I got married!
I could probably write 100,000 words on the wonderful experience, but since this is a food blog, I’ll focus mainly on that. Let’s talk about wedding cake. Never been a fan. My spouse and I agreed to explore alternatives; since I’m the foodie, it fell to me to head up the exploration. After considering pie, and then leaning heavily toward doughnuts, I stumbled upon the idea of a tower of cheese wheels. It seemed completely out-of-left-field to me, but apparently not to Google, which retrieved 29 million hits on this topic. Let me tell you, though, both as a foodie and as one of the hosts of a huge party, I could not have been more pleased with the decision and the results – to the point that I’m still getting goose bumps over it. This Five-Tier Cheese Wheel Wedding Cake was one of the highlights of the entire night’s menu.
Here’s our Five-Tier Cheese Wheel Wedding Cake, described from the top tier to the bottom:
- Montchevre Bucheron: a 1-lb slice, topped with seedless black grapes and rosemary sprigs. Bucheron is a French goat cheese native to the Loire valley, and is known for its subtle, earthy undertones and beautiful rind. The cheese near the rind is sharp and intense, while the center is mild.
- Saint-André: one 4-lb wheel, crowned with green grapes and sliced dates; rind pressed with rosemary leaves. Saint-André is a triple-cream brie from the Normandy region of France. “Triple cream” means a minimum of 75% butterfat; however, this is a measurement of the cheese’s dry matter. When you include the moisture content, the overall percentage of fat is more like 40%. Even so, this is the silkiest, most buttery brie you can imagine.
- Campo de Montalban: one 6.5-lb wheel. Campo de Montalban is a Spanish, mixed-milk (sheep, goat, cow) cheese with a gorgeous, olive-green, basket-weave rind. It’s similar to Manchego – salty, nutty – but with a goat finish.
- Inverted wooden salad bowl, 12-inch diameter, crowned with 2.25 lbs of date-walnut cake, sliced and layered shingle-style.
- P’tit Basque: three whole, 1.5-lb cheeses. As you may know, “Basque” is a mountain region of France that borders Spain and has strong Spanish influences. This is a sheep’s-milk cheese whose honey-gold, cylindrical rind is patterned with a type of crosshatch basket weave. It’s dry, earthy, and nutty, with floral and caramel notes … and just a bit stinky (in the best way). This cheese shares the bottom tier with the bourbon belavittano.
- Sartori Kentucky Bourbon Bellavitano: three 5-lb wedges, crowned with dried apricots and dressed with green, red, and black seedless grapes and dried cherries. This Wisconsin cheese is a cheddar/Parmigiano-Reggiano hybrid. It’s dry for a cheddar, but creamier than a Parmesan. It’s a bit crumbly, salty, and intense … but after a moment, it melts in your mouth. It takes a few seconds for the flush of bourbon flavor to hit you, and when it does, your eyes become round as saucers and your heels automatically spin you around so you can grab a second slice.
- A rosewood tray, 14-inch diameter, forms a flat base under the bottom tier.
So, how did I come up with this Five-Tier Cheese Wheel Wedding Cake?
With a lot of professional help, that’s how.
I trotted myself down to my everyday grocery store – the Mariano’s on Lawrence in Ravenswood – and introduced myself to Mary, who runs its cheese shop. As soon as I said the words “wedding” and “a tower of cheese wheels,” she was just about as excited as I was. I knew immediately that I’d found the right person. She set about to some research, and called us in a few weeks later for a tasting. It was so clear that we were on exactly the same page: she chose cheeses that had beautiful rinds. and she proposed a host of ideas for creating geometric interest. She also chose a variety of milk types, textures, and flavors. We’d mentioned to her that our wedding would fall on Bastille Day (coincidentally, although we’re both Francophiles); she had centered in on several French cheeses. She had also considered the fact that these cheeses would have to stand for several hours in an air-conditioned room, and chose suitable types.
I left our tasting with several pages of cheese types and design ideas.
I set to work finding a suitable base, as well as something to give the tower extra height. One of the advantages of using wedges in the bottom tier is that they’re less expensive than a full wheel. There’s a similar advantage in the idea of incorporating design pieces to give height, instead of relying only on cheese. I considered many ideas – from cake plates, to cake plateaus; to straight-sided, metal baskets – everything from rustic to formal. I measured and mulled over many of the items I own, and searched for things I might buy or rent. However, one afternoon, while on a vintage-shop crawl, I stumbled onto a beautiful rosewood tray and a straight-sided, wooden salad bowl that screamed out “base” and “plateau” so loudly, it could only be fate. I took these things back to Mariano’s. Mary and I did a quick mock-up and finalized most of the choices. It turned out that the cheddar was on sale, so we sealed the deal, I saved a ton, and Mary hung on to the cheese so that she could deliver it to the venue day-of.
My second bit of professional assistance came from the caterer.
I gave them a roughed-out diagram of the tower, the list of cheeses, and conveyed my design choices. They came back with specifics about what they’d like to have on-hand for decorations and garnishes. In addition to the fruits and herbs you see in the images, the chef (as had Mary, before him) suggested we include jam. Again, fate: during a short hang at my cottage in northern Michigan I came upon some Esch Road cherry jams and blackberry fosters that were perfect for the cheese.
Then came the hardest part:
It was time to let the creative people do what they do. Mary delivered the cheese and consulted with the chef during set-up. About an hour and a half later, I was called in to give it my approval, and man, I was floored. It was more amazing than I had even imagined it would be. I was thrilled on so many levels: to see something I’d instigated and had a hand in not just come to be, but exceed my expectations … the anticipation of being able to show this off to my guests, and … I couldn’t wait to dig into that cheese!
The Practical Nitty Gritty
This tower was designed to serve roughly 150 people somewhat lavishly.
You could stretch that to 200, I’d wager. You can expect something like it to set you back $500-600 for the cheese, which is exactly the average price of a wedding cake when you consider costs nationally – but when you consider the cost of a wedding cake in Chicago, I think you’re talking more like $1000. Even when you add the cost of items beyond the cheese – wood pieces, fruits, jams, etc., which are not as insignificant as you might assume – you’re not quite to the $1k price point. It also helps to shop around. Whole Foods carries many of the same cheeses, but they’re much more expensive than they are at Mariano’s.
In terms of logistics…
We sliced into the brie for the ceremonial “cake cutting,” but then the chef took the tower away (as they do with wedding cakes), sliced it up, and returned with cheese boards. Although cheese is a fantastic dessert – especially if you love French food traditions – we accompanied the cheese boards with an exquisite array of French pastries, which will be the subject of my next post.
- There’s not going to be enough of the top cheese to serve all your guests. Mary suggested buying extra of the top cheese and keeping it in the kitchen, to be added to the cheese boards. We declined, mainly because the tower was already quite frankly excessive.
- There’s going to be a lot of the bottom cheese. You can, as we did, use a design that allows for less than a full wheel. Even so, choose something spectacular – as we did – so people will want to gobble it up. Because it’s the bottom tier, it’s got to be a hard cheese (unless you somehow allow for support) – and that’s good. You can expect to take some of this bottom cheese home with you, and hard cheeses keep well.
- Ask the caterer to provide take-out containers and encourage people to take cheese home with them.
- Cheese is sensitive to temperature. You don’t want to serve it stone cold, but you don’t want it too warm, either. This tower was on display in an air-conditioned room for about four hours. When we did the ceremonial cutting, we cut into the brie – and it was at the perfect temperature: soft, but not too soft.
- Here is some good advice about how to deal with your leftovers. However, I’m going to confess to you that I sliced the leftovers into manageable wedges, vacuum-sealed them, and kept them in the fridge, where they stayed perfectly fine for the months it took us to eat some and give some away.