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.
Rachel Miller Confetti cake for a cake order.
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?
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.
Rachel Miller Vanilla buttercream whipped to fluffy perfection.
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.
Rachel Miller Creating layers of cake, simple syrup and buttercream, in a ring mold.
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.
Rachel Miller A cake released from ring mold, before receiving a crumb coat of buttercream.
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).
Rachel Miller Crumb coat of buttercream on one of the cakes.
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.