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Inside the world of Long Island wedding cakes

A finished decorated wedding cake from Francesco's Bakery

If this relationship were a cake, what would it look like? How would it taste? I have never much dreamed of being a bride, for reasons both personal and anatomical, but have long been fascinated by the odd, uniquely impossible questions asked of them. The ones above, for instance. Is it not ludicrous to think that the special and sometimes eternal bond between two people could ever be captured by some combination of sugar, flour, eggs, baking powder, vanilla extract and $548?

Well, of course it is, and yet couples refuse to give up on such sugary personal statements. And that is why a vast majority of the 27,854 couples who married in Nassau and Suffolk counties in 2017 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) spent $548, on average, for a confection in which the raw materials cost a grand total of about 30 bucks. If anything, couples, aided by enablers—wedding planners, artisanal bakers, bridal magazines, Pinterest—are more intent on custom cakey depictions of their unions than ever.

Problem is, the expert advice is all over the map. Case in point: When I took various online quizzes designed to determine the perfect cake for my personality, one site recommended a fondant-covered tiered number with clean lines (perfect for Type-A brides like me), another suggested a naked cake (since I’m “low-key and fancy free”). A third fingered me as the outdoorsy sort for whom only something decorated with “locally-foraged greenery” would do.

A one-tier cake would work best for an introvert such as myself, said another site, while still another directed me to ditch the cake idea altogether. Its results page screamed the word QUIRKY over a photo of a sky-high stack of crêpes with a cake topper featuring two squirrels.

By the end of the exercise, I was so confused and flustered, it took me a minute to remember that I was neither a bride nor getting married. “The challenge is to execute a bride’s wish on what is theoretically the most special day of the couple’s life,” said Donnie Messina, whose family owns Dortoni Bakery and Pastry Shoppe in Levittown and other Island bakeries known for their wedding cakes.

What about the groom’s wish?” I asked. Messina gave me a look. “I would say that 80 percent of the time it’s the bride’s wish, and then there’s that 20 percent of men who aren’t smart and get involved.”

Chris Villari is one of these men. On a bright November morning, he looked anxious sitting beside his fiancée, Katrice Krumplys, the two having made an appointment to taste cakes at Francesco’s Italian-American Bakery in North Massapequa. They met nine years ago while in college in Boston and “have been together pretty much ever since,” he said.

“Pretty much?” joked Krumplys. “Was there someone else in there?” Villari shook his head and both laughed.

“We kind of agree going into this,” he ventured. “I don’t think we want a heavier cake—”

“He really wants Fudgie the Whale,” said Krumplys.

“Ice cream cake would be my ideal, but I don’t know if we’re going to get that here.”

“I think maybe as a groom’s cake it could be cute,” the bride replied diplomatically. “But maybe not in the shape of a whale.” Her manner was poised and gentle, the polar opposite of a bridezill—

“The term bridezilla we don’t use, because I don’t think it’s fair,” interrupted Heather Cunningham. After discovering a dearth of area-specific info while planning her own 2017 wedding, Cunningham created Brides of Long Island, a wildly popular Facebook group. “I don’t think people realize how many things a bride has to do. What’s the tipping point? Maybe it’s the cake-tasting and you can’t agree on something and you have a blowout fight. The next thing, someone is saying she’s a bridezilla because she can’t pick her cake, when the truth is, she had 20 meetings this week and she’s fried.”

In addition to the Facebook group, which now boasts more than 8,500 members, Cunningham runs Wedding Warehouse, a consignment shop in Bohemia, and on this day at least, has agreed to offer pro bono advice to Villari and Krumplys.

“You’re getting married in January, so you can do something heavier,” Cunningham informed the couple as they worked through a multitude of cake samples (red velvet, vanilla, carrot, custard) covered in a multitude of fillings (raspberry drizzle, chocolate mousse, whipped cream, strawberry preserves, fresh strawberries) before deciding on an exterior of either buttercream or cannoli cream.

“I got married in June, and my husband wanted a cannoli filling,” Cunningham said. “And my argument was that that was too heavy for a summer wedding.”

“For some reason, it’s always the cannoli that causes trouble,” added Afrin Akhi, the 18-year-old Francesco’s staffer delivering cake samples. “There are times when the bride makes every single decision and the guy goes, ‘Whatever you want.’ But there have been times when the guy is like, ‘No.’ Usually that’s because of cannoli.”

Francesco’s typically hosts cake tastings for 9 to 12 couples every day, and appointments are often booked months in advance. The bakery produces about 75 wedding cakes every week, delivering them to venues all over the area. Theirs is a relatively cost-effective option for couples who want to give wedding guests at least a hint about who they are.

Still, this is an island where, according to a survey by The Knot, couples spend an astounding $61,113 on weddings on average, third highest in the nation (behind Manhattan and North Jersey) and more than twice the national average. (Cunningham’s cost $125,000.) For that price, more and more of them are going beyond the standard white three-tiered cake. They want something that looks modern and fashionable, a cake that precisely describes the couple as they imagine themselves to be. Which comes with its own share of problems for bakers.

Micheline Cummings, owner of Madame Butterfly Cakes in West Babylon, vividly recalled a past consultation. “A lovely couple wanted a cake that represented a feeling they described as, ‘That time of day in summer, late in the afternoon, when the air feels warm, hazy and almost still, you can hear the bees buzzing, and if you were in a field, you might see the grass and flowers gently move in the breeze.’ “

Cummings was at a loss. This couple didn’t want a cake, they wanted an Andrew Wyeth painting. Artisanal bakers are an intrepid and inventive lot, however. “We came up with a design that gave them what they wanted.”

Only rarely has Cummings felt the need to step in and save a couple from themselves when, for instance, they ask for a flavor combination such as carrot cake with mint and peach filling. “Yeah, that was a real request.”

“A lot of times people will come in with these grand visions, and we will have to bring them down to reality,” said Gina Milano of Long Island Wedding & Event Planners Boutique in East Norwich. Then again, Milano specializes in luxury weddings. Executing a grand vision is well within the means of her wealthy clientele. “We tell them that the cake is an opportunity for them to really show their character together. They don’t want a traditional cake, they want to do something different.”

That includes marriage-minded same-sex couples on the Island. Supreme Court aside, none of the bakers I spoke with had a problem with baking cakes for this growing sector of the market.

“I’m going to give you a good story,” said Donnie Messina. “We are Italian, my family, and in Italy nobody cares about the gay thing. But when my father came here 40 years ago, all they had were plastic bride-and-groom cake toppers. So [for a same-sex wedding] he cut a couple in half and glued the two men together for the cake. We’ve never really cared .... I don’t know why it’s an issue, or why anybody refuses it.”

Just as in the fashion and interior design industries, it’s high-end cake designers and clients who invent and promote the looks that are then featured in magazines and online. “When something has a beautiful look and it’s done right and the right person photographs it—that’s how it starts,” said Allison Winterton, owner of The Sweet Peace in Lynbrook. Her shop produces around 400 wedding cakes a year. “Often, it’s because somebody trendy or famous does something. Then suddenly it’s on everybody’s radar.”

This season, “marbleized cakes are very trendy,” said Milano, “and hand-painted cakes are really beautiful, especially with accents of gold.” Indeed, some of Milano’s favorite cakes are gold from head to toe. “I think the girls want a little bit more pizzazz here in New York ... more glitz and glam.” Messina agreed with Milano. “There is a lot of gold, metallic, silver,” he said. “And cakes where we literally sit down with a brush in hand and paint a mural on the sides of the cake.”

For every action there is a reaction, however, and so-called naked cakes—“also very big,” according to Milano—are studied counterpoints to the glitz and glam. As the name implies, they are minimally adorned and left unfrosted in spots or around the sides, which makes the cakes look either rustic or unfinished, depending on your point of view. Among the mandarins of the cake world, opinions are divided. “I had one for my baby shower because we did a woodland theme and it just made sense,” said Heather Cunningham. “But for a wedding—it’s a wedding cake, dress it up.”

“Naked and rustic cakes can be very beautiful,” Winterton told me, even as she and her team worked on a partially naked cake (“it has some spackled icing”) in her studio. “I don’t want to say that David Chang started it at Milk Bar,” she said of the style, “but he certainly popularized a look that’s been around a long time.”

“Naked-style cakes are still popular,” added Cummings, “but we’re finding brides are adding on to them with details such as white, colored or chocolate drips”—in which ganache spread over the top of the cake cascades harum-scarum down the sides—“or accenting with metallic glitter, or even fresh fruit and berries along with flowers.”

“Drip cakes are a very big thing,” concurred Messina, as are fresh flowers, which often means consulting with florists on a cake’s design. Roses, sunflowers, dahlias and ranunculus find their way onto many cakes, along with “greenery like eucalyptus,” Cunningham has noticed.

Cummings, meanwhile, is seeing more requests for less common plants like succulents, while Winterton enjoys decorating with fresh herbs such as rosemary, sage and thyme. If a bride’s vision includes daffodils, hydrangeas, mistletoe or rhododendrons, however, she’s out of luck. All are poisonous.

Yet another prevailing cake trend is no cake at all. “A lot of brides are skipping the cake altogether and are doing doughnut cakes, doughnut walls, and cupcake cakes,” said Cunningham, while Milano sees some couples opting for cake pops, doughnut trucks and “Viennese dessert hour,” in which a selection of sweets is served. “I am even seeing cheese instead of cake,” she laughed.

Lastly, there’s the trend that’s become so en vogue you can’t really call it a trend anymore: grooms’ cakes. Having a second cake dedicated to the man is an English Victorian custom that has long appeared in the South, where it’s usually displayed with the bridal cake and eaten at the reception. The idea has slowly worked its way northward, although here it’s typically served at the couple’s rehearsal dinner.

“These are super, super popular,” said Cunningham, whose own groom’s cake honored her husband’s passions, including “the Mets, the Islanders, even our dogs. The Cake Don makes tons of cakes like this.”

Whenever I mentioned grooms’ cakes to wedding planners, Don Donneruno’s name invariably came up. His specialty bakery in Carle Place produces upwards of 100 of them a year (in addition to regular wedding cakes). “Sometimes brides want something that doesn’t exist,” he told me. “And I have to think, how do I incorporate baseball, Chinese food and jazz music into one cake? But I never say no, I figure it out.” And although the bride reigns supreme even in this realm, elegance and refinement aren’t usually part of the equation.

“Sneakers are always popular on cakes,” The Cake Don said as he quickly paged through a portfolio of his work. One groom’s cake offered a photorealist depiction of an Amazon box, another the Stanley Cup. Page, page. “Here’s Italy, this guy drives a crane, here’s a camera.” He paused at a cake shaped like a giant watch face. “The Rolex cake is very popular.” Page, page. “It’s cigars, whiskey, golf and watches. You know that guy? We all know that guy.”

Winterton does her share of grooms’ cakes too, though she draws the line at reproducing disturbing imagery from video games, realistic depictions of weaponry “or anything else that promotes violence.”

She and her fellow bakers are creating more than cakes—they’re works of art, and as they become ever more complex and difficult to execute, so does the process by which they’re carried from bakery to venue. It’s that last step that keeps artisanal bakers up at night. After Donneruno finished Cunningham’s groom’s cake, the best man unwisely decided to transport it in the backseat of his Prius. “It collapsed,” she recalled. “At the rehearsal dinner, the whole thing started sinking.”

“Delivering the cake is always a challenge,” added Messina, who, like other bakers, assembles his cakes fully before hauling them to wedding destinations near and far. “There’s no chance to redo it. It’s a one-time shot. You drive all day and then someone stops short, or someone trips or bumps into something.”

“If we know the cake will be delivered by ferry or golf cart—yeah, we did that—we try to guide the couple to choose fillings that are more stable for their cake’s delivery situation,” said Cummings. Of course, the more cakes are expected to make a personal statement, the more attached couples become to their visions.

The phrase “four-tier sculpted castle cake,” likely gives Cummings shivers, along with memories of the reception hall employee who knocked one over while she and her team were returning to the bakery. “Three heart attacks later, we were back at the venue and racing to repair it, since it was the bride’s dream cake. We looked like hot messes by the time it was fixed, but we got a standing ovation from the guests.”

Usually, however, cakes arrive safely at their destinations, at which point wedding guests can finally ponder what they do or don’t say about a couple—their tastes, aesthetic sense, passions and often, skill at compromise. Which is, after all, partly what marriage is about.

After an hour of tasting, debate, bargaining and some spirited arbitration by Cunningham, Krumplys and Villari ended up with a four-tiered round cake composed of, from top to bottom, two layers of vanilla cake with whipped cream and fresh strawberries, one layer of carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, and a fourth like the top two but with custard instead of whipped cream.

“And then white buttercream is going to be on the outside and decorated with single dots and horizontal spackles,” said Akhi, carefully reading the couple’s instructions back to them. “With a pearl border on all the tiers. Is there anything else you’d like to put on it?”

“I don’t know, sparklers?” laughed Krumplys. “What else is left?”

Bakery information

THE CAKE DON: 455 Westbury Ave., Carle Place; 516-414-0625, thecakedoncreations.com

DORTONI BAKERY AND PASTRY SHOPPE: 3264 Hempstead Tpke., Levittown; 516-796-3033 and 11 Vanderbilt Motor Pkwy., Commack; 631-623-6999, dortonibakery.com

FRANCESCO’S ITALIAN-AMERICAN BAKERY: 943 N. Broadway, North Massapequa; 516-931-6821, francescosbakery.com

MADAME BUTTERFLY CAKES: 480 Rutgers Rd., West Babylon; 631-669-1069, madamebutterflycakes.com

THE SWEET PEACE: 26A Atlantic Ave., Lynbrook; 516-596-2253

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