Ever wondered what’s behind some of the seemingly meaningless, not to mention bizarre traditions at weddings? As we celebrate romance this month, we look at the heritage of wedding cakes
Since antiquity, weddings have customarily been celebrated with a special cake. Ancient Roman wedding ceremonies were finalised by breaking a cake of wheat or barley (mustaceum) over the bride’s head as a symbol of good fortune. The newly married couple then ate a few crumbs in a custom known as confarreatio – eating together. Afterwards, the wedding guests gathered up the crumbs as tokens of good luck.
The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), wrote that the breaking of the cake over the bride’s head gradually developed into crumbling the sweet wheat cakes over her head. After all the cakes were used up, the guests were supplied with handfuls of confetto, a sweet mixture of nuts, dried fruit, and honeyed almonds. These sweetmeats were an important part of the wedding banquet and continued to be so for hundreds of years.
Chronicles of the period record that in 1487 more than 260 pounds of “confetti” were consumed at the banquet following the wedding of Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso d’Este, son of Ercole I, Duke of Ferrara. Sweetmeats were showered over the bride and groom; indeed, it seems to have been the custom to throw the sweetmeats about enthusiastically. Eventually, the sweets were replaced with rice, flower petals and coloured paper, and these new types of confetti continue to be showered over happy couples around the world.
When the Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD, many of their customs and traditions became part of British life. The Norman invasion of 1066 subsequently incorporated many French traditions into British culture. Other changes came about owing to increased trade and contact with Europe, but present-day wedding traditions remain firmly rooted in the past. In medieval England, in an early form of wedding cake, small spiced buns were stacked in a towering pile, as high as possible. If the bride and groom were able to kiss over the tall stack, it augured a lifetime of prosperity. The earliest British recipe specifically noted for a wedding is Bride’s Pye, recorded by Robert May in the 1685 edition of The Accomplisht Cook.
This was a large round pie with an elaborately decorated pastry crust that concealed a filling of oysters, pine kernels, cockscombs, lambstones (testicles), sweetbreads and spices. There were also humbler, less expensive versions containing minced meats or just mutton. In the county of Yorkshire, bride pie was the most important dish at weddings as it was considered essential to the couple’s future happiness. It consisted of a large round pie containing a plump hen full of eggs, surrounded by minced meats, fruits and nuts and embellished with ornate pastry emblems. Each guest had to eat a small piece of the pie; not to do so was considered extremely rude and impolite. A ring was traditionally placed in the pie, and the lady who found it would be the next to marry.
In the 17th century, bride pie developed into bride cake, the predecessor of the modern wedding cake. Fruited cakes, as symbols of fertility and prosperity, gradually became the centerpieces for weddings. A much less costly bride cake took the simpler form of two large rounds of shortcrust pastry sandwiched together with currants and sprinkled with sugar on the top. Very few homes at the time could boast an oven, but this type of pastry cake could easily be cooked on a bakestone on the hearth.
In east Yorkshire, bride cake was a small cake offered to the bride upon arrival at her new home. After eating a small piece, the bride threw the remainder over her head to ensure that she and her new husband would want for nothing. The groom then threw the plate over his head. If it broke, the couple’s future happiness and good fortune were assured.
Other superstitions have long been connected with wedding cakes: sharing the cake with family and friends increases fertility and prosperity. The bride who bakes her own cake is asking for trouble. A taste of the cake before the wedding means loss of the husband’s love (while a piece of cake kept after the big day ensures his fidelity). The newlyweds must cut the first slice together. And every guest must eat a small piece to ensure that the happy couple is blessed with children. Another Yorkshire tradition was to have the bride cake waiting at a nearby inn. The cake would be marked into small squares but not cut all the way through. The groom would place a linen napkin over the bride’s head and then break the cake over her.
As the cake fell, the guests scrambled for their portions. As in ancient Roman times, a piece of the cake guaranteed an auspicious life. Another old Yorkshire custom was to cut the bride cake into little pieces, throw them over the heads of the happy couple, and then pass any smaller pieces through the bride’s wedding ring. Bride cake contained various charms with different meanings, such as a silver coin, a ring, a button, and a thimble. The guest who received the slice containing the coin was assured of future prosperity, while the ring meant marriage within a year. The recipient of the button was destined for lifelong spinster status or bachelorhood; the thimble similarly foretold an old maid or bachelor.
When the bride’s (and the groom’s) cakes were cut into pieces for the bridesmaids and groomsmen, it was traditional for the maid of honour to select the first piece of cake. The other attendants followed, each hoping to find a special charm that would foretell their future. In the 17th century wedding cakes were made in pairs, one for the bride and another for the groom. Groom’s cake, a dark, heavy fruitcake, was served alongside bride cake. Smaller than bride cake and usually not iced, the groom’s cake was cut up into little squares that were then placed in boxes for the guests to take home as a wedding memento and to ensure good luck. At bedtime the recipient of groom’s cake would place the square underneath his or her pillow.
This tradition gradually died out, as did the groom’s cakes, which are no longer part of British weddings. However, the tradition has undergone a revival in the United States, where for many years the groom’s cake has served as a wedding favourite for guests. Modern groom’s cakes are often shaped and decorated to depict the groom’s favorite hobby – a golf bag, a camera, a chessboard. Bride cake covered with white icing first appeared some time in the 17th century. It was frosted with the precursor of royal icing, a sort of meringue mixture of whisked egg white and sugar, which was applied to the hot cake straight from the oven and then returned to the oven to firm up. When applied to wedding cakes, this type of icing was known as “bliss”.
In 1769, celebrated English cookery writer, Elizabeth Raffald, was the first to offer the combination of bride cake, almond paste and royal icing. Hannah Glasse, in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, gave a recipe for the cake that included four pounds of flour, 32 eggs, six pounds of dried fruit, and half a pint of brandy. After the cake was baked, it was covered with a pure white, smooth icing made with double refined sugar, egg whites, musk, ambergrease [sic], and orangeflower water. The mixture was beaten for two hours, then spread over the cake and dried in the oven until hard. This drying process required constant vigilance to ensure that the iced cake did not colour or scorch.
A pure white colour was much sought after, as white icing on a wedding cake symbolises purity and virginal attributes – a notion first put forward in Victorian times. Before then most bride cakes were white for a more practical reason. Because the ingredients for the bride cake were expensive, especially the sugar for the icing, white icing meant that only the finest refined sugar had been used. Thus a pure white cake was a status symbol, a display of the family’s wealth.
At Queen Victoria’s wedding to Prince Albert in 1840, white icing was used to decorate her cake, and this icing has been known as “royal icing” ever since. The multi-tiered cake, which by the 19th century had gradually acquired the name “wedding cake” – measured almost three metres in circumference. The London Times of February 1840 described the cake in detail. On the second tier, which was supported by two pedestals, a sculpture of Britannia gazed upon the royal couple as they exchanged their vows, while at their feet sat a dog, symbolising faithfulness, and two turtle doves, symbolising purity and innocence. There were also several sculpted cupids, including one happily writing the date of the wedding onto a tablet.
The now-traditional multi-tiered British wedding cake – a grand affair of heavily fruited cake layers decorated with royal icing and embellished with sugar flowers, doves, horseshoes and bells – had its origins in the wedding cake made for the marriage of Prince Leopold in 1882. For the first time guests could enjoy a wedding cake made entirely of cake. This cake was also tiered, with each tier consisting of an iced cake stacked rather like a succession of hatboxes. The icing in between had been allowed to harden to prevent the upper tiers from sinking into the lower layers
However, it was to take another 20 years before the tiers of wedding cakes would be separated by columns (often disguised pieces of a broom handle). And it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that the tiers were separated and supported by columns of hardened icing. These tiered cakes symbolised prosperity and were a status symbol at society weddings. When Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) married Prince Philip in 1947, the official wedding cake stood three metres high and weighed 226 kilograms. It was made by McVitie and Price, using ingredients received from Australian Girl Guides as a wedding gift.
One tier was used on the wedding day; one was kept until the christening of Prince Charles; and a third was dispatched back to Australia, to the guides who had thought of the Queen. British wedding cakes remained virtually unchanged from the elaborate Victorian creations until the 1980s, when the intricately piped royal icing began to be replaced by soft icing, draped and frilled and often embellished with sugar paste flowers.
At the same time simpler, American-style layer cakes such as carrot cake with cream cheese filling, or key lime coconut cake with lime curd came into vogue. Today, there are practically no rules about wedding cakes in Britain, and around the world for that matter. Contemporary cakes can be any of colour, flavour or shape, and the possibilities are endless: a dense, dark chocolate cake with a sumptuous filling; gold, silver and white iced cakes stacked and decorated to look like a pile of wedding presents; a tower of individual desserts; or a plain, moist sponge cake simply iced and decorated with fresh or sugar flowers.
Wedding cakes, like the bride’s dress, are subject to the vagaries of fashion, and celebrity weddings and cake designers continually strive to set new trends.
WEDDING CAKES AROUND THE WORLD
• In France, wedding cakes either come in the traditional form of the croquembouche or consist of baked sponge rounds stacked from the largest at the bottom to the smallest at the top and can include as many as 10 layers. The presentation of the wedding cake is reserved for the late hours of the reception as a grande finale to the meal.
• Wedding cakes in Australia also have their roots in British tradition and were traditionally multi-tiered with round edges. The top of the cake was usually not decorated.
• In India, a multi-tiered fruitcake was the order, but to avoid the expenses of large wedding cakes, a “dummy” cake was made and covered in icing sugar. A slice of real cake was inserted into the dummy cake for the cutting. Guests ate a piece of the icing.
• Traditional Japanese wedding cakes were artificial with an “icing” of hard wax. When it came to cutting the cake, a slot was created into which the bride and groom symbolically inserted a knife. Some cakes were even designed with a lever, which let out a burst of steam when the knife was inserted.
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things: De Rerum Natura, Anthony M. Esolen, trans. John May, The Accomplisht Cook, Or The Art & Mystery of Cookery. Elizabeth Raffald, The Experienced English Housekeeper Hannah Glasse
AND IN SOUTH AFRICA …
KANYACILLA HUNT, FOOD STYLIST AND CONSULTANT
What do you consider wedding cake no-no’s?
Silver paper leafs; cheap, made-inchina plastic brides and grooms in plastic; plastic silver cake pillars; not using quality ingredients (like cooking chocolate or vegetable fat-based chocolate coating rather than real chocolate); dry sponge cakes; ugly cake stands; and in my case, decorating a sponge cake with plastic icing. I feel strongly that the cake should be complemented by the decoration, so rather stick to plastic icing on fruitcakes and chocolate on sponge cakes.
FRANCO LAMBIASE, THE CAKEMAN
What cakes are in vogue now?
Mini chocolate or truffle cakes served individually as pudding. They can still be tiered and decorated like a normal wedding cake, but there’s no slicing or hassle involved. Cupcakes are big. We’ve also done tiers of Turkish Delight instead of cake and have used Turkish Delight as decoration on wedding cake. People are still leaning towards chocolate – either chocolate cake decorated in chocolate or chocolate cake covered in white icing to resemble traditional wedding cakes.
WADE VAN DER MERWE, WADE’S CAKES
Is fruit cake out, and are there any typically South African wedding cake traditions?
Fruitcake still features, but not as prominently as before. Most times one tier of the cake will be fruitcake and the others tiers chocolate or something else. Most South African weddings are styled à la Martha Stewart, but with a South African twist such as porcupine quills or feathers and beads.