Brides in saris and ghaghras, boys in dhoti and turbans, families in traditional attire… Move over Western cakes. Desi wedding cakes are here. Shonali Muthalaly has the mouth-watering details
The groom’s in a tux. The bride’s in a gown. They pose awkwardly on top of a flowery, white, three-tier wedding cake. Well. Not anymore. In Chennai, at least, the old-fashioned Western fruit cake plastered with thick marzipan is being toppled over by a cheery avalanche of cheeky, chic, clever cakes conceptualised and created by self-taught home bakers.
Yalini Swaminathan, who creates quirky cakes with her sister Sujani Nagarajah, under the banner The Sweet Art, says their most recent cake showed an entire mandapam scene. “We put sofa chairs on the stage, then made the entire family of seven stand around. We even added LED lights at the bottom, so the whole cake was illuminated,” she says, discussing how meticulously they recreate the scene. “We look at wedding pictures online and try to imbibe ideas from them. We ask clients to send us pictures of themselves, so we can create fondant figures that look similar. They even tell us what they’re wearing for the ceremony, and the colour of the bride’s sari, so we can match that.”
Ironically, although they’re getting more popular than the professionals who tend to do more staid cakes, most of these bakers stumbled into the profession by accident. Maaria Kulsum, began by making cupcakes to keep kids entertained while their mothers shopped at her store Adoniya. Then gradually she started experimenting with wedding cakes. “I learnt from YouTube and cake bloggers. Though the remuneration is generous, it’s hard work. A wedding cake takes me two to three days.”
Since standardised porcelain figurines are now passé, Sabeetha Shyam of Sabeetha’s Cakes says work begins with fondant figures, which take about five hours to create. “Each must be hand-moulded, then allowed to dry. Then I need to dress them, add hair, facial features…” Since requests are never similar, a standard mould is impossible. “Recently, a girl who was marrying a Punjabi boy asked me to do a cake with the guy in a turban and girl in a ghagra.” It gets more elaborate. “I have a January order from a lady who wants three tiers: The lowest shows her and her fiancé in college, in the second they’re professionals working in London with the London Bridge behind, and in the top tier they’re in a kalyana mandapam. For such cakes I use my daughter’s help — she’s an artist, and has studied animation.” Explaining why home bakers are getting so popular, Maaria says, “I think we’re more flexible. We have time to sit, listen and customise.” Like the rest, a large chunk of her orders comes via Facebook, often channelled through the popular ‘Home Baker’s Guild’ page. “I’m booked till February, and I have not advertised any where else,” she says, adding, “But it works both ways. Even if you are catering to one person, hundreds of people look at the cake on Facebook. If it’s good, you get a hundred new clients. If you goof up, you lose more.”
Every baker has his or her own niche, according to Aysha Abdulla, who operates under the moniker ‘Ma Baker’. Her style is more modernist with clean lines, simple geometry and straightforward flavours. “I don’t like too many elements,” she says, adding that she prefers a “bit of texture, and some unexpected accents.” So her cakes are inspired by posters and wallpapers, rather than other cakes.
When it comes to flavours, she says, rich chocolate always trumps. “No one really wants exotic flavours.” Sabeetha agrees. “When I started baking, we did fruit cakes, injected with rum and brandy, and then sealed with fondant. So couples would keep the top tier, and cut it for their anniversary. Now everyone wants chocolate. Or vanilla.” Clearly experimentation with decoration doesn’t extend to the actual cake — though Red Velvet has reportedly become popular over the last year.
For couples that want something more delicate, Sabeetha does next-generation three-tier cakes. “Instead of covering the cake in flowers, I do a single flower, like a peony. Or a lace cake. Or I put ribbons and pin brooches into them. Or use pearls…”
Of course, it’s not just the wedding cake that’s important. A whole host of related events have come up. “We do naughty cakes for bachelorettes, and bachelor parties, which I’m not supposed to share pictures of,” laughs Maaria. “I’ve done an engagement cake with a ring placed on top.”
Yalini’s favourite is a cake she did for a bride who wanted to impress her fiancé, who she was meeting for the first time. “She wanted us to create a cake to let him know she loves him. He loves the gym, so we did a figure of her daydreaming in a sari, with a figure of him in a dhoti on a cloud.” Yalini adds, “Someone told me I made that fondant figure blush, so I was thrilled! Normally, all the ideas are from the girls. Another girl asked us to do a cake where she’s in a madisar bowling to the guy, who’s batting in a dhoti. Because he loves cricket.”
Their most elaborate cake was ordered by the cousin of a bride. “We did three cakes. The first was of the couple meeting in a grahapravesam. The second was the wedding. And the third was a plane taking off, with the girl running behind it, because he had to go abroad to work, while she waited for her visa.” Yalini adds with a giggle, “The groom that I made for that cake was so popular, a friend asked her father to find her a guy like that.”