fireflies and cottonwood

our wedding blog

How to Make a Wedding Cake: a true story of butter, friendship, and love June 19, 2010

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There was a time when I wanted to make my own wedding cake. I was successfully talked out of it by several more knowledgeable friends. (Thanks, Lee.)

But I love baking. And there’s something about a wedding cake.  I love when friends, especially lady friends, come together to create things– baby showers, quilts, trousseaux, wedding petticoats, flowers for prom, casseroles and breads for church homecomings and funerals. When I was in high school, and won a scholarship through the Girl Scouts, some local ladies made a quilt to raffle to help raise money for my additional expenses. The town paper published a story about that, with a photo of me holding the quilt. (A clipping of which is in my hope chest.)

And wedding cake! It seems so Anne of Green Gables to make the wedding cake for one’s dear friend. In the past, I’ve made elaborate themed cakes (for the season premier of LOST, complete with marzipan jungle and Oceanic plane wreckage), birthdays, and baby showers.  But never a wedding cake.

A few months ago, Matt and I went to stay with Jodut and her roommates in Boston, to do a trial run. I first made chocolate and white cakes, and then some fillings, so she could decide what combination she wanted. Then, I did a complete run through. It took fourteen hours, and many pounds of butter. I took notes, and learned a great deal.

Cake Trial 1:

Worshipping at the Altar of the Kitchenaid.

My recipes, covered in vanilla extract.

The cake batter in five of the six pans. Chocolate cupcakes–for sampling–in the background.

After torting the cakes, I filled each layer. Here, I’m filling with chocolate ganache. Note the ring of buttercream to keep the ganache in.

The crumb coat, in buttercream.

The first two tiers.

Frosting the top tier. At this point, the cake was very heavy, and difficult to turn.

Oh, Kitchenaid; you quicken my heart.  Here I’m adding gel food color to royal icing.

Tense!  Jodut looks on as I try to get the orange icing going. At this point, it was close to midnight. I had been attempting to recreate a design we found online.

We discovered that when I “freehanded” the icing (as seen in the light peach tone-on-tone work) it looked better than when I tried to follow another design.

I wasn’t satisfied with the way it looked, but it tasted great. Jodut invited ten friends over, and we ate cake that night and divided it up to take home.  These two slices are from the next morning. You can see the layers– Jodut and Ben chose chocolate ganache for the middle tier, and coconut buttercream for the bottom and top tiers.

For wedding cake recipes that served 120+, I searched . I liked their recipes because I could read reviews from others who had cooked and tasted them.  I used my own recipe for buttercream, as well as for the ganache and coconut buttercream fillings.

I used Wilton cake pans that I ordered from , as well as Wilton cardboard cake rounds.  For assembly, I followed instructions I had read on — each layer included four clean wooden dowels, inserted in the center.  Then, I placed the new tier, on its cardboard round, on top of those dowels.  Dowels were cut even with the surface of the cake.

Finally, after the top tier was placed, Matt helped me sharpen one end of a slightly thicker dowel, and then carefully hammered the entire length of dowel through all three tiers, and both cardboard rounds.  This way, the cake would not shift or slide out of place.

What I learned: it took a long time, and by the time I was icing, I was very physically tired from being on my feet and using my arm muscles for so long. I also learned that I needed much more filling that I had originally anticipated, and that my free-hand decorating was much more beautiful.

Also, frankly, I was unsatisfied with the smoothness of the buttercream surface. I experimented using Martha Stewart’s method of smoothing buttercream, and even tried “the paper towel” method, where one uses a smooth paper towel and a fondant smoother to even out the surface.

And yet, fondant isn’t tasty. Cookbooks refer to it as “an acquired taste,” and even though most glossy wedding magazines now feature elaborate, super-smooth fondant cakes, most wedding guests I spoke to described peeling off and discarding the fondant before eating the cake.

Jodut didn’t want anything that wasn’t tasty. I was alarmed by the fact that we could buy pre-made, shelf-stable fondant from the shelves of the local craft store.

I did some researching, and found a recipe for “marshmallow fondant,” again on .  Now, marshmallows aren’t halal, but further down the recipe thread, another poster mentioned using marshmallow Fluff.  Fluff!  So I experimented, making a batch of marshmallow Fluff fondant, and covering a normal-sized cake with it.  It tastes like nougat, like the inside of a 3 Musketeers bar. I took it to school, and colleagues and students alike raved about it, ate every bit, and reassured me that it tasted nothing like any fondant they’d ever had.

Cake Trial 2:

Here I’m kneading out the Fluff fondant. At first, it’s really, really sticky, but then it becomes very smooth and fun to work with. Not sticky like marzipan, but more like a sturdy play-doh. I’m working on Crisco on my tabletop.  Later, I soon realized that I needed to work on wax paper, or I wouldn’t be able to lift the fondant off of the table.

I’m covering the cake with the Fluff fondant. It drapes beautifully.

This is the finished surface.

I realized that my tiers were baking unevenly, so I googled “bake even surface.” I found that there’s a tool called baking strips, that insulate the edged so they middle of the cake doesn’t bake so much more slowly than the edges.  I also got myself a real (Wilton) fondant smoother.

The Big Day!

For the wedding, I was ready. I had baking strips, great recipes, a fondant smoother, and much more confidence in my ability to pull this off.

Same Kitchenaid, different kitchen. For the real thing, Ben’s parents graciously welcomed us into their home for two days.

The bottom tier overwhelms the refrigerator. Because our gift to the couple was edible, we also gave them a beautiful silver platter and serving pieces, that they can keep forever-after.

Getting ready to pipe. This is the day of the wedding; my hair is set to hopefully fall out in nice waves later, and my mendhi is covered by blue rubber gloves.

The finished cake!  I copied designs straight from my mendhi, and free-handed it all. I traveled to the reception site with the cake still in three tiers. I did my hair and make-up in the car. Matt helped me assemble the cake (too heavy for me to lift) and I piped icing along each layer, and added the flowers.

Close-up of the bottom tier. We chose fresh flowers to compliment the colors, and tie in the bouquets and centerpieces. Matt prepared the flowers and packed them in fresh water to bring to the reception site.

The happy couple!

I would do it again, for someone I love. I wouldn’t go into it as a business, because I’m not sure I can re-create what each person would want. Jodut wanted a beautiful cake inspired by a color palette, and trusted me to make something beautiful.  I had a really great time the day before the wedding putting it all together. When Jodut and Ben fed a piece to each other, and then to each of their parents, my eyes filled with tears.  Yes, it was much more labor-intensive than choosing something off their registry, but it was–for me–the perfect way for me to show Jodut how much her friendship means to me, and celebrate the love and marriage of two of our dearest friends.

I love you, Jodut!

Special thanks to our original roommates, Tom and Eric, for helping me roll out and place the fondant the day before the wedding. I could not have done it without them– their humor, energy, and hard work buoyed me in those last few hours.

I cross-posted this on our wedding blog because, like, it’s a wedding cake!


This Magic Moment: Recap 1 February 23, 2010

We need to begin some sort of recap. We have so much to say!  We also want to post our wedding play list, our budget, and other behinds the scenes details– the sorts of helpful details I scoured wedding blogs for, in ideas for ours.  But first, we have to recap it!


Where to begin?  When I think back, I remember being in St. Louis the week before, with friends and family.  Some snapshots:


1. Staying the night with Amy, while Mike went to the bachelor party.  We had Mexican food, went to Target, and watched girly movies while finishing up bridespeople gifts.  Too fun.


I was too excited to sleep, even though we went to bed late. I got up and kept writing notes to the bridespeople, and was awake when Mike stumbled in at around two o’clock in the morning.  He had some funny stories, or the beginnings of stories, to share, and then he went to bed.  Then, I went for a walk.  And got lost!  In Affton!  But the roads are so curvy!  While I walked, I prayed a little, especially praying that I would be able to stay present for all of the beautiful parts, and that the wedding day wouldn’t go by too quickly.


When I got back to the house, darling Buttons the dog pictured me as an intruder–everyone else was asleep!–and growled at me, and wouldn’t let me past the dining room. So I lay on the couch until he went away. And then fell asleep, finally, at 6AM, in Maeve’s sweet pink butterflied bedroom.


I woke up a little before 10AM. Nick was supposed to come grab me for brunch, but he–shall we say– had had a long night at the bachelor party.  So I hung out until Matt could come get me–we had a noon meeting with the photographers. Who we hadn’t even met yet, incredibly!


2. The photographers. Amazing, and so meant to be.  Our previous photographers had fallen through, and I had been a fan of Jodie and Kim for as long as I’d known about their photographs online.  The week before we left for St. Louis, I e-mailed Jodie– hoping that they might do weddings. I was beginning to think I’d have to fly someone down from NYC!


The initial meeting with them was beyond, beyond. Our energies met and took off immediately, and they were really excited by my “vision.” I told them about the Green World, and all of my beloved friends, and how I love old photographs, and the Edwardians, and the Victorians… I said, “I want it to be like we’re in the middle of a grand dinner party. It’s the middle of a great war, in England perhaps, and everything is rationed. No butter, no sugar, no candles. But we’re pulling everything together, for one brave and merry night. We’ve gone up to the attic, and dragged down everything fine: candlesticks, mirrors, furniture. We’re dressed, and candle-lit, and having a time.”


Their creative minds were amazing to see in process, thinking out loud, and throwing back and forth ideas, and immediately making calls to see how we could get props and make this happen.  You’ve seen the result.  Breath-taking.  Kim said, of those sneak peeks, “Those pictures came right out of your brilliant head.”  Not my head– the hearts of me, our loved ones, and Kim and Jodie.  But yes: they seem unreal.


Then!  After our lunch meeting, we ran across the street to my beloved Pearson House, to take some “engagement” shots. We had been disappointed by the ones we had taken here, and Jodie and Kim wanted to make that up to us. We had thirty minutes.  Thirty minutes, and it was very cold!  We waltzed, and laughed, and shouted across the lawn at one another. And, another testament to their genius, those results are also incredible.


Then, Matt headed to the hotel, to meet up with the Varnons (at large), and check-in.  I met four of the bridespeople for nails– and saw Jodut for the first time in a while, as well as Jennifer and Erin.  That’s when I started to get the sensation of, “Oh my goodness– my friends, my best friends, the women I love… they’re here in this salon, with _me_.”  It was strange, like Christmas or a birthday…but more.  I kept shrieking, “Jodut!” “Erin!” “Jennifer, you’re here!”  Oh, the goodness.


Then, Eric and Tom came to pick me and Jodut up, and take us to the hotel. I walked into the lobby, and started seeing Varnons.  So happy!  We had dinner in the restaurant at the hotel.  While we were eating, I got a text, “Is this Stephanie H.?”  I texted back, “Yes…”  The reply: “Do you recognize the man in a Yankees cap sitting in front of you?” I looked, and saw, John T.!  A boy I went to eleven years of school with, first through twelve grades, and was close friends with–a pack of us–in high school.


Then… up to the hotel suite, the Sky Cove, as we called it.  Posh!  Spacious (bigger than our NYC apartment)! Amazing view!  A platter of treats waiting for us.  I don’t know how I slept at all in that beautiful room, with all of the exciting thing going on around me.


This must have been New Year’s Eve, because there was a big party going on in the hotel that night, and Mike and Amy came downtown to it. So I joined them for a while, and drank wine and danced with Amy. And looked at all of the crazy dresses people had on, and met some DJs.


And then, I finally went to sleep, in the Sky Cove bed– so big that Matt and I could barely find each other in it. When we would awake, it’d be the day of the rehearsal.


Photography LOVE: Fresh Art Photography December 23, 2009

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We had some wonderful news last week.  Our plans with our original photographers fell through, and I was wondering if I knew anyone else who did great photography in St. Louis.  I was even thinking we could fly down someone from here in NYC.

Happily, Jodie and Kim from Fresh Art Photography had the day free, and are thrilled to be doing our wedding.  I’d been a fan of Jodie’s work for a while– she’s a talented photographer, artist, and young mother. Her mother is an old friend from Emmanuel who I’ve known for years, and I started following Jodie’s photography blog over a year ago.  I wasn’t sure if they did weddings, but thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask.

Check out their site and blog for breathtakingly gorgeous, and totally creative photos of babies, families, couples, and some incredible actions shots of the local football team, and more beauty than I can describe.  We are over the moon that they’ll be capturing all of us on the wedding day.


In love: Njur Design December 16, 2009

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It arrived in the mail, demurely wrapped in brown parcel paper, covered in Polish stamps.

Inside, a white box shimmered with silver handwriting, a translucent label, and ivory ribbon.

My heart started racing.  I opened the box: first, I saw the silver handwriting, on a small tag, on an ethereal fabric flower.  The color of the fabric?  Imagine the inside of a seashell, lit by candlelight.

And I hadn’t even ordered a fabric flower. I had ordered a bolero, to wear atop my wedding gown.  It will be chilly in January, and I wanted something to cover my arms.

I had been scouring Etsy for more than six months. I looked at lace boleros, ones knitted with mohair or cashmere, little jackets with beads and satin, and tulle confections and capelettes.

Nothing was quite right. Either I worried that the lace wouldn’t match the lace applique on my dress, or the fabric wasn’t luxe enough, or when I contacted the seller I didn’t feel good about working with them.

Finally, I happened upon Njur Design. First, I noticed that there seems to be a narrative for the collection, and for each piece.  Notice that the garments and jewelry have natural names, and seem part of a near-enchanted landscape.

Now, look at the fabrics.  Oh, the billows of her skirts, the unique lenghths of ribbon falling, the unusual textures and play of shadow and light.

I contacted the designer, and she is amazing to work with.  I ordered the Ice Mountain Bolero.  Honestly, if I had found Njur Designs before I had purchased my wedding gown, I would have happily ordered my gown from her as well.  Look at the Spring Frost dress—-breathtaking!  Maybe for the next fancy party I go to, I’ll have her make me the Spring Frost in a grey or deep blue…

Back to opening the package.  The flower corsage was a lovely, gracious gift.  After I oohed and ahhed over it, and showed it to Matt, I carefully pulled the bolero out of its wrappings.

Oh, my.  It is even more beautiful than in the photographs.  The fabric is incredibly light, the lining is a dream, and it feels like I’m wearing something made by elves.  I cannot describe how the fabric looks in the change of light.  It is exactly the color of the wide ribbon the florist will use for our bouquets, and matches the lace on my dress.

And, the button!  Speaking of elves.  The pewter button that fastens it is itself a work of art, clearly handmade, and signed on the back.  I like to imagine that the designer found it in an enchanted mountain stream, high above the valley.

I am in love.  The sleeves are dramatic and the whole thing fits me perfectly.  I cannot wait to wear everything together: the gown, my golden shoes, Janet’s veil, earrings Matt bought me for the occasion, and this bolero: a perfect piece of art.


25 days December 8, 2009

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1.  We are very thankfully, and happily, under budget.  This is important because being thrifty and responsible with money is important to us.  It’s also important because neither of us has a credit card— and if something happens like the cake catches on fire, or 50 extra people show up, we’ll have to pay for it with money we already have.

2. I’m not stressed out, and neither is Matt.  We’re excited. I feel like it’s my birthday coming up, plus Christmas, plus the best family dinner ever.  Our vendors are amazing, and have worked in our spaces before, and so I don’t feel like I need to tell them anything, or fuss at them about anything. I trust them and can’t wait to see how it turns out.

3. I wish I could slow down this time, to relish it.  I actually don’t think about the wedding that often; mostly I’m thinking about school, my kids, the Journal, and the Christmas pageant. And whether the recycling is out, and if we need milk.  I wish I could just take a few days and look carefully at my dress, and write love notes to all of our guests, and daydream about the food and music.  Alas: life is swirling all around me.

4. We went through the hymnal last night. It was fun choosing our hymns; I enjoyed singing out my favorites to Matt, and hearing him point out ones that he liked.

5. Last on the to-do list: Gift for the ring bearer, finish crafting a few gifts for the bridespeople, make table cards and place cards (and mail with books for the tablescapes to the florist) and make paper flowers.  Students may be helping me with the last one.

6. Our wedding bands arrived yesterday. It was exciting trying them on, and seeing a ring on Matt’s finger.  We ordered them from an amazing jeweler on Etsy. We were noting last night that except for using the Hyatt, and my dress, every piece of our wedding supports a small and local business.  Our cake, our photographers, the brewery, the rings, my bolero, Matt’s jacket and accessories.

7. The bridespeople continue to be amazing, and I know we both feel tingly and excited by how our friends and family are supporting us, and excited for us, in countless ways.  25 days until I can tell everyone how happy I am in person.


Maps and Such December 6, 2009

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I have been working on a Google Map for the wedding. I put some restaurants down on it, plus where some of the MetroLink stops are, and the locations of the hotel, wedding, and reception. Finally, I have some of the different locations mentioned as “Things To Do in St. Louis.” I’ll likely add some more things to do and restaurants, but I wanted to have this up.

Then, our dear friend and bridesmaid Janet found some information about parking in downtown, so we have a handy map here.


“Don’t call what you’re wearing an outfit” November 16, 2009

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Despite what Jason Isbell sings, I have been most definitely putting together an outfit in my head for the wedding. I find it a bit odd to walk into the shoe department at Macy’s on 34th, which I did yesterday, and have very definite opinions to explain to the saleslady about what I want my shoes to look like. I am not used to having strong opinions about these things. Right now, I can pretty clearly visualize what I will be wearing when I am standing in the front of Emmanuel Episcopal Church on January 2, waiting for my love to come down the aisle to me.

My jacket: I have a charcoal grey tweed Crail jacket and three-button waistcoat on order from Thistle & Clover, the Scottish/Irish store on Main Street in Old St. Charles. They have ordered it from a supplier in Scotland, and hopefully it should arrive in the first week of December. Stephanie got a look at the version they had in the store, and I assume it will look pretty much like this (only in my size):


My shoes: I wanted to buy shoes that looked nice, were appropriate to wear with a kilt, but which I might wear other times when I was dressing up, and not just with my kilt. After poking around online to see what I liked, I went twice down to DSW to see if they would have what I wanted, and ended up yesterday at Macy’s, settling eventually on this pair:

Bostonian Whateley

They feel pretty comfortable for dress shoes, and look good with the kilt stockings.

My belt & sporran: We haven’t chosen these, really, but from Stephanie’s scouting trip to Thistle & Clover, I saw a belt and sporran that I like. For the belt, I favor the one with the embossed thistle design:


For the sporran, I didn’t want anything with fur on it, and I didn’t want anything with tassels that would clatter when I walked. This one, with a Celtic knot design looks good to me:


My kilt: I have a kilt in the Dunbar tartan, custom-tailored, which I wore in Andrew’s wedding.


Flashes and Socks: Finishing it all off, I have cream-colored woolen kilt hose, and the flashes I got when I originally got the kilt from my grandparents, way back in high school:


Tie & shirt: I’ll be wearing my green Burns tie, and I’ll get a new white shirt, but a regular buttoned one, I imagine, not one needing cuff links. We’ll see about that, though.