"The most important part of the wedding is the cake," Dharm Khalsa declares. I can't tell if he's serious or not.
My friend Emily and I have just finished tasting what probably amounts to an entire chocolate cake—not to mention six ramekins of buttercream frosting, fresh fruit and dark-chocolate ganache—at a table now strewn with Khalsa's drawings of tiered cakes and slices of mocha-stuffed chocolate.

"The cake?" I ask him. He nods.

"What about the bride?" I demand.

"The bride? Well…" He concedes the point: the bride, her dress, the groom. But really, that's all you need, he says. "A bride, a groom, a cake? You've got a wedding."

It’s Friday afternoon, and Khalsa, the owner of

Chocolate Maven

(821 W San Mateo, 984-1980), has just coached us through an involved cake-tasting. I’d started as a skeptic—not only are wedding cakes shockingly expensive, but they’re rarely as tasty as you’d hope—but am in danger of becoming a convert. And Khalsa, with all his infectious enthusiasm, isn’t helping.

As Emily and I greedily scrape the last of the ganache from one of the ramekins, he sketches a three-tiered mocha-chocolate wedding cake with ganache dripping down the sides.

“This is the Mocha Dawn—chocolate in the morning,” he says. I want it.

This isn’t the first cake I’ve tasted, nor close to the last. Exhausted by the mere prospect of choosing one, I had elected to go about it like a reporter: calling sources, investigating and comparing products and prices and producing an informed analysis. About cake.

In Santa Fe, wedding cakes range from über-pricey to not-very-cheap. The day after meeting with Khalsa, I visited

Tree House Pastry Shop & Café

(DeVargas Center, 167 Paseo de Peralta, 474-5543), where slices of cake start at $8 per serving. Multiply that by some 150 guests, and you’re talking a $1,200 pastry. Fancy decorations, a chocolate bath, delivery outside Santa Fe and other add-ons cost even more—but to be fair, all of Tree House’s ingredients are 100 percent organic.

There are, however, some secrets of the trade. First, the cake price often includes delivery and setup; conscripting an anxious future mother-in-law for cake duty can save precious beer money.

Another affordable option is a small, tiered “display cake” (at the Maven, slices start at $6.50) and a separate, larger sheet cake for serving ($2.25/serving, since it doesn’t require fancy decorations). Tree House, the

Swiss Bakery Pastries & Bistro

(401 S Guadalupe St., 988-1111) and independent baker Leslie Drobbin (690-2564,

) also offer this alternative.

If you’re not set on a traditional cake, cupcakes make for an attractive and tasty alternative.

Dream Cakes

(66 E San Francisco St., 930-2027) is a popular option; husband-and-wife team Laura and Joe Klosky offer their many creative flavors (red velvet, espresso and strawberry shortcake are personal favorites) for $5.50 per cupcake. Huge, moist, beautifully designed and generously smeared with buttercream or cream-cheese frosting, the Kloskys’ cupcakes are invariably delicious.

Momo & Co.

(229 Johnson St., 983-8000), which is known for crafting vegan, gluten-free treats that defy all expectations of cardboardy health food, offers cake, cupcakes (at the steal-worthy price of $3.50-$3.75 each) and arrangements of both.

Eventually, the wealth of options began to overwhelm me—but Khalsa had an answer for that, too.

“Look, I think you should spend as much money with us as possible,” he teased. “But it’s your budget and your wedding, and you get to decide. I’m really into people doing what’s right for them.”