Following their wedding in Hawaii last September, Janice and Richard Shackelford of Massapequa Park sought a special cake for their October post- nuptial celebration at Table 9 in East Hills. In what Janice calls an "artistic endeavor" with Marney White of Marneycakes, Inc. in Oceanside, the foodie couple dreamed up a dessert that was both classic and contemporary, with a touch of the unexpected.

The result? Three tiers of chocolate brushed with Chambord, filled with raspberry butter cream and iced in a custom almond-flavored Swiss meringue butter cream, with black satin ribbon and black-and-white gum-paste poppies. "This was certainly not your cookie-cutter cake," says Janice, who called the finished product "simple, elegant and delicious."

A towering confection is not only a sweet toast to your union, it's often the first thing guests see when they enter the reception and the last bite that lingers on their palates. So why not make it a showstopper, with inventive flavors and a design that mirrors your style? Bakers - or should we say, artists - White of Marneycakes and Micheline Cummings of Babylon's Madame Butterfly Cakes give the inside scoop on what's hot:

Exotic Flavors: Instead of ordering the typical vanilla with fresh strawberries, be original. If Italian pastries are your fave, go for cannoli cream filling with chocolate chips. Fruit flavors are popular, but couples are opting for unusual combos such as banana cake with caramel cream. All-chocolate cakes, with rich flavor inside and a thick butter cream on the outside are a modern departure from the classic white wedding cake.

Made to Order: Forget anything pre-assembled or frozen. To ensure guests will go for seconds (and thirds), look for a baker who uses top-shelf ingredients, such as pure Madagascar vanilla, pricey liqueurs and whipped cream icing made from scratch. All-natural ingredients will taste far better than a Crisco-infused butter cream and are worth the extra cost. If you or one of your guests has dietary restrictions such as a gluten allergy, ask if your baker can provide an individual cake.

Dazzling Details: Less is more. Minimal but intricate decoration is a thoroughly modern cake choice. Instead of a smattering of tiny sugar flowers, opt for one eye-catching detail, like a big, bold edible orchid (if using fresh flowers, make sure they are organic and free of pesticides). Brides are even using jewels, such as a vintage-inspired brooch or crystals, accessories like lacy ribbons or flowers from their table arrangements to add a bit more personality to the cake. Can't decide on square or round layers? Mix it up! Today's cakes can blend different-shaped tiers.

Create the perfect cake

Follow these steps to find your dream dessert.

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FIND A BAKER: Do some research: Flip through local bridal magazines and websites, and ask recently married friends for referrals. Your reception venue is a great source of information and may also have a list of favorite vendors (check with the caterer to see if there are extra costs in bringing in your own cake). If you have your heart set on fondant or red velvet, look for a baker who specializes in it.

SCHEDULE A MEETING: An in-person session with your baker is the time to look through her portfolio and talk about possibilities. Bring pictures of cakes you like, as well as any wedding details that may help inspire ideas - a photo of your gown, swatches of the linens or bridesmaids' dresses, a sample of your invitation or a description of the flowers will all come in handy. This is also when you'll do the all-important cake-tasting. (Now's not the moment to worry about your buff-bride calorie-counting.)

CHOOSE FLAVORS AND DECORATIONS: Think about what would work well with your wedding menu - for example, if you're already serving a raspberry tart for dessert, you may want to avoid fruit fillings. Choose what you love, but keep your guests' palates in mind, too. Decide whether you want fondant (a thick, smooth icing that gives a sculpted look) or butter cream (a lighter, fluffier option that many find to be tastier). Some bakers may prefer one over the other.

PRICE IT: A top-tier cake can start at $7 a slice. Ornate gum paste designs can go as high as calorie counts - $25 a slice.

GET IT IN WRITING: A good contract includes all the wedding-cake essentials, from flavors and fillings to how it will look (if possible, have the baker draw up a sketch). Have a rough estimate of the guest count (which you can firm up at a later date) to determine the cake's size. Include the date and time of delivery, as well as setup details (Is a cake stand provided? Does the cake need to be refrigerated or thawed?) and any special instructions for the venue.

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ENJOY IT: Above all, the cake is meant to be savored, not made into a shrine. Include the cutting ceremony in your reception timeline, and don't wait to serve it until guests are on their way out the door.