Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Dearly Expensive: The Cost of a Wedding Cake

Dearly Expensive: The Cost of a Wedding Cake

Anne Kadet talks to Ron Ben-Israel and other bakers about $15 slices of cake

By Anne Kadet in the Wall Street Journal

What sorts of rare, exotic ingredients go into a $15 slice of cake? If you’re talking about a New York wedding cake, try sugar, flour and eggs. Maybe some butter.
Yes, at the priciest New York bakeries, $15 is the starting point for a slice of wedding cake. And even the more modest local bakeries command hefty prices. According to a recent survey by the Knot, the average Manhattan wedding cake cost $8.58 per portion last year, compared to $4.08 nationwide. Yes, the cake can cost more than the ring.
So what do you get when you’re prepared to blow your life savings on dessert? I checked out Ron Ben-Israel Cakes, perhaps the city’s best-known wedding cakery. First, I would have gotten a consultation with Mr. Ben-Israel himself, a TV celebrity and self-described “pastry genius” who works out of an ultramodern 4,000-square-foot loft in the Garment District. I could have brought the whole family along to sample from dozens of cake flavors and fillings.
“If you’re going to pay $3,000 to $5,000 for a cake, the father of the bride will want to be present,” says Mr. Ben-Israel.
The bakery, which creates about 400 custom cakes a year, would coordinate with the wedding dress designer and floralist. It’s important, you see, that elements on the cake match, say, the beading and lace on the dress. “We custom-mold them in-house,” says Mr. Ben-Israel.
There’s a lot of labor involved. In the Ben-Israel studio, which looks like a science lab, seven artisans and interns were busy frosting cakes and sculpting sugar peonies for the coming season. A large, complicated cake design can start months in advance (sugar flowers never die), and take days to decorate.
But perhaps the most essential element you’re buying is the latest cake style—not, God forbid, some tired 2014 design ripped from Modern Bride. “It’s like fashion, so of course you pay more,” says Mr. Ben-Israel.
In their quest to outdo their peers in scale and originality, New York’s brides and grooms can, and have, ordered cakes assembled entirely from Rice Krispies treats, layered into a deconstructed tree, served upside down from a chandelier or studded with thousands of Swarovski crystals for that mall-bling effect.
But leave it to Brooklyn to produce gluten-free, dairy-free vegan wedding cakes.
Lael Cakes owner Emily Lael Aumiller, whose food allergies give her hives, says she spent years perfecting her recipes. Instead of eggs, she uses a gelatinous flaxseed meal paste. Safflower oil substitutes for butter. The flour is a mix of ground millet, tapioca, arrowroot and brown rice.
I envisioned a brick of frosted granola, perhaps with a few twigs thrown in. But when I made the trek to the Bed-Stuy loft where Ms. Aumiller lives and bakes her smaller orders, I was blown away.
“Wow,” I said, sampling an orange-carrot slice. And it wasn’t a “Wow, I’m going to throw up,” sort of wow. The pastry was moist and tender. It tasted like cake. Really great cake.
At $13 to $14 per portion, of course, it had better be delicious.
‘If you’re going to pay $3,000 to $5,000 for a cake, the father of the bride will want to be present.’
—Ron Ben-Israel
In New York City, there is truly a wedding cake for every budget. Up in the Wakefield section of the Bronx, Eddie Pian, the second-generation owner of E&L Bakery, greets a young bride-to-be and her pal at a cafe table in his storefront bake shop. Dressed in a white undershirt, worn apron, shorts and sneakers, he guides his clients through the options on his Dell Laptop. A big, four-tier cake with sugar roses—but no bling, he says—will run about $500.
Here, the cakes, available with a choice of four frostings or whipped cream, run $2 to $3 a portion. This includes a choice of fillings like the pineapple sauce popular with the neighborhood’s West Indian community.
And down by the Verrazano Bridge, Bay Ridge Bakery owner Nick Nikolopoulos says he can work with a Toyota budget, “or roll with the Bentleys. You pay, we play!”
The crowded backroom kitchen of his neon-lit storefront, which also supplies cheesecake and lemon-meringue pie to diners around the tri-state area, is abuzz with kitchen help from Greece, France and Latin America. Each baker has a radio blasting his favorite ethnic music, producing a cacophony Mr. Nikolopoulos seems to adore.
While he once made a skeleton-topped cake for a couple who married in Green-Wood Cemetery, most of his cakes, which cost $4 to $10 per slice, tend toward the traditional. “Simple! Classy!” he exclaims, thumbing through his iPad cake portfolio.
Mr. Nikolopoulos refuses requests for trendy flavors like passion fruit. “The guests will say, ‘This is disgusting,’” he says. “And will you tell them that you picked it? No! You’re going to blame the baker!”
Like other pastry chefs, he says margins on wedding cakes tend to be smaller than those for other celebration cakes because the clients require so much hand-holding. He’ll often take a loss on a wedding order if the long-term outlook looks promising. “I want the couple to return with the kids for the christenings, the communions, the birthday parties,” he says.
And if that fails? Divorce cakes topped with cleavers and fake blood are a growing business.
“But I try not to specialize in divorce cakes,” he says. “I hope people live happily ever after.”

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