Wedding cake trivia, the birth of wedding cakes and royal wedding cakes.
Wedding Cake Traditions
There used to be some long-standing traditions regarding wedding cake. In the fifties and sixties, the wedding cake had a larger role in the ceremony than it does today. At the wedding banquet, it was displayed on the head table in front of the bride and groom until the cake-cutting ceremony, which usually took place after everyone had eaten their main course and before the speeches. It was then removed to be sliced by kitchen staff so it could be served by the wedding party to guests after the speeches. The pieces were eaten and enjoyed by guests while they relaxed and visited, and passing them around by the wedding party, ensured that everyone received a friendly word and private moment with someone of the wedding party.
Previous to the wedding day, small pieces of a specially made tier were wrapped to be sent to those not attending the wedding. These delicately bound morsels were also given to guests to take home as a memento. Unmarried girls were supposed to put the piece under their pillow that night, for it was said they would dream of their own future husbands. The top tier was saved to be used for the christening of the couple’s babies.
The style of cake followed a long-standing pattern of three layers topped with a miniature bride and groom. Without exception, it was always a dark, rich, fruit cake decorated with almond paste (marzipan) covered over with white icing. Decorations almost always included some hard (so hard, they were inedible) sugar flowers. The inedible ornaments were given to female guests by the bride and bridesmaids. Called “favours”, they symbolized the amicability among the women, a whisper of conspiratorial fellowship. Other ornaments might also be silver or gold horseshoes, ballet slippers, ribbons, or birds. Icing colour was always white or a derivative of white. Shape was either round or square, and sometimes pillars separated the layers.
Sweet Story of Wedding Cake
According to The Everything Wedding Book, in medieval Britain no icing had been invented and no special food was prepared for the wedding meal. By the 17th and 18th centuries, a pile of cakes had become the tradition, covered overall with icing. The bride and groom kissed over the cake, called the ‘bride cake’. Medieval feasting is nevertheless one of the roots from which cakes and their use in weddings was to grow.
The long-held tradition of the cake under the pillow is described by the Scottish historian, Dr. White Kennet (1660-1728): “(The maids of) Oxfordshire have a way of foreseeing their sweethearts by making a dumb cake; this, on some Friday night, several Maids and Bachelors bring every one a little flour, and every one a little salt, and every one blows an egge, and every one helps to make it into past [=pastry], then every one makes ye cake and lays it on the gridiron, and every one turns it, and when bakt enough every one breaks a piece and eats one part and laies the other part under their pillow to dram on ye person they shall marry. But all this to be done in serious silence w’hout one word or one smile, or els the cake looses the name and the virtue.”
Previous to the English Civil War, there were cakes to celebrate any significant event. In addition to weddings, they were also made to commemorate christenings and funerals.
A fruit cake of three or four tiers became the luxurious standard for one hundred years. During the American Cultural Revolution of the 1980s there was a general feeling of the need for change in all aspects of life. A reduced number of marriages resulted in a decline in emphasis on such things as the style of wedding cake. Later, more affluence and new styles of icing created experimenting with the traditional cake. Five, six and even seven-tier cakes appeared displayed in shop windows and a great variety of styles and shapes emerged. Most commonly though the standard three-layer cake remained.
Royal Wedding Cakes
No celebrity can match the splendour of a royal wedding cake. Queen Victoria’s marriage ceremony to Prince Albert in 1840 remains unmatched in luxury to this day. No less than 106 cakes were produced for the event. The largest one, taking centre stage at the reception, was a round, single layer weighing 300 pounds. It was fourteen inches deep and three yards in circumference. One hundred smaller versions were distributed to the queen’s friends.
The 1858 wedding of the Princess Royal, also named Victoria, to the future German Emporor Fredrick III was celebrated with perhaps the largest wedding cake in history. Although the bottom layer was actual cake, the others were sugar. Extravagantly decorated and reaching seven feet high and three feet in diameter it created a sensation in the capital and influenced the basis of all cakes afterwards.
Son of Queen Victoria, Prince Leopold’s marriage in 1882 was celebrated with a three tier cake that was all cake. Over history, artificial cakes have been produced in numerous times and in inventive ways including those made in Japan, discussed later in this article.
In 1893, for the first time, the wedding cake was displayed on the table in front of the bride at the wedding breakfast of the Duke of York who later became King George V. It was a four tier creation decorated with real flowers on top.
To celebrate the wedding of Queen Elizabeth to Prince Philip in 1947, twelve wedding cakes were created. The Canadian Toronto Hotel sent a cake that reached seven tiers in height and weighed 280 pounds. The one used at the reception achieved 900 pounds and reached nine feet in height. Like a true navy man, the groom used his naval sword to cut it. To ensure every last detail of the day ran smoothly, the piece he supposedly sliced was actually pre-cut and wrapped in ribbon so that it could be gently pulled out as he performed the dramatic action.
In 2008, The Telegraph reported the sale of one piece of Charles and Dianna’s wedding cake for £1,000 in an auction. Only the marzapan and icing remained, being preserved in plastic wrap in a metal tin. Presented by Diana to a former member of the household of the Queen Mum, Queen Elizabeth I, the piece was decorated with the royal coat-of-arms in gold, silver, red and blue.
Prince Charles and Camilla’s wedding cake was baked by the royal Lincolnshire cake maker who, needing secrecy for the last thirty-six hours of preparation, presuaded the local Methodist church minister to allow her to use the church as her workplace.
Unusual Wedding Cakes of the World
Belgium and France
Two types of cakes were popular for most special events. A croquembouche was a cone-shaped creation made of small round choux pastries (filled with confectioners’ cream and dipped in hot toffee). The toffee cools to a light brown, glossy construction. It was decorated with ribbons, sugared almonds, birds, flowers and for weddings, a small bride and groom. It appeared in a variety of shapes such as a church, house, boat, basket, etc. To serve guests, some choux was broken out. Smaller versions celebrated baptisms and first communions. The toffee coating presented the problem of eventually melting so the cake had to be served soon after preparation. It declined in popularity since 1980.
A light, sponge cake prepared in many layers stacked and served with confectioners cream or fresh cream was also popular. Often it was flavoured with fruit lacquers and sometimes decorated with glacéed fruits.
Australia, birthplace of revolutionary icing
This country is the birthplace of “plastic icing”, so named for its pliable quality and not actually its components. Being prepared cold, it is easier to use than the British “royal icing” that is hard, brittle, and tends to crack and separate from the cake when cut. It is rolled and draped onto the cake, compared to royal icing which is spread on moist and allowed to set. It gives a smooth finish to any shape without the considerable skill needed for royal icing to achieve the same effect. Giving more rounded edges, it revolutionized the formal style of cake decorating.
Post World War II mass communication spread western and European customs over the world. Celebrities in Japan began using wedding cakes followed later by ordinary persons. At first they were real cakes, but the expense made artificial cakes the commonly used creation, made of moulded rubber. The emphasis was on ritual, so they were important for photographic sessions or to embellish the gift table. The cake cutting ceremony was continued, being managed with a slot in the back of the rubber cake where a decorated knife was inserted.
Royal weddings continue to mark the progress of wedding cakes. Along with the ring and the dress, the cake is the most celebrated icon of a wedding. As we head into an economic crisis, it will be interesting to see where the wedding cake goes in status and design.
- Anastasio, Janet, Michelle Bevilacqua, and Stephanie Peters The Everything Wedding Book Holbrook, Mass. Adams Media Corp., 2000.
- CBC Archives Halton, Mathew. The princess bride. February 16, 2011. Accessed April 12, 2011.
- The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group 2011 Accessed April 28, 2011.
- Unofficial Royalty Accessed April 28, 2011.