Chefs help to satisfy wedding sweet spot

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Whether you’re planning an elaborate wedding or a simple one, choosing a cake for your special occasion is perhaps one of the most fun decisions a couple gets to make. The Hill spoke to a number of pastry chefs across the metro area to share their stories and advice. Whatever your taste or budget, there’s something for everyone. 

Maggie (Austin) LaBaugh

Maggie Austin Cake, Alexandria, Va.

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Maggie (Austin) LaBaugh hadn’t planned on a life in the kitchen, but a serious foot injury in 2006 abruptly ended her career as a ballerina with the Joffrey Ballet company in Chicago. She was just 26 years old.

“I was devastated,” recalled LaBaugh.

Unsure of what to do, LaBaugh knew she had to reinvent herself — but as what? Ballet had defined and dominated her young life. Filling the void would not be easy. 

She had considered becoming a sommelier, given her interest in the wine industry. But she also loved baking, and decided instead to take a six-month course at Chicago’s French Pastry School.

The course was divided into two-week segments, one of which focused on making wedding cakes and sugar flowers. LaBaugh was hooked. She quickly adapted and excelled at her craft. But then reality hit home again.

“You can’t make a living on just flowers. So I decided to make the whole thing.”

LaBaugh went on to work in the restaurant business for Charlie Trotter. But family eventually brought her to Alexandria, Va., where she teamed up with her sister, Jessica Rapier, to make her own line of cakes — Maggie Austin Cake.

LaBaugh is known for her frills and ruffles. Her cakes are exquisite, intricate and elaborate creations that you almost hate to cut into and spoil by eating them. But eat them you must.

“I sort of like to take things to the extreme,” LaBaugh admitted. “You have the ruffle at the base of the cake. I didn’t invent it. But why not put it on the entire cake?”

LaBaugh works with two interns at her studio on South Washington Street in Old Town, Alexandria. Each cake is custom made with a minimum order of $1,000, and cakes sell for between $17 and $20 per slice. 

Couples receive a tasting menu consisting of 13 flavor profiles (one example is Vietnamese cinnamon and chocolate cake with hazelnut praliné and cappuccino buttercream) and are asked to choose five favorites to taste. 

“During the tasting and consultation they’ll finalize cake flavors and discuss the elements of their wedding that will be incorporated into the design, such as color palette, floral elements and fabric choices,” said LaBaugh’s sister Jessica Rapier

For the budget-conscious, LaBaugh has this piece of salient advice: “The cake you see on display doesn’t have to feed everyone. You can do a sheet cake behind the scenes and that can keep the cost down.”

Tiffany MacIsaac

Buzz Bakery, Alexandria, Va.

Tiffany MacIsaac is a happy warrior in the kitchen. Just talking to her makes you want to suit up in chef whites and join her at her pastry station. Originally from Hawaii, she longed for the bright lights of the Big Apple, and moved to New York when she was 18.

“I was never an islander. I was always a city girl,” MacIsaac told The Hill.

Her first restaurant job was as a hostess at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan. But she was bored with that gig. One day, someone gave her beef cheeks, and everything changed.

“I was blown away by the food. Three days later I was trailing in the kitchen.”

She applied and was accepted in to New York’s Institute of Culinary Education, and later went to work for Danny Meyer at Union Square Café.

Today, MacIsaac is pastry chef for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which includes Birch & Barley and Vermilion restaurants, among others. Despite the long hours and massive workload, she said she loves the stimulation and creativity of the job.

“I think what I love most is that every day is like an elimination challenge. Every day something goes wrong. It’s never smooth. I love that it keeps you on your toes.”

MacIsaac recently unveiled “Bijoux,” her new high-end line of cakes. She’s involved in every detail, usually starting work on them 24 to 36 hours before the big day so they’ll be fresh, and likes to do the cake setup herself.

“I can never send a cake with someone else. I’m too much of a worrier.”

Buzz Bakery’s cakes frosted with buttercream start at $4.50 per person, while Bijoux’s fondant cakes will cost you a little more, starting at $8 a serving. 

One good tip she offers for those planning a summer wedding is to make a fake cake with an edible top tier that the happy couple can cut into and enjoy.

But most important, MacIsaac wants the bride to remember this:

“The cake, as much as I want to make it special for you, it’s not what matters. Having the people you love around you is what matters most. … The only thing that people care about is that they’re there with you and that you have enough alcohol,” she said with a laugh.

Sara Fatell and Jamilyah Smith-Kanze

Grassroots Gourmet, Bloomingdale, Washington, D.C.

Grassroots Gourmet moved its catering operation into a newly minted storefront on Rhode Island Avenue in November, serving the Bloomingdale-LeDroit Park community and beyond. 

These two cousins complement each other. Jamilyah Smith-Kanze describes herself as “master of the spreadsheet,” while Sara Fatell, who does most of the baking, is “master of the mixer.” 

Taste is paramount here — you won’t find fondant on the menu, no matter how beautiful it might look.

“Our goal is to fill it with good food. We focus more on the taste and the way it makes you feel,” says Smith-Kanze

Grassroots admits to attracting off-beat couples, and it’s just fine with that. Smith-Kanze and Fatell pride themselves on the personal touch, and believe that good things come in small packages — namely cupcakes and whoopie pies. You won’t get a cake larger than 10 inches. 

The first meeting with a couple takes about an hour; stories are shared, flavors and combinations discussed and ideas shared. All the information is then entered into a spreadsheet.

“At the end they feel lost and we feel better,” jokes Fatell.

New ideas and combinations are born from there, and within a month the couple is invited back to the bakery for a tasting. All cakes are served in cupcake form.

“We bring you a plate and run you through all the things you wanted to taste,” said Fatell. “Then we sit and talk about it and we try to work with them to narrow it down.”

Grassroots requires minimum order of 1 dozen items per flavor. Cupcakes start at $25 a dozen, cakes at $45, pies at $28 and whoopie pies at $22.

The bakery has already become a neighborhood favorite, and baked goods fly off the display case all too quickly. If either woman catches your eye as you pass by their window, you’ll have to stop in and you won’t be allowed to leave empty-handed — nor would you wish to.

Fabrice Leray

The Jefferson Hotel, Washington, D.C.

A native of Brittany, Fabrice Leray speaks with a thick northern French accent. He attributes his love of good food tohis mother ; as a child he would go to market with her, sample produce and come home help her with the cooking. 

At 32, he has spent half of his life in the kitchen, first as a cook before moving over to the pastry table. 

“It was more interesting in a gastronomic way,” Leray said.

Leray received further training in England and Switzerland before finally moving to the United States. As with all pastry chefs, he enjoys a creative challenge. For the recent James Bond movie “Skyfall,” he and his colleagues made a volcano cake with molten lava to boot — baked Alaska with an orange sorbet and ginger ice cream.

Leray says some couples are often at a disadvantage when they come in to discuss their wedding plans.

“Their knowledge of pastry is not very wide, so sometimes people don’t know what to ask for. So we prefer to talk to the guest to be sure we’re on the same page. It’s important to stay focused on what the guest wants. That’s my priority.

Leray will make some drawings just to give them an idea of what’s possible. He’s made many a fondant cake and covered them with the most delicate sugar flowers, including roses and daffodils. 

His secret weapon in the kitchen for making the delicate flower petals is a little plastic rolling pin that belonged to one of his children.

“It’s perfect for rolling the tiny petals.”

Leray likes to play around with flavors. While sugar is a vital ingredient, he looks to other ingredients, including fruits (passion fruit, apple, pineapple, kiwi and mango) and vegetables (carrots) to add complexity to the flavor and make it more exotic. 

“You have to use sugar like you use salt and pepper.”

Still, Leray doesn’t have a favorite flavor.

“I have to be wide [open] to everything. That’s how I keep my palate.”

His parting advice is to caution couples against keeping a layer of wedding cake in the freezer for a year. It never tastes as good and may not be safe — and besides, you can always ask the pastry chef to include a special tier for that purpose when making your plans and pick it up a year from now. That way you get to relive that first bite on your anniversary.

Shannon Shaffer

Design Cuisine, Arlington, Va.

Shannon Shaffer is executive chef for Design Cuisine — the outfit that prepared the inaugural luncheon for President Obama last month. Design Cuisine caters to large events and weddings at venues that don’t provide food and beverage service. So you’re likely to see the results of their work at events in some of the grand buildings of Washington, D.C.

An old hand in the kitchen, Shaffer says there are two kinds of couples: those who care a great deal about the wedding cake and those who don’t. But he does, and his creations are something to behold — especially the grooms cakes, which have become very popular in recent years.

One such cake looked like a suitcase with “stickers” of far-away cities that the couple had visited in the past. Another was a replica of a whiskey barrel that stood two feet tall, made with a combination of fondant and buttercream, with an inside composed of chocolate whiskey cake and sour cherry mousse.

“It’s fun to do these cakes because it’s more challenging for us,” he said.

Cakes per serving range between $4-$8, depending on the design and complexity of the cake.

Shaffer said he likes when couples bring their ideas to the table. His advice is to come prepared.

Design Cuisine provides a range of options for couples, whether it’s a wedding cake buffet or a dessert cart by the dance floor with irresistible brownie on a stick, mini ice cream sandwiches and cones.

“It really runs the gamut because no two couples are alike. Most brides come to us with an overall feeling and they want to personalize their wedding, and we try to help them realize that,” said Design Cuisine’s CEO, Kathy Valentine.

Peter Brett

Park Hyatt Washington and Blue Duck Tavern, Washington, D.C.

Once a student of former White House Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier at the L’Academie de Cuisine, Peter Brett has made a name for himself in his own right at Blue Duck. He doesn’t just serve cake.

“I like to make my cakes a slice of dessert on the plate,” says Brett. “There should be a lot of different things going on. It should be crunchy, fruity and smooth.”

Brett’s handiwork was featured on the 2009 U.S. Postal Service’s wedding stamp intended for wedding invitations. The stamp featured a photograph by Renée Comet of an ornate white three-tier cake topped with white flowers.

Brett was pleasantly surprised when the photograph of his cake was selected. Comet —who is a friend and had a contract with USPS — also took pictures of dresses and rings, but USPS settled on the cake.

“We had no idea which picture they would choose.”

This year, red velvet and chocolate are making their presence felt on the cake table. Brett likes the change from the traditional white, and wonders if it doesn’t have something to do with the recent cupcake craze. In the ongoing battle between fondant and buttercream cakes, he gives the edge to the latter. And the pendulum has swung once more away from dessert buffets, giving renewed focus to the wedding cake.

Price per serving can range between $12 and $15, depending on how elaborate the design is and the type of cake. 

Brett says he tries to guide couples with his knowledge, but if there’s something they really want, he’ll do his level best to accommodate the request.

One bride-to-be wanted a cake the color of her hair — auburn. Brett delivered a deep red cake brushed with gold dust.

Brett’s advice is simple: talk and listen to the pastry chef

“Really tell them what you want, because I want to know what you want. But listen to the pastry chef, because I want you to have the best dessert. You’ve come to me as a professional. Trust me. Let me do the work. You relax and enjoy the day.”