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"The Most Dangerous Food Is Wedding Cake" - James Thurber"
For someone with as many control freak tendencies as me, it is perhaps surprising that I didn't transform into a "bridezilla" as many women allegedly do when presented with the task of organising their wedding. But throughout the whole process, there were only three aspects that I was unmovable on - I wasn't being given away, I wasn't going to make a big entrance to the ceremony room, and the cake was going to be chocolate. This last point was crucial. After all, if I was spending the most money I was ever going to spend on a cake, then it was going to be my favourite sort. Besides, I can't stand fruit cakes and some of the traditional wedding cakes I've tried in the past would have been better used as draught excluders or door stops than food. And that is even before I get on to mentioning how nasty I find the thick layers of icing that swaddle many cakes...
"Eating Fruit Cake Seems Too Much Like Cannibalism"
I thought at first that finding someone to supply a non-traditional chocolate cake for a wedding might be a little tricky. Certainly we didn't have the range of suppliers to choose from that we would have had if we had gone for a regular fruit cake, but in a way that was a good thing; choosing between three options (as we did) is fairly easy, whereas choosing between a dozen or more just overwhelms you with choice. Option one in the cake stakes was a personal recommendation from Other Half's work, where a recently hitched colleague recommended a supplier of "fabulous" chocolate celebration cakes. While personal recommendation is always a good starting point, buying a cake from option one would have seriously stretched our budget - and that was before we even added delivery charges on top. At this point I should mention that taking delivery into account was very important, partly because neither of us fancied driving around with a fragile cake in the back of the car, and partly because a chocolate cake would need to be collected on the day of the wedding (as a fresh chocolate cake couldn't last as well as a fruit-and-icing cake) and we really wouldn't have the time for such an errand. Option number two was a local family business whose cake sample was good, but who cancelled our first appointment at the last minute and then failed to provide a quote within the time frame they said they would. Although this would have been the cheapest cake - and they had some nice deign options - based on this experience of their service, we were just too nervous that they wouldn't deliver on the day. This left option three, Contemporary Cake Designs.
I should add at this point that we didn't simply select Contemporary Cake Designs simply by virtue of elimination; the company had a lot more going for them than that. It is run by two people, Bee and Xavier, who between them have an awful lot of professional experience. She is a cake designer who has worked in the Harrods wedding cake department, while he is a pastry chef and chocolatier with experience at top restaurants, including the Ivy. Their website lists chocolate wedding cakes as one of their specialities, and best of all you can match any of the nine types of cake offered (carrot cake, valhrona chocolate sponge, valhrona chocolate truffle torte, vanilla cake, lemon drizzle cake, coffee sponge, coffee and walnut sponge, toffee and date sponge with praline, and coconut and Malibu) with a chocolate decoration, so you can design an either entirely chocolate cake or a cake with just chocolate decorations. This, to us, had always sounded like the most promising option from day one, although we anticipated that all this culinary genius would not come cheap. Nonetheless, we thought it was worth setting up a meeting with them, and sent off a speculative email. Within 24 hours we had arranged to meet Xavier on a forthcoming Saturday morning.
"Cake Or Death?"
The initial meeting with Xavier happened not at Contemporary Cake Designs as you might have expected, but rather in the Queen's Hotel, an upmarket establishment in the middle of Cheltenham. Initially assuming he must have some sort of hired premises within the hotel, or at least a formal regular arrangement to meet clients there, we naturally approached the reception desk upon arrival and asked for him. The receptionist looked a little confused, and, after consulting various papers, told us that no one by that name was expected, but we were welcome to sit and wait if we wished. Slightly mystified, we took up residence on a pair of comfy seats within view of the door and pondered whether we may have arrived on the wrong day, wrong time or wrong venue. It also set alarm bells ringing slightly; why would we be meeting him in a hotel lobby that apparently had no knowledge of him or his business? I did feel a little uncomfortable in this situation; apart from the lack of formal arrangement with the hotel, the venue was decidedly swish and I felt very out of place in my habitual jeans and trainers.
Fortunately we didn't have to wait long. Precisely on time, a tall man in a suit who we recognised from his website photo walked in the door and we both breathed a small sigh of relief that we hadn't been cluttering up one of the town's poshest venues for no good reason. After introducing ourselves to Xavier, he opened his briefcase and presented us with brochures of cakes that he had made for other clients, testimonials and (most importantly) three different samples for us to try at our leisure (of the vanilla sponge, the lemon drizzle and the chocolate sponge). We had, at this point, a vague idea of what we wanted - we had a budget, knew the guest numbers, and knew we wanted a chocolate cake, most probably with a chocolate filling - but had no idea how we wanted the cake to look. Clearly the iconic multi-tiered type cake was not going to be appropriate when there were only 24 guests, but all the online research had done more to confuse us that help us to sort out what we did want. In this, Xavier was very helpful and knowledgeable in directing us towards something of appropriate size that would also look good. He guided us towards the pages of his catalogues that showed previous chocolate cakes he had made and asked us which of them we liked the look of, as many of the design ideas could be adapted to suit a small cake - for the number of guests we were inviting, one of his medium size cakes would be more than enough to feed everyone, he explained, but wouldn't look very good for photographs. If you want it to be bigger and more impressive, he suggested, I can build a dummy layer on top of the real cake; it would be decorated and indistinguishable from the real thing, but double the height for much less cost than a second cake layer (that probably wouldn't be eaten anyway). If we wanted to further increase the height/general impressiveness of the cake, then it could be topped by some sort of decorative feature, such as fresh flowers. I had never considered flowers on a cake before, but it sounded like an excellent way of getting the most from our budget. By the end of our meeting we had picked out some design features of other chocolate cakes we liked, and basically come up with a design that would work for us and that Xavier promised he could make and deliver for our budget of £250, with the cost of any flowers we decided to have decorating it being extra.
Later that day, and with a positive impression of Contemporary Cake Designs in mind, we returned home to begin the arduous task of trying our cake samples. Each piece was about the size of a post-it note and about an inch thick, made up of three layers of cake with two layers of buttercream filling. The quality of the product was evident as soon as you bit into it; Xavier has assured us that his cakes were organic, and whether it was this or some other magic element, the taste and texture were both delicious. Each cake was made of incredibly soft sponge and seemed to burst with flavour for all its lightness, as the warm vanilla, zesty lemon and rich chocolate flavours came through, wonderfully complimented by the sweet buttercream. We were impressed by all three, but it was the chocolate sponge that (unsurprisingly) won through for both of us. It really clinched the deal for us, being tasty enough to serve at our wedding, whilst light enough to be edible after our three course wedding breakfast (we opted against enquiring about the chocolate torte option as I doubt even I could eat something so rich after such a big meal!).
"A Piece of Cake?"
Early in the week following our meeting with Xavier, an email arrived summing up the design we had discussed and containing our quote. Despite the sheer awesomeness of the cake we had tried, we decided to hold off ordering for a little while to fully digest things (as it were), as this was still going to be an expensive purchase. The Friday following our meeting, I received a phone call from Xavier stating rather brusquely that he had not received our order and would we still be going ahead with it. I was a little surprised by this and felt it a bit pushy; ironically it gave me more doubts about ordering from him that if he had left us quietly alone to come to our own conclusions. Still, it was by far the best option we had, so we decided to go ahead with our order as discussed and make a decision about the fresh flower decoration nearer the time, when we had found a florist. To order our cake, I simply sent Contemporary Cake Designs a letter confirming our acceptance of the details set out in the quote along with a non-refundable deposit of 50% of the cost of the cake.
About two months after our order was accepted (and still two months before the wedding) we eventually got around to hiring a florist; now that we knew what flowers we were having, we could make a decision on using flowers for cake toppings. Our two modest flower arrangements included red roses, and we selected these to top the cake, thinking they would set off the dark chocolate design beautifully. I sent Xavier another email telling him what we wanted and who our florist was, and this was followed by a formal letter confirming these points and paying off the remainder of the outstanding balance - we would then wait for him to tell us how much we owed for the flowers. Thus followed a period of confusion with him where he visited our florist and rang to confirm this, then ordered flowers from his own supplier for some unknown reason, then went quiet and claimed when I emailed him to enquire after progress that my mobile had been switched off whenever he tried to call (it hadn't - he had been repeatedly ringing the wrong number, despite mine appearing correctly on both letters I sent to him). This all got a little hectic, but things were fortunately straightened out just in time for the flowers to be added to the order before our wedding (there were about 8 or 9 of these, of good quality, which cost us £20).
"Having My Cake and Eating It Too"
When I first set eyes upon the finished article on my wedding day, it looked far more impressive than it had done in my head. The base layer was a 10 inch hexagonal cake, with an 8 inch dummy layer directly on top of it, and both were decorated by what Xavier referred to as "shards" (sheets of dark chocolate about the size of a Milky Bar, positioned vertically and overlapping around the layers) and positioned on a burgundy base to match the flowers. The space between the top edge of the base layer and the dummy layer was filled with curls of milk chocolate, and on top of the cake were the red rose heads that had previously caused so much bother. It looked stunning and tasted fantastic! After munching our way through the base layer that evening, the staff at the hotel put the dummy layer in our room so we could dismember it and salvage all that lovely dark chocolate, which kept perfectly in our fridge while we were away on honeymoon and we enjoyed tucking into it upon our return - now isn't that much more fun than fruit cake?
Conclusion: "The Icing on the Cake"
Yes, I know I don't like icing, but saying "the dark chocolate shards on the cake" wouldn't have been very snappy, would it?
But to get to the point, I am ultimately glad that we picked Contemporary Cake Designs: the design process was professionally handled (even if a lot of the after sales service wasn't), the cake was top quality and well made, it looked fantastic and was delivered in plenty of time on the day. The value for money was I think decent, as though this wasn't the cheapest cake we could have gone for, we did get the excellent consultation, samples and delivery (about a 40 minute drive from where they are based in Cheltenham) included in the price, and we all know how pricey good quality food is. We were satisfied with what we paid for our wedding cake, although I do think the flowers would have cost a bit less if they had used the florist I asked them to. Based on my experience, I would therefore recommend them simply because the end product was so great, although I think the slightly pushy sales techniques could perhaps be toned down
Contemporary Cake Designs
PO box 967