2013 Trends: Wedding Cakes with Amber McKenney of Sweet on Cake

Calling all sweet tooths: our August 2013 TRENDS feature is all about wedding cakes!  For this edition, we enlisted Amber McKenney, who is the the owner, cake designer, and bonafide ‘cake whisperer’ at Sweet on Cake, based out of Sonoma, California.  Amber is so enthusiastic about her work; her passion for creating gorgeous cakes is evident in each any every one that she creates.  Needless to say, our mouths are watering as we’re putting together this blog post!


Photo by Allyson Wiley Photography

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your company, Sweet On Cake.

I actually started out in journalism working as a newspaper editor, thinking baking would always remain a hobby. I quickly became bored and unhappy at the newspaper, and decided to take my career in a new direction and pursue my true passion–cakes!  So I studied Baking & Pastry Arts at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, and landed a job at a high-end wedding cake bakery.  I worked there for nearly two years, learning the ins and outs of custom wedding cakes and sculpted cakes, only to be forced to return to journalism working at a wine magazine (had to pay the bills!).  I was still making cakes on the side and posting them online, and it caught the attention of the good folks at the Food Network.  While I was sitting in my cubicle in 2009, I got a call to appear on the hit TV series Food Network Challenge, and it felt like the stars had aligned!  I quit journalism once and for all, started Sweet on Cake, and the rest is history!

Now I spend my days creating beautiful, unique, and delicious custom cakes from scratch, and have brought my mom on board as the administrative assistant and sugar flower artist–we are quite the dynamic (cake) duo!

Mother Daughter Duo: Heather and Amber

Mother Daughter Duo: Heather and Amber. Photo by Allyson Wiley Photography

How far in advance do you suggest couples come in to do a tasting?  Do you host tastings at your facility?

It might sound crazy, but there’s really no such thing as “too early” when it comes to booking your wedding cake.  As a small, boutique-style wedding cake bakery, we book out many months in advance.  We suggest scheduling a cake tasting and booking 6-8 months in advance, and even earlier if possible (we routinely take bookings over a year in advance for the really proactive couples!).  Just remember that at your tasting, not only will you sample all of our flavors, but we’ll also discuss your cake design and talk pricing, so you should come with at least a general idea of how you’d like your cake to look.  We do realize that this isn’t always possible, as some cake designs are more of a process than others, so we frequently take deposits to “save the date” when our couples aren’t ready to talk cake design, but know they definitely want to book our services.

We hold our tastings at Love & Lovely Wedding Studio in historic downtown Sonoma, by appointment only.

Photo by Allyson Wiley Photography

Photo by Allyson Wiley Photography

Keeping in mind that every wedding is different, how much should a couple set aside to go toward their wedding cake?  Do you have any tips for couples who want to have a beautiful cake on a budget?

For a Sweet on Cake wedding cake, couples should realistically expect to spend between $10-$15+ per guest.  Wedding cakes are priced by the slice, so this is an easy way to calculate how big the cake budget should be.  For example, if 100 guests are coming to the wedding, couples should budget at least $1,000 to $1,500 for the wedding cake (keeping in mind that delivery fees are extra).  My couples tend to want more tailored, custom designs, which are a bigger investment than the simpler, more basic designs.  Rule of thumb: The greater the complexity of the design, the greater the per-slice cost.  For couples on a budget who still want an amazing cake, adding color to your cake is an inexpensive way to give your cake an impact without breaking the bank, as is using fresh flowers instead of handmade sugar flowers.

Tell us a little bit about the process of creating a custom cake.

I love creating custom cakes for couples–the best cakes are the ones where I’m given creative freedom to design a cake to fit the decor, style, and personality of the event and the couple.  I draw inspiration from the invitations, linens, venue/surroundings, and the couple’s personal taste.  Often, all I’ll need are a few examples of elements they’ll be using at the event–photos of the decor and venue, a fabric swatch, recurring themes such as textile patterns and designs–for my creative juices to start flowing.  Although I try not to copy other cake designs exactly, it does help to see a few photos of cakes the couple likes so I can get a sense of what they’re looking for.   I’ll often make sketches of my designs so that my clients can see my vision.

Photo by Jennifer Skog Photography

Photo by Jennifer Skog Photography

What are some of your most popular flavors?  Do you give couples the opportunity to create custom flavors?

Earlier this year I revamped my menu, introducing a few new, interesting flavors while keeping the tried-and-true flavors.  The Strawberry Basil and Lemon Blackberry have been quite popular this year, and the rich, sinful Caramel Toffee is still proving to be a fan favorite.  I even improved my salted caramel recipe, making it even thicker and more buttery, and started making my own English toffee.  Since I do extensive recipe testing before releasing flavors, I don’t like to go off-menu and allow couples to choose flavors that have not been tested and proven to meet our quality standards.

Are there any exciting flavors, cake trends or other new concepts you’re exciting about rolling out this year? 

I’ve been doing some experimentation with gluten-free versions of my cakes, and have been really pleased with the results!  I have very high standards for my cakes, so I won’t offer anything that I wouldn’t be thrilled to eat myself.  I didn’t want to jump on the gluten-free bandwagon without first making sure that my gluten-free recipes were as amazing as my original recipes, so it’s been a process.  But I can happily say that I do offer gluten-free versions of some flavors, and you’d never know they were gluten-free (they’re that good!).  This is still a bit of a secret, though, since I don’t advertise (yet!) the fact that I offer some cakes gluten-free.

Photo by Allyson Wiley Photography

Photo by Allyson Wiley Photography

What kinds of 2012 trends are we seeing less of in 2013?

I think the ombré effect (fading from a dark shade to a lighter one) is on its way out, as are ruffle cakes.  I’m still seeing a little bit of each, but definitely less of it this year than last year.

Tell us about the most over the top cake you’ve ever created.

The most over the top cake I’ve ever created was a collaborative project between my friend, the incredibly talented Julie Durkee of Torino Baking in Berkeley, and I.  We made a 5-foot replica of the new 49ers football stadium for its groundbreaking ceremonies in Santa Clara last year.  The cake was so huge, it took several days to make, took four people to lift, and we had to rent a moving truck to transport it to the party.

Amber McKenney

Amber McKenney

If you could create your dream cake, what would it consist of?

I design cakes so often for other people, you’d think I’d know exactly how I want my own wedding cake to look by now!  The funny thing is, that couldn’t be farther from the truth!  I don’t even know what flavors I’d choose because I love them all; it would feel like choosing a favorite child.  Overall, I tend to be drawn to simpler, cleaner designs.  One thing I know for sure is that I want my cake to be decorated with handmade sugar flowers since they’re so delicate and beautiful (and my mom is the one who creates them, which makes me love them more).  And yes, I plan on making my own wedding cake!

Be sure to read out last installment of 2013 TRENDS focusing on Bridesmaid Dresses with Bridget Brown of Bella Bridesmaid!