Wedding Cakes in History
A wedding cake is the traditional cake served at wedding receptions following dinner. In some parts of England, the wedding cake is served at a wedding breakfast, on the morning following the ceremony. In modern Western culture, the cake is usually on display and served to guests at the reception. Traditionally, wedding cakes were made to bring good luck to all guests and the couple. Modernly however, they are more of a centerpiece to the wedding and are not always even served to the guests. Some cakes are built with only a single edible tier for the bride and groom to share.
The contemporary wedding cake has grown out of many traditions. One of the first traditions began in Ancient Rome where bread was broken over the bride’s head to bring good fortune to the couple. In Medieval England cakes were stacked as high as possible for the bride and groom to kiss over, if they successfully kissed over the stack they were guaranteed a prosperous life together. From this the Croquembouche was created. The myth behind this cake tells that a Pastry chef, visiting Medieval England, witnessed their tradition of piling sweet rolls between the bride and groom which they would attempt to kiss over without knocking them all down. The pastry chef then went back to France and piled sweet rolls up into a tower to make the first Croquembouche. The modern croquembouche is still very popular in France however it is common to place the croquembouche tower on a bed of cake and make it one of the top tiers of the wedding cake. This traditional French wedding cake is built from Profiteroles and given a halo of spun sugar.
In 1703 a man named Thomas Rich, a baker's apprentice from Ludgate Hill, fell in love with his employer's daughter and asked her to marry him. He wanted to make an extravagant cake, so he drew on St Bride's Church, on Fleet Street in London for inspiration.
Traditionally the bride would place a ring inside the couples portion of the cake to symbolise the acceptance of the proposal. During the mid-17th century to the beginning of the 19th century, the “bride's pie” was served at most weddings. Guests were expected to have a piece out of politeness, it was considered very rude and bad luck not to eat the bride’s pie. One of the traditions of bride’s pie was to place a glass ring in the middle of the dessert and the maiden who found it would be the next to marry, similar to the modern tradition of catching the Flower bouquet. Bride’s pie eventually developed into the bride’s cake. At this point the dessert was no longer in the form of a pie and was sweeter than its predecessor. The bride cake was traditionally a plum or fruit cake, the myth that eating the pie would bring good luck was still common but the glass ring slowly died out and the catching of the flower bouquet took that meaning.
The action of throwing the bouquet has its roots in the Ancient Greek myth of the Apple of Discord. Fruit cakes were a sign of fertility and prosperity which helped them gain popularity because all married men wanted to have plenty of children. The bride’s cake eventually transformed into the modern wedding cake that we know today. In the 17th century, two cakes were made, one for the bride and one for the groom. The groom's cake eventually died out and the bride's cake turned into the main cake for the event. When the two cakes were served together, the groom's cake was typically the darker colored, rich fruit cake and generally much smaller than the bride's cake. The bride’s cake was usually a simple pound cake with white icing because white was a sign of virginity and purity. In the early 19th century, when the bride’s cakes were becoming more popular, sugar was coincidentally becoming easier to obtain. The more refined and whiter sugars were still very expensive therefore only the wealthy families could afford to have a very pure white frosting, this showed the wealth and the social status of the family. When Queen Victoria used white icing on her cake it gained a new title, royal icing.
The modern wedding cake as we know it now originated at the wedding of Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, in 1882; his wedding cake was the first to actually be completely edible. Pillars between the cake tiers did not begin to appear until about 20 years later. The pillars were very poorly made from broomsticks covered in icing. The tiers represented prosperity and were a status symbol because only wealthy families could afford to include them in the cake. Prince Leopold’s wedding cake was created in separate layers with very dense icing. When the icing hardened the tiers were then stacked; this method had never been used before, and it was a ground breaking innovation for wedding cakes at the time. Modern wedding cakes still use this method, but because of the size of today’s cakes, internal support is added to each layer in the form of dowels.
Wedding cakes have been present at wedding ceremonies for centuries. They were not always the focus of the event and often came in different forms, like pies or bread. There has always been a lot of symbolism associated with the wedding cake. The earliest known sweet wedding cake is known as a Banbury cake, which became popular in 1655. During the Roman era unsweetened barley bread was used as the wedding food and the groom would break the piece of bread in half over the brides head symbolizing “breaking of the bride’s virginal state and the subsequent dominance of the groom over her." One of the most obvious symbolic traditions is the cake’s white color to symbolize virginity and purity. The white color has been attached to wedding ceremonies since the Victorian era when Queen Victoria chose to wear a white wedding dress at her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840. Queen Victoria accentuated an existing symbol, the color white is frequently associated with virginity and purity. The wedding cake was originally known as the brides cake therefore the color white became common because the cake needed to reflect the bride.
The Cutting of the Cake is a task full of symbolism. The cake was originally intended to be distributed among the guests by only the bride because consuming the cake would ensure fertility. As weddings grew and the number of guests increased this task became a joint venture, the groom needed to help cut the growing cake and distribute it among their guests. Layers of cakes began to pile up and the icing would need to support the weight of the cake making is very difficult for one person to cut. The groom would assist the bride in this process. Once this tradition began the bride and groom would share a piece of cake before distributing it to the guests to symbolize their union and their promise to forever provide for each other.
The wedding cake is surrounded by superstitions. In a traditional American wedding, maidens would be invited to pull ribbons that are attached to the bottom layer of the wedding cake. Out of all the ribbons, only one contains a charm or a ring, and whoever gets the charm will be the next person to marry. In other countries, the wedding cake is broken over the bride’s head to ensure fertility and bring good fortune to the couple.
Also, some people today think that eating the crumbs of the wedding cake would give them good luck because the wedding cake symbolizes happiness and good life to the newlywed couple. There are also myths that most bridesmaids have on dreaming their future husbands. Hopeful bridesmaids would take a piece of cake home and place it under the pillow. Some bridesmaids would sleep with the pieces of cake in their left stocking and the rest are under their pillows after passing the pieces of cake through the bride’s wedding ring.
In the medieval era, wedding cakes were constructed in rolls and buns that were laid on top of each other. The groom and bride would attempt to share a passionate kiss on top of the stack of rolls to ensure fertility and have good fortune. In the 18th century, newlywed couples would try to keep the cake until their first anniversary to prevent them from marriage problems in the future. This is one of the reasons why cakes in the 18th century were made of fruits and blended with wine.
Wedding cake toppers are small models that sit on top of the cake, normally a representation of a bride and groom in formal wedding attire. This custom was dominant in US weddings in the 1950s where it represented the concept of togetherness. Wedding toppers today are often figures that indicate shared hobbies or other passions, if they are used at all. Some may be humorous, approaching unusual themes. Wedding cakes can also be decorated with flowers.
In the United Kingdom, the traditional wedding cake is made from a rich fruitcake, although many modern cakes now consist of either vanilla sponge, chocolate sponge or carrot cake. Most cakes are between three and five tiers in height. Among some of the more elaborate cakes one sees in the United Kingdom are those prepared for the Royal Weddings.
Edible Art Bakery & Dessert Cafe has wowed couples for more than three decades. Our delectable Southern style pound cakes are made from scratch and are the talk every week of wedding receptions throughout the State. Click here to schedule a complementary consultation with us. Read about the tradition and history of the pound cake here.
Images: Edible Art, Neil Boyd, Alexa Stutts