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"When I teach my students I always warn them about a couple of things," says Meridith Ford, a pastry and baking instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. "One is never do your own wedding cake."

Seven years ago, Ford was an ambitious bride-to-be who decided she would do everything for her at-home wedding, including making and decorating the cake. Though inexperienced as a chef, she was a good cook and had successfully made several cakes for friends' weddings."I had prepped and done everything in advance," she says. "Then I started to ice the cake, and nothing would come together." The buttercream frosting she chose for the pound cake began to drip in the sultry Atlanta heat. Frustrated, she headed to the family barn where she pondered her situation for several hours. Once she had relaxed, she returned to the kitchen where she created another cake that "turned out beautiful" and was thoroughly enjoyed by the guests.

Since that June day, Ford has created numerous wedding cakes -from chocolate to carrot, from simple to ornate.

Ford says a misconception exists about wedding cakes: Many people believe they can't taste good. "When I was growing up and was going to weddings, the cake was the most dreaded part of the whole thing," she says. "The average person does not realize they have an alternative to this cardboard sugar-paste cake that you go out and get from your average bakery."

A good chef can create a cake that looks and tastes good. Having a cake made by a professional who specializes in wedding cakes often doesn't cost more than buying it in a bakery, Ford says.

Costs for a wedding cake are calculated by the slice. They range from about $1.50 per slice (per person) to as much as $10, with the average at about $3 to $5. "I could make a really nice cake for $4 a slice," she says.