Shanesa Debruin and her fiance promised each other in high school they'd marry if both were single at the age of 30.
But when it came to the wedding cake, it was love at first sight.
"We saw a picture online, and we just knew," said the 32-year-old Catonsville resident.
When she marries Aaron Snowden in August, the graceful swags that drape her cake will be the wine color of the calla lilies in her bouquet.
Gladys Thompson has been married for 50 years. But when she and husband Clyde Thompson Jr. renew their vows on Flag Day at Wayland Baptist Church in Baltimore, it is the cake from SugarBakers in Catonsville - with roses dusted in gold, gold pearllike trim and gold ribbon - that will steal the show.
Her son is seeing to that.
"I want everyone, when they see it, to say, 'What a beautiful cake,' " said Clyde Thompson III.
The wedding cake - perhaps as much as the wedding dress - sets the theme for the day and gives wedding guests a glimpse into the bride's style.
Whether it is topped with a pair of crabs holding claws or decorated with delicate white-on-white scrollwork to match the embossed wedding invitations, the cake is the first thing the reception guests see and the last thing they eat.
Anja Winikka, editor of The Knot, a top Web destination for brides, says it is the cake that sets a wedding reception apart from just another party.
"Bridal magazines have learned to focus on it. And it is one of the most searched items on the Internet," she said. "The wedding cake has become a style statement for the bride and groom."
Martha Stewart may deserve much of the credit for taking wedding receptions out of the fire hall and putting them on the map, and her new book, Martha Stewart's Wedding Cakes, is a lavish coffee-table collection of wedding cakes.
Likewise, the heavy-duty coverage of celebrity weddings has made little-girl dreams into a much bigger business. The Jessica Simpson wedding cake, with its many tiers and many more swags, continues to be among the most popular selections at SugarBakers - and the singer has long been divorced.
"Some people aren't big cake eaters," said Winikka. "But the cake makes the room."
That will certainly be the case when Kailyn McNally and Toby Kershner get married by the water on the Eastern Shore this month.
The bridal party, in flip-flops, will be doing the limbo from the ceremony to the reception area. Kershner, who grew up in Howard County, where family crab feasts were frequent summer events, said he'd sprinkle Old Bay seasoning on his wedding cake if he thought he could get away with it.
He is settling for the crab lovebirds on top that Kim Cate, manager of Peace of Cake in Stevensville, will create for him out of fondant icing.
The couple, who live and work in North Carolina now, brought a picture from a wedding magazine for Cate to re-create for their beachy theme.
There is graham-cracker "sand" underneath the cake and a dune fence around the bottom layer and starfish and shells on the second layer. The cake itself will be covered in sky-blue icing.
"What people will remember is what the cake looked like and that they had fun," said Kershner.
When Jeremy Comstock suggested to fiancee Season Kenny that there be tennis racquets on their wedding cake, because they met on a tennis court, she took a playful swipe at him.
"She's been planning this day since she was 7 years old," said her mother, Sharon Kenny. Both sets of in-laws accompanied the couple, who live in Atlanta but will be married in December in St. Michaels, to Peace of Cake for the traditional cake tasting.
Season Kenney also brought with her a sample of her cream-colored invitation. She wanted Cate to copy the black scrollwork on one of the layers of the cake, to match the black-and-cream colors of her winter wedding.
"Simple but elegant is the theme we are going for," she said.
Simple but elegant isn't what caught the eye of Shanesea Debruin's sons, Reece Vann, 8, and Evan Vann, 5, and her fiance's son, Eric Snowden, 7, who came with her to the cake tasting she'd scheduled at SugarBakers - and helped clean the plate of the last crumbs.
The boys choose the wild, fun-house cake, covered in a kaleidoscope of color that is now a staple in wedding cake picture books, thanks to the antic imagination of Baltimore's own "Ace of Cakes," Duff Goldman.
"That's why they don't get a vote," said Debruin.
And, by the way, the plastic bride and groom cake-topper is out of style. Couples are more likely to choose fresh or sugar flowers that evoke the bride's bouquet or rhinestone initials.
Often, the wedding cake is a nod to tradition for a couple that would rather have a sundae bar instead. Or some confection that evokes their heritage, such as a French croquembouche, Italian cookies or a favorite recipe from Grandma's kitchen.
"To be honest, the meal was more important to us," said Bridget Travers, who married Troi Palmer May 24 at Christian Life Church in Baltimore and held her reception at Martin's West.
But she dithered about the cake, nonetheless, going at first for a cake with square tiers.
"We decided to change it. We liked the detail on the round cake better. Less detail and more elegant."
She chose a yellow cake with raspberry filling and a buttercream ivory-on-ivory icing.
Once, wedding cakes came in one color and one flavor - white. Today, there is no limit to the culinary and design posibilities.
Jamie Williams, owner of SugarBakers, offers for tasting 11 different cake and filling combinations and three different icing flavors.
"Some brides want a very simple design. Others want all the chutes and ladders," said Williams. "Some brides have a theme, and some just have colors."
Ashley Levy of Annapolis, who will marry Adam Hibshman in September, took her inspiration from the popular Tiffany wedding cake, in which each tier resembles the famous blue jewelry box and white ribbon.
"We're doing four tiers of stacked black boxes tied with a white ribbon," she said. The cake, to be done by the Yum Yum Shop in Pasadena, reflects her family's close relationship with an Annapolis jeweler whose signature is a small black box.
"The bottom layer is chocolate cake with a chocolate-mousse filling, and then chocolate with cream-cheese filling and then yellow poundcake with buttercream," said Levy, who at first wanted a chocolate fountain instead of a cake.
"Then we got into it," she said. "And I absolutely had to have a cake."
Your own cake
Here are a few tidbits and tips to think about when choosing your wedding cake:
The multitiered wedding cake that is such a familiar reception centerpiece is modeled after the spires of St. Bride's Church in England.
The average wedding cake costs between $500 and $700, except in places like New York, where wedding cakes can cost thousands of dollars. Count on spending about $4.50 per serving.
Most wedding cakes still are made of round tiers. Square-tiered cakes look very sophisticated, but they have not put much of a dent in the popularity of the favorite.
Bakers routinely offer back-up sheet cakes for the wedding reception, to make sure there is enough cake for all the guests, no matter what the size of the tiered version at the center of the room. But it is increasingly popular for brides to plan for a table of various desserts in addition to the wedding cake.
According to TheKnot.com, Red Velvet cake is by far the most popular flavor among brides. Bakers suggest that there only be two flavors in a three-tiered cake. The sheet cake can be another flavor altogether.
Make sure the bottom layer is a flavor the bride and groom both like -- that's the layer they cut and serve each other, symbolizing their pledge to work together and to care for each other.
Brides often save the top layer to share with the groom on their first anniversary. But you also can preserve it in brandy to be shared on the 50th. Some bakeries, such as SugarBakers in Catonsville, offer to re-create the top of the cake for the first wedding anniversary.
[Sources: Wedding Web sites and interviews with bakers and wedding planners]