A Conversation with Sylvia Weinstock, Queen of Cakes

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Sylvia Weinstock pictured with Tammy Elliot of Perfect Wedding Guide
Tammy Elliot and Sylvia Weinstock meet in New York.
Photographs by Tommy Martin
Sylvia Weinstock is referred to as the Premiere Cake Lady, New York’s Cake Diva and Queen of Cakes, due to the masterpieces she has created since the mid 70’s. She has attracted a star-studded clientele that includes Star Jones, Donald Trump, Michael Douglas & Katherine Zeta-Jones, Whitney Houston & Bobby Brown and Mariah Carey, to name a few.

Sylvia’s cakes are works of art that have become famous not only for their beauty, but for their taste. Her cakes can be large and grand — some as high as 12 feet that feed 3,000 — or small and elegant, but no matter the size, the quality and artistry of a Sylvia Weinstock cake is unmistakable. Wedding cakes pictures just don’t do her justice.

Tammy Elliot, President of Perfect Wedding Guide, recently sat down for a conversation with Sylvia.

Tammy: How do you go about finding out what the bride wants in a wedding cake?

Sylvia: You know, it’s very interesting, the bride will come in and say she wants something different, but then she doesn’t want something different; she goes back to the classic. You do it by the process of elimination. In other words you could show them wedding cakes pictures and they say 'I do like this' or 'I don’t like that' or 'I like this element.' Then you put together a composite sketch. They usually know what they don’t like, more than what they do like.

T: So how do you guide them to what they really want?

S: I don’t really, because I might guide them to what doesn’t work. What they want, I’m not talking them out of it, if it is feasible, because it is their wedding. They already have people telling them what they do and don’t have to do, so I don’t want to do that. What I want is to help them make the most of what they can get. If they like lemon as a filling in a wedding cake, it doesn’t really go with chocolate. So I could say that, or if they choose a cake made of many nuts — hazelnuts, pistachios, almonds — they have to remember that some of their guests may have allergies. I try to tell them about that. If they have enough people, I always advise to divide the number in half so they can have nuts and chocolates in some and maybe fruits or something lighter in the other. Then they can serve both at the table and people take what they like.
This assortment also adds to their wedding cakes pictures later on.

T: What are your most popular flavors for wedding cakes?

"...the object as a baker and pastry chef was to make the freshest, cleanest-tasting wedding cake..."S: I like lemon with fresh raspberries. There are a lot of people that would like chocolate with caramel and vanilla. We place a variety in front of a bride on a palette, and they taste. And as a matter of fact I can give you one to taste too.

T: So this is the tasting.

S: Yes, this is what a bride gets when she comes to Sylvia Weinstock. She sits down and she tastes all these delicious flavors.

T: That’s amazing.

Sylvia Weinstock's cake tasting presentation
Sylvia presents some delicious wedding cake samples.
S: And we tell her this is lemon, this is strawberry, this is apricot, blood orange, pistachio, chocolate mousse, key lime, raspberry, hazelnut, vanilla (which is great with a little vanilla bean, coconut, mocha espresso, and caramel). After you decide what you like in the way of fillings, we then team it up with the cake itself, so you can taste chocolate, almond, yellow butter, carrot, and hazelnut.

T: You start with the fillings?

S: Start with the fillings. That’s lemon you’re tasting, and you go through that and we will make a list of the things you do like and then I help you combine the flavors.

T: That’s so tasty. They’re all so good; how do you decide?

S: You decide that there is something that you prefer over another. That’s blood orange.

T: Delicious. I tend to like the citrus ones.

S: As we work together, we’d decide what month this event is happening. Especially in the summertime you would like citrus. Is it a luncheon or a dinner? If it is lunch, you would want something lighter. Time of day, location, and season is important. A ladies luncheon is one thing, a bachelor party for men is another. Men like stronger flavors like chocolate, hazelnut, or caramel. Women like the fruits. So we try very hard to accommodate both. Then we talk about the decor: Where is the place; what does it look like? Is it dark, or a country club that opens up on the green with glass windows? Are you going to be at the beach, with sea greens and blues? What does the reception hall look like? Is there a long table or separate tables? Is it buffet or a sit-down dinner? And is there air conditioning? Very important.
Keep these details in mind as you glance through wedding cakes pictures.

T: Do brides ever try to put the cakes outside in the heat?

S: We discourage that because these are butter cakes. We don’t use fondant; we only use butter cream so it is a delicious cake to eat. That means it has to be cared for. So in an air-conditioned room it is fine; out in the sun, no. Bring it out at the last minute if it has to be outdoors at all. And then some other requests, do they want it flowery, do they want embroidery, do they want it art deco, is there a shape that they like. We show them different shapes. We then sketch for them and give them an idea of what they can get.
For more ideas browse through our wedding cakes pictures.

T: So I like the blood orange the best.

Sylvia Weinstock walks Tammy through the process of choosing the perfect cake flavors
Sylvia Weinstock walks Tammy through a cake tasting.
S: Okay, then what would you team it with? Do you like chocolate?

T: I do.

S: Then try a little blood orange on a fork and the chocolate filling and the vanilla filling.

T: That’s really good.

S: Then that is a good possibility, and you can put that on chocolate cake or yellow butter cake.

T: And can you do different layers with different flavors?

S: Depends on how many people you have. A wedding cake gets smaller as you get to the top (you can see this in many wedding cakes pictures), so you may end up with a little cake that will feed twenty people with one flavor, or a cake that will feed a hundred with another flavor and it’s not equal. So what we would do is if you had two hundred people, we would do a hundred of each. Which means we know how many cuts you get from a layer and we would do the arithmetic.

"I believe in making a first class product so people remember how delicious the wedding cake was..."T: How did this all get started? How did Sylvia Weinstock cakes come to be?

S: A lot of luck. A lot of good people working with me. I believe in making a first class product so people remember how delicious the cake was and come back for all occasions.

T: How did you first get into it?

S: I was a baker and I had a little apprenticeship with a retired pastry chef. But I was also a handcraft person. So the object was to make the decorations in advance, so you could bake the cake the last minute.

T: So it’s the freshest.

Sylvia Weinstock watches one of her mixers create a signature cake batter
A Sylvia Weinstock cake in the making!
S: Yes. Wedding cakes at the time had a very bad reputation, because they would bake them a week, week and a half in advance, and then start to decorate them, and by the time you ate it, it was dry. So the object as a baker and pastry chef was to make the freshest, cleanest-tasting cake and to decorate in advance. We came upon a sugar dough made in South Africa. When an order comes in, the ladies that work with me will make the flowers and put them in a bin and they are ready to go. So you could have that cake made in the morning and decorate it and get it out.

T: And you make exact replicas of the flowers?

We try very hard. Some of these flowers look as real as the real thing whether they are tulips or roses…Just look through wedding cakes pictures to get a full appreciation of this art.

T: Who have you had for repeat business?

S: Well I won’t say who, but occasionally we have a bride come in and say you did the wedding cake for my first wedding, now I am back for my second one. We like hearing something like that.

T: It’s great to be discreet!

Continue to Part II...