One of my favorite things about weddings is the cake. I love cake. I love frosting. I love to eat. (My waistline agrees... unfortunately.) With that said, brides seem to be split down the middle on whether or not the cake is an important part of the wedding plans. On the one hand, you may think it is a centerpiece for your wedding reception, on the other, you may think it is a great place to trim the budget since no one will remember how the cake tasted. Well, I think both brides are wrong on this one.
Yes, the cake is a monumental piece of your reception. After all, there is an entire "ceremony" just for cake cutting. It can also help bring the theme of your wedding into the reception. However, consider that maybe the bride and groom should be the focus of the reception. You do not want a cake that upstages a bride. The cake is still important, but it doesn't need to chew up the entire reception budget.
So, to start planning your cake budget, you need to decide how much cake and how elaborate you want it to be. Cake shops can help you determine the amount of cake needed based on how many guests you expect. If your venue offers cakes, they may add a plate charge for cake ordered from another vendor. I have seen the plate charge cost up to $3/person and I know it can be much higher. This is the cost of having your venue cut the cake. Yes, it seems silly, but that's how it goes. Likewise, the more intricate the detail work on your cake, the higher your price will go. Multiple flavors may cost more, etc., etc.
Make sure you know exactly who will be cutting the cake. Is this something the bakery offers? Your venue? Is your aunt or cousin or someone else cutting the cake? Also, make sure your venue or caterer knows you need extra plates for the cake. I have had to cut wedding cakes on 3 occasions. I'm the first to admit that I am not very good at it. Yes, there is a science to cutting a wedding cake without making a mess of it.
Go modern or fun! Have you considered having cupcakes, cakes at each table, or even pies at your reception? You don't have to pick a cake because it is traditional. My all time favorite wedding "cake" was actually a bunt cake. It was the best tasting cake I have ever had and I still have dreams about it. Not to mention, the table was overflowing with mini bunt cakes which eliminated the need to cut slices of cake for all the guests (a process that can take up to 30 minutes.) This can also help you save plating charges if your venue has those.
Sampling is fun, but generally, sample cakes are made with flavor in mind while a wedding cake is generally made with design in mind. I have had some terrible cake at receptions where a high-priced, well-known baker was hired. (That's not to say it wasn't an insanely beautiful cake.) Likewise, I have had some amazingly tasty cakes from King Soopers, of all places. Do not base everything on a taste test.
Unfortunately it doesn't seem that taste and design go hand in hand at every bakery. This is typically because bakers with better designs are hired by multiple brides for the same date. This generally means they are baking cakes and freezing them for long periods of time. This can also happen at a bakery that hires multiple people to keep up with their demand. I highly recommend deciding upfront which is more important and asking for referrals. It is the wedding guests that remember the taste of the cake, the bride usually remembers how beautiful it was.
Ask your baker how their batters are made. The better bakers make their batters from scratch. Not to mention, I have overheard a guest at a reception commenting on how the cake tastes like a box mix. Personally, I love box mix cakes, but if you are going for a classy affair, that may not be the remark you want to hear.
If you have any special considerations like dietary restrictions or certain flavors you want, you might want to look for a baker who specializes in that. Speaking of flavors, the largest layer of cake should be the flavor that will be most popular. (9 times out of 10 the chocolate cake is most popular.) You don't necessarily want to base this on your favorite cake flavor, or you could end up taking home 20 pounds of banana flavored cake.
How far away is your baker from your venue? If they are driving your cake 45 miles to your venue, it will be 44 times more likely that your cake will slide or have an accident than a baker who only travels 1 mile to your venue. Accidents happen, but you can minimize that chance.
I once had a baker tell me that if you freeze your top cake for a year, you will be disappointed. They told me to freeze it and eat it on my one week anniversary instead. Apparently, the quality of a cake, even in the freezer, does degrade over time. I think a one week anniversary cake sounds scrumptious!
Fondant is not the enemy. Fondant is that gorgeous, yet typically disgusting stuff bakers put over a cake to make it nice and smooth. I will agree that "canned" fondant is nasty, however, homemade fondant can taste like marshmallows. So, ask your baker if they make their own fondant.
You can save some money by making the groom's cake yourself. Generally the groom's cake is not as important as the main cake. The point of it is to be a tasty confection that shows off your hubby's inner geek, whether it be about sports teams, hobbies, or an inside joke...
Finally, make sure you take time to eat a piece of cake. Not just the piece that was shoved up your nose. I always grab a plate of each flavor of cake for our brides and grooms as they can easily be overlooked due to the fact that they are dancing, entertaining guests, or wishing farewells. Have someone close to you plan to do this for you. Otherwise, you might really end up having a cake but not eating it, too.