My Rouses Everyday, July & August 2018
Ah, Wedding Season.
That unofficial stretch of summertime when we strap on heels, knot our ties and head out to celebrate two people uniting for (what we hope will be) a lifetime of love and happiness. And after you’ve lived through your fair share of Wedding Seasons — heck, maybe you’ve even caught a bouquet or two — you begin to figure out which piece of the wedding day puzzle brings you the most joy as a guest. For some, ogling the intricacies of the bride’s dress (lace and sequins and tulle, oh my!) is the ceremony highlight. For others, it’s showing off your two-stepping rendition of the electric slide — hopefully with the help of an open bar.
For me, though, it’s always been the wedding cake: a towering, magnificent form of edible architecture that radiates ritual. Placed in a position of prominence that’s second only to the bride herself, it’s a member of the wedding party that’s never going to have a bridesmaid meltdown or get temporary cold feet. The wedding cake abides.
But for Rouses Bakery Director Michelle Knight — who now oversees the production of upwards of 600 wedding cakes a year — baking wasn’t always the plan.
“I used to say that I married a cook so that I wouldn’t have to do it!” Knight jokes. “But I wanted a little part-time job, so I was hired in a bakery. And it makes me laugh now, because I didn’t even know how to boil an egg at the time. I mean, I had no interest.”
Soon, though, the artistry of baking, frosting and decorating cakes took hold, and a passion for helping deliver cherished memories in such a decadent and delicious form became irresistible.
“Either you love the process, or you don’t. I mean, there’s kind of no in-between,” Knight explains. “You either pick it up and run with it, or you just don’t like doing it at all. And I loved it. The people who trained me had the passion for it also. I just fell in love with bakeries.”
Knight has now been a part of the bakery department at Rouses for 19 years, the last two in the role of bakery director, and shows no signs of slowing down as wedding cake demand continues to tick upward.
“Wedding cakes are special moments, and because of that, most people used to think that they needed to go to an independent bakery because those bakeries ‘specialized’ in [wedding] cakes. But as we continue to do them here at Rouses and get bigger and bigger with them, I think over the years we’ve developed word-of-mouth on how beautifully we make our wedding cakes.”
Throughout a large portion of the 20th century in the Southern United States, wedding cakes were relatively straightlaced sweet constructions. More often than not, they had a sensible number of tiers (three, or four if you were feeling really fancy), and layers of chocolate or vanilla cake, and they came frosted in colors ranging all the way from eggshell to ecru (read: white). Sure, some pastel bunting or a cascading waterfall of fondant flowers might have livened things up a bit, but most cakes ended up following the kind of strict formula typically reserved only for math equations.
But in an era when even the esteemed etiquette guru herself, Emily Post, has lightened up on the dos and don’ts of tying the knot, it’s wedding cakes that are helping to lead the next generation charge of celebratory baked goods on a couple’s own terms. Today, wedding cakes are less about what tradition prescribes and more about reflecting the personalities of those getting married in all their outlandish, magnificent, freewheeling glory.
“About five months ago, a young gentleman came in, and he had gotten a cake stand from China. It was, seriously, like eight feet tall. He wanted a cake on each one of the tiers, and he wanted our Gentilly cake on all of them. It was gigantic,” laughs Knight. “We had to cut holes in the middle of them, and place the cakes on each tier, and squeeze this big glass thing in the middle of each one. It was crazy, but it turned out so beautiful. And he was so thankful, because no one else would do it for him.”
And while traditional-style cakes can still be both breathtaking and delicious, there’s just something about those mold-breaking versions that seems to both inspire more couples to follow suit and encourage ever-increasing creativity.
“We did Ali [Rouse]’s wedding cake, and it was so gorgeous. It had three tiers with a very sparkly gold and big circles of fondant. It was amazing.”
And as anyone who has seen Steel Magnolias can tell you, outside-the-box cake options have long been de rigueur for what’s typically known as the “groom’s cake.” I’ve attended weddings where this cake (which, for all practical purposes, is supposed to serve as the sugary sidekick to the main, multi-tiered attraction) completely stole the show, whether shaped like a gigantic golf ball or a bust of The Dude from The Big Lebowski. (Yes, really.) And while Knight hasn’t made an armadillo-shaped, red velvet cake a la Steel Magnolias
Knight noted that they’ve created plenty of fleur-de-lis groom’s cakes and one highly involved version shaped like a deer’s head. And even more elaborate concoctions: “We did a groom’s cake once that was a pirogue
A growing number of soon-to-be-hitched couples are also bucking tradition by opting out of a wedding cake completely, and instead serving their guests a smorgasbord of other saccharine delights.
“We’ve done a lot of wedding cupcakes and petit fours. The petit fours are dangerous, because you can’t eat just one!” Knight laughs. “They just melt in your mouth.”
Different communities throughout the Gulf South have long been faithful to unique bakery items as part of their wedding traditions, with key lime pie a frequent must-have item in the Gulf Shores area of Alabama. This year, though, there was a surprise: The key lime pie has been selling out across the region — not just in its typical beachfront home.
“People have gotten into pies, which has been a little shocking — even for me! This year, it’s been a key lime pie that’s popular, which has never been in the past,” Knight explained, noting that in previous years, the apple pie has been a wedding season favorite. “They’re ordering a lot more for weddings and showers. I went through so many the first two weeks they came out. I’m like, ‘This must be a fluke.’ It was amazing what we sold.”
And if Knight had the chance to rebuild her dream wedding cake now that she’s a bakery whiz? She’d make a white almond cake — no question.
“It would definitely be the white almond cake with buttercream,” she says, noting that it’s also the cake her family loves to see her carrying home after work. “I mean, if I bring anything else home they look at me like I have two heads!”
Almond cake has been a cross-cultural staple for centuries, but none are quite like what’s whipped up at Rouses today. In Spain, the Tarta de Santiago is a dense, lightly spiced and citrus-tinged almond cake baked in honor of St. James, the country’s patron saint. The Scandinavian version of almond cake is almost always topped with a smattering of fresh berries and slivers of sugar-glossed almonds. A white almond cake was even said to be the favorite sweet of Abraham Lincoln, whose wife Mary Todd baked it for him both during their courting days and well into their marriage. (He is said to have proclaimed, “This is the best cake I ever ate!” upon his first time tasting it.)
But baking powder — critical for ensuring cakes are fluffed to perfection — wasn’t invented until well after the Civil War, which means the white almond cake enjoyed by Old Abe likely had more in common with a pound cake than the airy creation found across the Gulf South today.
“I was born and raised in New Orleans. I never thought the white almond cake was unusual until I became an adult and realized no one else had it,” said Knight. “I was shocked! You know, it’s like when I went up to New York for the first time, and they tried to feed me Cream of Wheat. I was like, ‘What is this? Where are the grits?’”
And though the hyper-local white almond cake has been a beloved favorite of the Rouses cake canon for decades, its origin story remains shrouded in mystery. Maybe a band of magical, talking almonds convinced the head baker at the time to create a sweet homage to the nut. Maybe a starry-eyed cake decorator fell in love with an almond vendor, and the white almond cake is a secret tribute to their illicit love affair. Who knows — your guess is as good as mine.
But outside of fantastical speculation, whoever (or whatever) first created that cake in the hallowed halls of flour and sugar at Rouses surely will go down in the history books as a kind of sugarcoated fairy godmother. (Michelle Knight even suggested that if I were to have a June wedding, my cake should be a white almond cake with praline filling and caramel icing.)
“It’s a hard cake to bake. It truly is. It’s not something that you could just bake up without understanding it and have it turn out well,” explains Knight. “We go through lengthy processes to have such a good white cake. I mean, if you looked in the grocery store on the shelf in the baking section, you never see almond mix — ever — on the shelf. That’s because once you start adding almond extracts, and emulsions, and all that, you just can’t get the height on a cake. It’s a very difficult process. So that’s why they don’t even make mixes with white almond. And when I tell people that, they’re like, ‘You’re right, there is no white almond cake mix.’”
And for all home bakers and Pinterest-loving DIYers out there looking to recreate the cake at home — sans boxed mix — Knight cautions against falling into the almond extract trap.
“The almond cake is a white cake because it doesn’t have the yellow [yolk] of the egg in it. But it’s not a flavored almond cake. It’s not as easy as people think it should be. It’s a difficult cake to prepare and get the correct taste without a bitterness to it, because you use [almond] extract, and extract is very bitter.”
Of course, anything as lusted after as white almond cake couldn’t come that
The building blocks of the cake read like a list of whimsical picnic delights — only baked into something glamorous. To begin with, three tiers of white almond cake (naturally) are sprayed with an orange simple syrup; then a frosting is created out of mascarpone cheese, cream cheese, powdered sugar and almond emulsion. (In order to ensure freshness, it’s whirred together on-site at each Rouses location.) The frosting goes between each layer of the cake, along with a who’s who of the berry family: raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. The cake is then laced and iced with the remaining frosting, while additional berries are glazed in an apricot syrup and fastened to the top of the cake like edible brooches.
“A lot of people really want the Berry Gentilly cake for weddings,” says Knight. “But it’s so rich, and real cream is in it. It’s got to really be kept refrigerated. It’s not a cake you could keep out and display for a while.”
And while no one wants a melting cake to ruin their first moments of matrimonial bliss, at the end of the day, Knight is firmly committed to ensuring that future brides and grooms get the sweet wedding centerpiece of their dreams.
“You know, I went downstairs today, and a lovely couple walked up and said, ‘We need a wedding cake.’ And they seemed like they were a little bit confused on what they wanted. So, I said, ‘Well, how many people do you have coming?’ And they said, ‘Only 25.’ And after I suggested a 10-inch cake, I said, ‘Well, when is the wedding?’ And they said, ‘Tomorrow!’”
For most bakers, a one-day turnaround on a wedding cake would be a complete no-go: the kind of impossible, Herculean task that would bring all other bakery production to a screeching halt or — at the very least — require an extra rush-fee surcharge tacked on to the price. For Knight and the Rouses team, though, the desire to make every wedding as joyful as possible outweighs these sorts of challenges.
“We took her order, of course, and we’re going to give her a beautiful wedding cake and everything she dreamed of. But that’s because people know that we accommodate no matter what it takes. Even for the last-minute people. Now, we don’t suggest that they do this to us,” Knight laughs. “But you know, if there’s any way we can help, we do. Because they’re special moments, and people go to weddings and eat the cake, and they realize it came from Rouses, and that it’s the white almond cake we’re known for. And they love it.”
Whether your wedding is a low-key backyard affair with picnic tables and close family, or a blowout church event complete with organist and a bridal veil longer than Kate Middleton’s, Knight appreciates, above all else, how weddings hold a special time stamp on our hearts and in our lives.
“It’s not about how much money you can make, it’s about how happy you can make someone on their special day. I mean, birthdays come around every year. Your wedding does not.”