Sutherland sat in on the final exam, where there’s extra credit for cutting up your cake and letting classmates take a bite.

Imagine 14 wedding cakes spread out along a series of counters and tables — some cakes are coated in white frosting, of course; others in lavender, light pink, classic ivory or the palest seafoam green. It’s Cabrillo College’s The Art of Creating Wedding Cakes class final, and students have brought in the two-tiered cakes they’ve baked to decorate in class and prove to instructor Anne Baldzikowski that they’ve been paying attention and practicing.

The students twirl the cakes on carousels while they carefully smooth on a final layer of frosting. One student’s hand slips and her bottom layer, with its carefully etched lines, smears in one part — she sighs, smooths it and adds the lines again until it’s perfect.

Farther down the table, culinary student Emerald Webb has collected fresh pink roses and deep blue borage flowers from her garden — all edible — and places them on her cake. Caleb Arensberg practices piping a fancy edging design on some wax paper and then starts in on the bottom of his cake, keeping his hand super steady.

Wedding cakes
The final creation by Katrina Perez-Paz.
(Via Anne Baldzikowski)

In the other classroom kitchen around the corner, more designs are taking shape. One student squeegees a sugar slurry over a silicon sugar lace sheet mold and tucks the “sugar veil,” as it’s called, into a warm oven. Once it’s dried a bit, she’ll attempt to carefully unmold the edible lace and use it on the cake.

Wedding cakes
Lucia Tavel’s final cake.
(Via Anne Baldzikowski)

Baldzikowski breezes between the two kitchens, encouraging, offering tips and assisting students when needed, like helping one smooth on a covering of fondant before it dries.

The frosting

Wedding cakes
Sydney Aratin’s sketch and final cake.
(Via Anne Baldzikowski)

Most culinary programs around the country offer cake-baking and decorating classes, but only a handful offer a specific wedding cake class, with its unusual requirements, like making sure the frosting will hold up in case the cake sits outside for a hot summer day reception (thank you, Swiss and Italian meringue buttercream, which the students learn to make — it’s egg whites that give it an added measure of toughness … and lightness at the same time). Baldzikowski designed the baking program at Cabrillo in 2007 and she had a successful wedding cake business before becoming an instructor, so she knows all about real-world challenges.

Wedding cakes
Kim Sherer’s wedding cake for her daughter and new son-in-law.
(Laura Sutherland / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Students first “crumb coat” their cakes, which is a layer of frosting that acts like a primer so nothing — not a single crumb — sullies the final frosting layer meant to wow the lucky people who get to eat it. Then they add a final coat of frosting or cover the cake with a sheet of fondant they’ve rolled out into a thin layer.

The engineering

Wedding cakes
Marina Ceya’s cake with its Greek columns.
(Laura Sutherland / Lookout Santa Cruz)

These are two-tiered cakes, so they need to be supported. Fancy pedestals can be used, like the Greek columns that support Marina Ceya’s cake, but most students use fat plastic straws or wooden dowels. Mehnaz Kahn, a mechanical engineer and baking fan who commuted from Silicon Valley for the class, explained, “You want a distributed load, and it’s fine if the columns are hollow because most of the column support comes on the outer edges. They’re not going to buckle and will sustain the weight of the cake on top that sits on a piece of baking cardboard that’s been cut to shape.”

Wedding cakes
Mehnaz Kahn’s cake with its gum paste flowers.
(Laura Sutherland / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Another student advised, “First you stick your dowel into the bottom layer of the cake and mark it where the frosting ends. Then you cut all the others to the same length, so even if the cake is uneven, the top cake layer will be level.”

Ornamentation: The cake is your canvas

The students had sketched their final cake designs — part of the assignment — and were turning them into reality in front of our eyes. Piping bags and tips and sculpting materials offered endless possibilities for creating decorations. “Students get to play with everything in the class’s labs, which are like ateliers,” says Baldzikowski, “places where artists come to experiment. All the materials are provided and students get to explore them.”

Fondant is probably the best-known modeling material: Students make it in class and experiment with it to understand its properties. Cynthia Zamora — who received a prestigious scholarship from San Francisco’s Bakers Dozen group — did a very cool fondant diamond-tuck design accented with edible pearls on the bottom layer of her cake, while Kimberly Horowitz sculpted flowers and a personalized medallion.

Cynthia Zamora carefully placing a frosting rose on her cake.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Chocolate modeling clay made of corn syrup and chocolate offered plenty of possibilities — Arensberg used it to model the tree and branches that soared over both his layers, and Amber McGowan sculpted flowers and bows. “It takes practice,” McGowan says. “The bows were especially tricky, but I’d made hair bows before and that helped, although working with ribbon and a hot glue gun is way easier!”

Gum paste (bought premade) offers the greatest detail. “It’s like china,” says Baldzikowski, “and can be very thin and is hard when it dries. You have to make flowers one petal at a time.” Kahn carried her delicate gum paste flowers in an egg carton to protect them on the ride over the hill.

Wedding cakes
Detail of Mehnaz Kahn’s gum paste flowers.
(Via Anne Baldzikowski)

Edible fresh flowers can be used too, or they can be crystallized by brushing them with an egg white and water mix, sprinkling on sugar to give them a sparkle and drying them for 48 hours so they hold their form.

Next steps: Baking careers or simply impressing friends and families

Most of the students are fulfilling part of their baking certificate or culinary degree. Some are newcomers to baking and decorating, while others have their foot in the door of local bakeries. McGowan, who also received a scholarship from the nonprofit Bakers Dozen group of baking professionals and enthusiasts, recently got a job at Companion Bakeshop, and other students work at Gayle’s Bakery and Rosticceria and Adorable French Bakery as they continue their culinary studies.

A few were taking the class for fun, like Kahn and also Horowitz, whose daughter had gotten married two weeks earlier and didn’t have a formal wedding cake. At a family party the day after the final, she surprised the newlyweds with her cake decorated in their honor.

The final product

At the end of the class, all the cakes were displayed and admired. Any student who agreed to cut into their cake and serve it to the class could receive six extra credit points.

Caleb Arensberg's finished product.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Arensberg immediately offered his … but I don’t think he was doing it for the points — I think he just wanted to eat it, since he’d nailed all the requirements and therefore received 66 out of a possible 60 points for his original and highly edible creation. And yes, his extra credit points were a hit with the entire class.

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