And Introducing: The Wedding Cake (and the Cookie it Came From)

Raspberry-Marsala Cupcakes with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

It all started, fittingly, with a cookie.

It was early spring in 1998 and I had been hitchhiking along the west coast of Ireland, trying to reach my destination, a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center on the remote and windswept Beara peninsula, before nightfall. The center was home to a friendly hostel, so I’d been told, and a killer view over Bantry Bay. After getting a ride most of the way I’d had to trudge the final mile or so on foot, the weather getting grayer and drizzlier by the step. Luckily I’d thought ahead and called to reserve for a bed, however the man I’d spoken to on the phone had given me a bizarre condition: I was welcome to stay at the hostel as long as I understood that I wouldn’t be able to speak the entire weekend. He explained that the majority of other hostel guests would be attending a silence retreat. I hesitated a moment and then agreed; a weekend of silence and contemplation might not be bad for me either.

By the time I reached the hostel, a converted farmhouse perched precariously on a coastal cliff, it was getting dark and I hadn’t seen a soul on the property. I entered through what looked like the front door and found myself in a large living room, lit by a fire in one corner and completely empty except for a young man with short blond hair and glasses who was drinking a cup of tea and reading a book in front of the fire. Remembering the vow of silence that he may have taken (for I certainly didn’t know who was a retreat participant and who not), I stood there awkwardly, not knowing even where to put my backpack. He looked up and smiled warmly.

“Are you here to stay at the hostel? The warden will be back in a minute. Here, I’ll make you a cup of tea. Want a cookie?”

He jumped up and held out his package of McVitte’s digestive biscuits. Shrugging off my backpack and plopping down on the couch, I gratefully took one and said how glad I was to find someone still talking. He laughed and told me the silence-retreatants were out at a session and would be back in a couple of hours. Not having anything else to do until the warden arrived, I settled in with the cookies and the tea and started to get to know this friendly and generous fellow. He told me he was German, despite his curiously Spanish name and complete lack of accent, and that he had lived in Bulgaria for several years but that Ireland was really his favorite country. It turned out we had both ended up quite by chance at this hostel; he’d had the place recommended to him by some Swiss tourists who’d given him a ride earlier in the week, and I’d recently met someone in Dublin, where I was studying at the time, who had raved about it. It seemed both of us had decided to come out here on a sudden impulse, thinking it had sounded like a relaxing place to spend the current three-day weekend.

It wasn’t too long before the silence-retreatants returned and we had to stop the conversation. Manuel got up and signalled that he was going to cook his dinner in the hostel kitchen; I figured I’d wait until he was done to make mine, and opened a book. A few minutes later there was a whisper in my ear.

“Why don’t you come have some spaghetti with me?”

Before I knew what I was doing I was declining; I’d shopped carefully for the three nights I would be there and had exactly enough food to last me if I ate what I had brought. He looked crestfallen. “But I really made too much. It’ll just go to waste if you don’t help.” Something about his tone must have told me that it wasn’t only about the waste of food, so I accepted and joined him for his meal of spaghetti and reconstituted tomato sauce. We went outside so that we could continue our conversation while we ate; I can’t remember any of what we talked about but somehow it was 4 a.m. before I managed to get into bed. The next night was the same, only I cooked, and again it was nearly morning by the time my head hit the pillow.

Without realizing it the three days we had both been planning to stay became five, and five became eight. My missed classes were the furthest thing from my mind; I nearly even forgot to call my flatmates and let them know I hadn’t fallen off a cliff. Manuel and I were together every minute; we’d been to town and shopped together and spent every night working together to see what we could create from the limited supplies in the tiny Irish supermarket. I found myself amazed at how open-minded he was about food – anything I suggested he would agree with heartily and eat with pleasure, and my then-vegetarianism, a source of consternation for many people, didn’t faze him in the least. Before long it was clear to both of us that something more than a hostelling friendship had been sparked, and night by night it grew stronger as we huddled over the ancient stove together.

About six and a half years later, and exactly one year ago today, I married that friendly guy who welcomed me into the hostel with a cookie. It was a small and intimate affair with our closest family and friends at the beautiful Molly Ward Gardens in Poulsbo, Washington, and to make life easier on ourselves we let the wonderful owners of the venue take care of everything from the flowers to the food. Something in me just couldn’t let them do everything, however, and in spite of the numerous warnings from well-meaning friends, relatives and magazines that making a cake is the last thing a bride needs to worry about, I insisted I would do it. After all, it just didn’t seem right that we should celebrate our relationship without celebrating the act of creating, preparing and sharing something delicious that had brought us together so many years ago.

Happy Anniversary, my darling. Here’s to many, many more decades of sharing and preparing delicious things together.

Cutting the cupcake: “If you cut any deeper, my dear, you will have a one-handed husband!”

The Wedding Cake(s)
Raspberry Marsala Cupcakes with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

The inspiration for this cake came from the June 2004 issue of Bon Appétit, which had as its cover recipe a beautiful tower of rose-decorated cupcakes. I discovered this is definitely the easiest option for a homemade wedding cake, as there is no stress with balancing layers and supports and they can easily be made ahead of time and frozen until needed. Most of the things you need to make the tower (waxed cardboard rounds, plastic support legs and ribbon) you can find in any baking or craft shop; I stumbled across a site on the internet that sold the entire thing as a kit, including the tiny gold-etched mini pannettone wrappers that elevate these to far beyond normal cupcakes. In any case, give yourself a good two days for making the stand and multiple batches of the cake and frosting – if you’re doing it as a wedding cake, that is. If not, give yourself about an hour!

Serves: about 10, multiply recipe as needed (I multiplied by four for my needs)
Cake source: based on this recipe from Bon Appétit (see their directions if you want to make it as a single cake)
Frosting source: based on this recipe from Bon Appétit

For raspberry marsala cake:
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup sweet Marsala
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
2 cups fresh raspberries

For white chocolate cream cheese frosting:
4 ounces high quality white chocolate (such as Lindt or Perugina), finely chopped 
1 1/2 8-oz packages cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/4 cups (packed) powdered sugar (about one-third of a pound or 150 grams) 
1 cup chilled heavy whipping cream

Edible organic flowers, for decoration

Special equipment: mini pannettone cake molds, available from many cookware stores or online

To make cake: Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375°F. Place ten pannettone molds on a baking tray and spray nonstick cooking spray (or grease lightly). Whisk first 5 ingredients in medium bowl to blend. Combine Marsala and orange juice in small bowl. Beat butter and sugar in large bowl until well blended. Beat in eggs, vanilla, and lemon peel. Beat in Marsala mixture in 2 additions alternately with flour mixture in 3 additions. Transfer batter to prepared cups. Sprinkle evenly with 2 cups raspberries.

Bake cake until top of cakes are golden and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 15-20 minutes. Remove from baking sheet and cool on rack. Cool to room temperature (can be made one day ahead and kept at room temperature or frozen for up to a month).

To make frosting: place chocolate in top of double boiler set over barely simmering water. Stir just until chocolate is melted, smooth, and just warm (do not overheat); remove from over water. Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese in large bowl until fluffy. Beat in half of sugar, then the warm chocolate. Beat cream and remaining sugar in medium bowl until medium-firm peaks form. Fold into cream cheese mixture in 3 additions. Cover; chill. Refrigerate frosting at least 6 hours and up to 4 days.

On day of serving, spread cakes with frosting and decorate with edible organic flowers, if desired.

Photos © 2004 Isabel Gates. See her wonderful work at (clicking on ‘gallery’ and ‘weddings’ will show you a couple more from our wedding).