The Cost of a Cake

Cakes are celebration. Thick buttery layers of cake, slathered with rich frosting in varying hues and designs, mark the moments of life that deserve sweet recognition.

We all have 1st-birthday pictures, faces smudged with buttercream, cake crumbs flying from our balled baby-fat fist, clutching that delicious monumental first cake that solely belongs to us. The framed photo of pristine white cake being smashed into the face of a spouse. Grandpa smiling toothily over a 90th birthday cake, all his progeny surrounding him. How much will you pay to mark your occasion?

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As a consumer and owner of a pastry business, I dance around the thoughts of value daily when pricing my goods. "What would I pay for this product?" "Will my customer see the value?" "Do I even feel that this is a valuable product?" My parents, both wise business people, have always uttered the phrase to me "whatever the market will bear."

My fiance is my number one seller. He returns to me most weeks, needing more business cards to hand out, which I gracious and gratefully hand over another stack. However, I cringe when he brings me potential cake orders. These orders could be my bread and butter. It's a lot of work, however when priced appropriately, they can be good money makers for pastry chefs.

Now, don't zip over and enroll in your closest Wilton cake class, and assume you are going to be rolling in the Benjamins next week. Cake skills take years of honing to produce a master cake maker.

I am reluctant to make cakes, because they are an interpretation of what someone else wants. Some printed Internet pictures of cakes, with scribbled notes in every margin are passed to me, to attempt to interpret what someone wants to use as a symbol, to celebrate their special day. They have envisioned this cake. Will it meet their expectations? Is this close enough to what they want? It's a bit of a frustrating process for me.

You will find that most bakeries, will have a price for cake with fondant and then a buttercream cake price. Don't assume that because it's just flour, sugar, eggs, and butter, that this cake will be cheap. There is a lot of labor in a cake. Typically, cake is priced per slice, with fondant being more expensive, as it is more work and a more expensive medium to work with. Bakeries will also have upcharges for designs that are beyond their basic level, or multiple fillings, gum paste flowers, modeling chocolate work, etc.

Let me walk you through the time involved in making a couple of cakes I recently made for a co-worker of my fiancé. I made two 8-inch cakes, three layers each cake, with buttercream and fondant decorations. It took me 7 hours total. I charged them $60/cake, as they are good friends of my fiancée, but would normally charge $80/cake. I based my pricing on all the decorations that the customer wanted for these cakes.

Here's the process breakdown:

Bake cakes: Pretty self-explanatory. I bake my cakes, wrap them in plastic wrap while still warm, and freeze them. This makes my cakes über-moist. Freezing them also makes them a lot easier to cut.

Make buttercream: Butter is not cheap. There are some unethical bakeries that call their shortening laden frosting "buttercream," but it is not. This is because the shortening is cheaper than butter. You will taste the difference in the mouth-feel. Shortening will coat your mouth with a kind of funky residue. Always ask if they use butter or shortening, if you can't tell from taste. Thus far into the process for my cakes, let's put my cost for ingredients at $15.

Cut the cakes: I slice free-hand, but have seen a few crazy cutting devices claiming perfect layers. All you really need is a lot of practice and a great serrated knife. The top and bottom of cakes are usually sliced off, to create flat layers, and to remove any debris (egg shells, etc.) that may have baked into the cake -- they often sink to the bottom during the baking).

The layering: I make a simple syrup (1:1 ratio water to sugar, and a splash of vanilla) to soak on each layer of cake before adding buttercream. It helps keep the layers moist. Also, I find that assembling cakes in a ring mold, make for a perfectly straight, up-right cake. A small cardboard cake round covered in foil is placed at the bottom, and then the layering commences. A layer of cake (confetti -- toss some line confetti in with your cake batter), some simple syrup, three scoops of buttercream (to keep the layers consistent with the same amount between), spread out buttercream, repeat. The top layer also gets three scoops of buttercream, and then the cake is placed in the freezer to set up.

Removing from ring mold: With a torch, I heat the ring mold as I spin the cake. The cake will slide right out from the mold. Since it is obscenely hot here currently, working with buttercream is a nightmare. Having the cake frozen at this stage, makes applying the crumb coat of butter cream much easier. Once the crumb coat is applied, I pop the cakes back into the freezer for about 30 minutes. Then apply the final buttercream layer, and place in the fridge till ready to decorate.

If you were going to completely cover the cakes in fondant, this is when it would happen. The customer opted for a cheaper option, buttercream with some fondant details.

Decorating: Fondant is pricy. At $13.99 per two-pound container, I had to purchase five different colors, which puts another $70 in to my cost. You can attempt to color your fondant yourself; however, to achieve very bold colors, it takes a lot of coloring and turns the fondant very moist and difficult to work with.

Decorating takes time. This is where the bulk of the labor was for me. Cutting out and creating the Iron Man mask and the Angry Bird takes time and patience. All the little letters and fondant balls, while simple also took some care to assemble.

Chill cakes for a last time, to ensure they will make it the drive to the birthday party. Carefully box cakes and deliver. Drink well-deserved glass of wine.

Adding the $15 in ingredients from above and the $70 in fondant, we are now at $85 in cost. Leaving a measly $35 for my labor. At seven hours, that's a whopping $5/hour. Now, had I done my normal rate, I would have had $75 for my labor, bringing it in to almost $11/hour. Still not a ton of money, right? Would you take that little for your work?

At the bottom of the cake plate, it all comes back to this: What are these cakes worth to you?

Rachel Miller is a pastry chef and food writer in Phoenix, where she bakes, eats, and single-handedly keeps her local cheese shop in business. You can get more information about her pastry at www.pistolwhippedpastry.com, or on her blog at www.croissantinthecity.com.

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