The Sweetest Thing

So this is love. I’m seated at a table for two, plastic fork poised over a lazy Susan, savoring a bite of Caramel Symphony as it melts in my mouth, and watching the love of my life grimace as he swallows the tiniest forkful and drowns it with a glass of water.

Joe hates cake. I suspected this would make choosing our wedding

So this is love. I’m seated at a table for two, plastic fork poised over a lazy Susan, savoring a bite of Caramel Symphony as it melts in my mouth, and watching the love of my life grimace as he swallows the tiniest forkful and drowns it with a glass of water.

Joe hates cake. I suspected this would make choosing our wedding cake a challenge. It can be challenging even if you don’t hate cake. But cake at a wedding is like turkey at Thanksgiving — even if you don’t eat it, it’d be a huge disappointment not to have it. And with endless flavors, fillings and decorations, it’s easy to find a cake that tastes as good as it looks and makes a statement as special as the day.

Tasting #1: Sweet Jazmines Pastry Shop

THE FIRST STOP ON our cake-finding expedition lands us in Kim Cuthbert’s charming Berwyn bakery, Sweet Jazmines. Cuthbert, owner and pastry chef, shows us to the corner table in her shop on Bridge Avenue, where she has been making cakes for seven years. There’s paperwork to fill out with details about the wedding (date, reception site, etc.), but we’re encouraged to taste first and ask questions later.

Cuthbert disappears into the bakery and returns with five slabs of cake, each stuffed with different fillings. “Don’t be shy. If you want to eat it all, eat it all,” she says. Good advice. Cuthbert makes all her cakes from scratch, and they taste like it. It may be the best cake I’ve ever had.

Joe, on the other hand, declares the chocolate inedible, the lemon too tart, the carrot cake too chewy, the raspberry too sweet, and says the divine Caramel Symphony “tastes like pancake syrup.”

Exasperated, I ask him, “If you had to pick a flavor for a cake to taste like, what flavor would you pick?”

“Chicken,” he says, completely serious.

At least we can agree to disagree; according to Cuthbert, many couples go with two cake flavors, alternating between layers. She will do more (her own wedding cake boasted five flavors — “Kind of overkill,” she says), but recommends keeping it to three or less. “Kind of commit to it,” she says, “or guests won’t get enough of the flavor they want.” The most important thing about wedding cake, she says, is making sure it’s served and enjoyed.

Before we leave, she brings out one of her famous sweet-potato muffins. It reminds me of a cinnamon bun, only less sticky, and it trumps everything on the lazy Susan. Could she make this into a cake? I ask. She already has. I’ve found a favorite.

Berwyn, 610-441-1868;
Most popular flavor: Raspberry ’N’ Cream
What we tried: Carrot, chocolate mousse with ganache, Raspberry ’N’ Cream, Lemon Delight, Caramel Symphony, sweet-potato muffin

Tasting #2: The Color of Food

I BEGIN TO WORRY that I’m not dressed up enough — my main concern until now has been to wear loose-fitting pants — when we arrive for tasting number two. It’s in the dining room of the Mansion at Cabrini College in Radnor. Pastry chef Christina Stockett holds tastings there for her Norristown-based business, The Color of Food. (Rodney, her husband and partner, is a chef at the Mansion.)

If you want to feel truly princesslike while stuffing yourself with cake, I recommend the Mansion. Even Joe is impressed until he spies the six plates of cake arranged on the white cloth-covered table.

Stockett had asked me on the phone about any allergies or strong preferences — for or against — certain flavors or foods like nuts or raisins. “I had a tasting where all they wanted was chocolate,” she says. “They were that sure.”

First up: mild white cakes with fruity fillings (lemon and strawberry) that are popular in summer months. The second cake course is chocolates. Joe looks resigned, but pauses on the second slice, devil’s food with milk chocolate and peanut butter filling. He chews thoughtfully, licks his lips and says, “I wouldn’t say I don’t like this.” Then he goes one further: “If I liked cake, I’d like this cake.”

We move on to the third plate, where I’m intrigued by the Sacher torte, which is layered with apricot. Joe doesn’t not like this one, too. Everything is customizable, so we could build our cake with whatever fillings and cake flavors we want. Stockett asks, “If you had to go back and eat some more, which one would it be?” I know she’s trying to be helpful, but after nine slices, Joe looks ready to run.

Norristown, 215-605-4532;
Most popular flavor: Mocha almond with chocolate buttercream
What we tried: Lemon genoise, vanilla genoise with vanilla lemon mousse and strawberry, vanilla pound with caramel buttercream, vanilla with chocolate shavings and chocolate mousse, devil’s food with milk chocolate and peanut butter filling, mocha almond with chocolate buttercream, Sacher torte, almond sandwiched with apricot and almond dacquoise, chocolate coconut layered with chocolate ganache

Tasting #3: Bredenbeck’s Bakery and Ice Cream Parlor

ON THE EARLY SATURDAY morning when we arrive at Bredenbeck’s, few people are out and about, but the bakery is bustling. It’s not unusual, says owner Karen Boyd, for people to come to tastings early and make a day of wedding planning. She has 12 appointments after us today.

We follow Boyd to the tasting room, where the walls are festooned with photos of wedding cakes and happy couples slicing into them. The room is just big enough for the round table at its center with a single plate of cake — no fillings or frills. Every other space is occupied by dummy cakes of all sizes and shapes, sporting all kinds of decorations: flowers, ribbons, curlicues. Boyd and her team of four designers swap the cakes for new ones about every three months.

After 23 years in the bakery business, Boyd has seen everything: color (“I just did one the color of butternut squash”), wild flavors (pineapple coconut was one of the most unusual), shapes (“Squares are in right now”), and currently, cupcake cakes. One of her designers even specializes in vegan wedding cakes. “More couples are looking at cakes as a reflection of their own tastes,” says Boyd.

That goes for design, too. Boyd’s team can make almost anything, and will e-mail computer-rendered images to couples for approval. As we flip through a photo album, Joe and I see the outer limits of cake creativity: painted fondant, tie-dyed icing and cakes that look like wrapped packages. The “Graffiti Cake” catches my eye — a white cake with iced letters spelling out love messages around the sides.

There is little ceremony as Joe and I dig in. There are only four flavors, although couples can request flavors ahead of time. I hadn’t, but I am suddenly struck by the urge to try a mango-flavored cake. Boyd obligingly leads us to the back of the
bakery where she hands me a small plastic cup of a thick, pudding-y substance and two plastic spoons. I pass one to Joe and try some. It’s passion fruit, not mango, but close. So this is curd, I think.

Philadelphia, 215-247-7374;
Most popular flavor: Chocolate-chip pound
What we tried: Raspberry swirl pound, lemon pound, plain pound, chocolate­-chip with sour cream pound

Tasting #4: Ann’s Cake Pan

“THIS IS A LITTLE bit strange,” Joe says as we pull up to the house. I have to agree. It feels odd to do a tasting at someone’s home — even owner Ann Natter’s home — and when I ring the bell, I imagine I’m trick-or-treating for cake.

Natter answers with a smile, even though we’re late. She seats us in what I guess is her living room, at least when it’s not being used as a tasting room for Ann’s Cake Pan, Natter’s Horsham bakery. It’s hard to tell when that might be, because the room is jam-packed with model cakes. I wonder vaguely where she puts them when she has company. It turns out that this setting couldn’t be more appropriate. Natter has been making cakes for 36 years, and she still makes them the old-fashioned way: homemade with real butter and extra-large eggs. Four of her seven kids work with her, and so do two of her grandchildren.

But there’s nothing old-fashioned about how these cakes look. Every decoration is handmade and edible, from sugar snowflakes to rice-paper leaves. Natter points out one topped with mango calla lillies. “These are made with tinted fondant and hand-brushed. And these gerbera daisies,” she says, moving on to another cake, “are all hand-piped petal by petal with meringue frosting.” One of her sons, a self-taught pastry chef, copies the flowers’ details from botanical textbooks.

After a brief tour, Natter sits us on the sofa and hands us a Styrofoam plate covered with plastic wrap. Five blocks of pound cake are arranged around a dollop of icing. She peels back the plastic wrap, sticks a plastic knife into one piece and passes the plate to us with two forks, saying, “You kids can just go ahead.”

That’s all the encouragement I need. The cake is dense and satisfying even without filling or frosting. It reminds me of the cakes my mom makes. Joe likes it too, even going back for a second bite of the old-fashioned butter pound.

I like the fudge best and pound second best. But what I like most is Natter’s take-home policy. “What you don’t want to eat here, we’ll cover it up and you can take it with you,” she says. The leftovers don’t last long. Once in the car, I polish off the rest of the fudge, and Joe devours the pound cake.

Horsham, 215-675-7491;
Most popular flavor: Fudge swirl
What we tried: Old-fashioned butter pound, sour-cream fudge chocolate-chip, fudge swirl, raspberry swirl, pound chip

Tasting #5: Hotel du Pont

BY NOW, JOE AND I doubt anyone can show us anything made of butter, flour and eggs that we haven’t already seen or tasted. We’re wrong.

When we meet chef Michele Mitchell in the Hotel du Pont’s Wedding Room, we’re about to sample her latest slice of creativity. The hotel recently revamped its cake tasting process. Now, couples pick three flavors from a menu of eight standards and are served cubes of cake with bowls of different fillings they can mix and match. “It’s a fun, interactive way to do it,” says Mitchell.

The room is surrounded by models of the hotel’s package cakes: the Quilted Cake, Chantilly Lace, the Wedgwood. Joe and I are both taken with the Mosaic Cake, a simple stacked cake covered in broken pieces of white chocolate.

The cake is served in bowls on curvy trays that have the name of each flavor written in chocolate on their edge. The lemon is the best we’ve had and the fruit fillings are creamy and almost custardlike. Even better, Mitchell is adding passion fruit and mango to the list.

Mitchell occasionally fields special requests (one bride even provided her own recipe), but they’re not common, she says. “Our flavor list is so extensive, by the time they try it all they’re usually wowed.”

Mitchell is on call for cake emergencies — dropped tiers, melting icing, and the occasional request to remake a top tier. One groom, she recalls, had a “refrigerator incident” while his wife was away: He thawed the cake accidentally and didn’t want her to know.

Stuffed, on a sugar high and having eaten my fifth cake-only meal in two weeks, I feel like we’ve made some progress. At the very least, we now agree that the wedding dessert doesn’t have to taste like the entree. I’m sure we’ll be able to come up with something that makes us both happy. Piece of cake.

Wilmington, 302-594-3100, 800-441-9019;
Most popular flavor: Traditional pound soaked in Grand Marnier with raspberry filling
What we tried: pound, chocolate­chip pound, hazelnut pound, marble pound, Swiss chocolate, carrot, almond pound and lemon pound cakes; raspberry jam, apricot jam, chocolate ganache, Swiss chocolate, cream-cheese, lemon and strawberry jam fillings