Cut a slice of the action: Cake makers' creations can be wedding show-stoppers

When the pop singer Gareth Gates married Suzanne Mole this year, one feature that stood out, apart from the grins on their faces, was the huge five-tier cake: a heady combintation of chocolate, Bailey's truffle, lemon cake, carrot cake and champagne truffle. While much is made in the Hello!-world of wedding dresses and venues, often the cake gets gobbled down and not a word more is said.

Gates' cake was made by Staffordshire-based designer Heather Higgins. Her Sweet Art cakes are a quirky sculptural take on the traditional, featuring intricate facial detail and sugary jokes.

When she was younger, Higgins made ceramic sculptures, and then trained as a hairdresser. "A stylist working for me said she'd never had a proper birthday cake so I thought I'd have a go," she says. The stylist liked the cake, showed it to clients and they began ordering them. "I hairdressed all day and cake decorated most of the night but eventually it was making me ill," she says. "I had to choose. And it was cake decorating that won out."

When she started in 1994, Higgins had no formal training but read a lot of books about sugar pastes and recipes. "Because of the popularity of chocolate wedding cakes, I have been on a few courses with a chocolatier because chocolate is a very different medium to work with from sugar," she says.

Higgins loves that her job is so artistic. "It's based on my passion and I get to use my imagination. It's great to see the clients' pleased reactions," she says. "I love dealing with the public and have met some fabulous people. You're involved with happy, excited people planning their special day."

Higgins charges around £400 for a three-tier wedding cake with a bespoke bride and groom figure on top, and up to £1,000 for more elaborate designs.

But it's not a complete cakewalk. "I have never made a lot of money because I am a perfectionist and it's so time-consuming. It's often not very cost-effective, but I couldn't work any other way. The client has to be pleased or I'm not." She also says it can be stressful working to meet irregular deadlines. "Sometimes I dream of a 9-5 job, but I know I would probably get bored," she says.

Melanie Ferris has been a professional cake-maker since 2002. Like Higgins, she began by making the odd cake for friends and family while working as an IT administrator. After having a baby, she wanted to work from home, and so did a City & Guilds course, and eventually started her own business.

"The first wedding cake I made professionally was for a friend of my husband's," says Ferris. "It was a three-tier fruitcake with flowers and she didn't know it was my first time."

Ferris loves the way her job is all about celebration, but she is also aware there is little room for error: "You can't say, 'Sorry I've got 'flu, I can't do your cake'." Ferris works from her own kitchen for eight hours a day. "I think my family have learnt to work around me," she laughs. "It's the only career my seven-year-old thinks there is."

Ferris makes 100 wedding cakes a year, and is usually busiest between April and September. These days, very elaborate chocolate is all the rage. "There is this perception that fruitcake is dry (mine isn't) and old-fashioned," she says. "We are also seeing a trend in mini-cakes, which works out very expensive."

The ups outweigh the downs for Ferris but, she says, the delivery is the worst thing. "I don't really like driving anyway and it's a real pressure," she says. "I made the mistake of letting my husband deliver one two weeks ago and he really had no concept of the delicacy of what he was dealing with. He won't be doing it again."

www.Ferriscakes.co.uk

www.sweetart.co.uk

The first tier – advice from experts

* "Be well-organised. Keep an eye on design trends, and do training courses to keep up-to-date. Be prepared for long, irregular hours. Work can be a little seasonal. Get a good website. You might as well not exist if you don't have one!" – Heather Higgins

* "Do a City & Guilds course. You will get every skill under your belt and nothing is daunting." – Melanie Ferris

* Visit www.creative-cakecraft.co.uk and www.squiresschool.co.uk for details of short cake-making courses or www.city-and-guilds.co.uk for accredited courses for would-beprofessionals.

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