Introducing Patty Russell and Her Groom’s Cakes
On a day when the bride and her mom tend to handle the details, I could not wait to tackle the assignment of helping my son select the groom’s cake for his upcoming wedding. Sitting down with the baker at an upscale Italian bakery in a trendy section of Brooklyn, we explained what we wanted. The gentleman, who had been baking panettone and cannoli and biscotti in this neighborhood long before it turned hip and cool, looked at us with a slight amount of distaste and a whole lot of surprise. “You want two cakes at this wedding?,” he exclaimed.
True confession – I’d never heard of a groom’s cake until arriving in Houston, TX over 20 years ago. I was delighted to discover the beloved, mostly southern, tradition of 2 cakes at a wedding – one for the bride and one for the groom. Where else can you legitimately, and without the slightest trace of guilt, devour 2 pieces of cake in one evening?! While the wedding – and the wedding cake – can sometimes seem all about the bride, the groom’s cake represents him and what he likes and enjoys.
Patty Russell has been making groom’s cakes – along with wedding cakes, pies, and assorted desserts – for nearly 40 years. What began with cake decorating classes and testing her new skills on friends and family eventually became a full-time cottage business. Perched on a stool at the expansive gray slate counter in her welcoming commercial/home kitchen, I am happily nibbling on chunks of her Grand Marnier, white chocolate mud, and strawberry cakes.
In the early days, Patty tells me, all her grooms ordered a basic chocolate cake, sometimes a square, often a circle shape. Over the years the cakes and flavors evolved. Nowadays, she bakes the cakes in all kinds of clever and unique designs in flavors like chocolate toffee, carrot, and apple. Working from photographs, Patty delights in trying to make her creations as detailed and realistic as possible. Laughing, she recalls the time a firefighter groom-to-be drove his firetruck to her house. Patty then took photos and measurements before she set to work on the design.
With contracts from 3 wedding venues and clients of her own too, Patty prepares cakes for 3-4 weddings most weeks. Residing northeast of Nashville, TN, she frequently constructs edible guitars and drums for area musicians. Fishing is another popular hobby around here, and one of her favorite cakes was a fishing basket designed for a popular country music artist. One groom requested a red velvet armadillo cake, inspired by the movie Steel Magnolias. He wanted a fun conversation piece at his wedding – and he had it! As with other things, Patty tells me her cakes are “better” the second time she builds a design. “I learned a lot between football helmet #1 and football helmet #2,” she laughs.
The University of Tennessess grad, and lover of all things bright orange, concocts a lot of football stadium groom’s cakes. She will work a couple of hours to add the tiny dots of icing, speckled with school colors, to signify fans in the crowd. The many cakes she makes representing her Volunteers are great fun for her to do. Her Crimson Tide and Gators orders, “not so much!” she jokes. “But of course I do my very best on every cake,” she smiles. Wishing to surprise her groom, one bride selected a cake for him modeled after his college’s stadium. He was absolutely delighted until he cut into the cake – and discovered her rival alma mater school colors on the inside!
When I ask Patty to virtually guide me though a typical week in her kitchen, I learn Monday is shopping day. Pointing out she can taste the difference with quality ingredients, Patty selects all the food herself. She shifts into baking mode on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Peeking into her cupboards, I see round and rectangular sheet pans of every possible size. Just like the myriad of cake samples in her fridge, all are neatly stacked and organized.
Once baked, the cakes go in Patty’s huge commercial freezer, complete with a thermostat on the outside. Contrary to what I guess, the cakes do not dry out in the freezer. “They must be frozen and hard in order to be carved into shapes and decorated,” Patty explains. Thursdays she prepares the icing in her gigantic mixer, beating until just the right amount of stiffness.
With flavorings and hundreds of little decorating tips set out on her island, the fun – and painstaking – part begins. Using a pastry bag, she twists fire hoses and scoreboards and flowers and animals made of butter and vanilla and sugar onto her prepared cakes. Slender plastic pillars, cut to the height of each layer, give support to the cake and hold the tiers together. Then back in the freezer until delivery day.
Patty always breathes a sigh of relief when her finished cakes are safely delivered to their wedding venues on Fridays and Saturdays. Every bride wants her wedding day to be perfect, and Patty’s role in the festivities is complete. And then it is time to relax a bit, make notes on new designs, and plan to start all over again the next week.
To make our grumpy Brooklyn baker even more displeased, towards the end of baseball season and the NY Yankees charge toward the pennant, my son placed an order for his groom’s cake. He wanted a replica of a Houston Astros baseball cap. Still shaking his head at the need for a second cake when one will do just fine, the baker created a delicious and special chocolate cake.