If you’ve been following my Instagram stories, you know I am a full on nerd when it comes to food science and history. It’s fascinating, so of course when our friends eloped, I wanted to gift them a surprise cake and research the history of this wedding treat. So this is me letting my inner geek shine. Though, I don’t believe I ever purposely hid her. To keep it a bit tamed, we’re just going to chat about a few different versions/uses of wedding cakes over time.
First up: Ancient Rome. Weddings involved a religious ceremony called confarreatio, which included cake make of wheat, barley or spelt. The tradition was quite strange, but perhaps makes sense if I explain it correctly and provide perspective. As a sign of good fortune, the cake would be broken over a bride’s head and crumbs, tokens of good luck, would be gathered by guests. After collecting all the crumbs, guests received sweetmeats (a mix of nuts and dried fruits, also known as confetto) to shower the couple. Now, from a modern day perspective, I suppose the breaking of the cake is much like how you see newlyweds feed each other cake and suddenly a moment of excitement prompts them to shove it in the other person’s face – lovingly and flirtatiously, of course. And the confetto? I’m certain we’ve simply replaced that with flower petals and colored paper.
As for medieval times in England, buns celebrated nuptials. A towering pile of dainty spiced buns appeared at weddings to feast upon, but first, there was a challenge. Can the bride and groom successfully exchange a kiss over the stack? If so, they can be certain their future will be met with shared prosperity.
Continuing on with England, bride pie (or maybe it’s bride’s pie – I couldn’t determine which name was correct based on various articles) was what you could expect in the county of Yorkshire. This came after the barley loaf, which sounds incredibly romantic. Minced meat, an assortment of nuts and fruits as well as other ornate pastry decorations presented itself proudly around this pie, which hid a glass ring. Every guest was expected to eat a piece and the lucky lady to find the ring would be next to marry. Thereafter, this pie evolved into a bride cake studded with fruit – a symbol of fertility and wealth. Displayed as the centerpiece for weddings, the cake was often made of two shortcrust pastries cooked in a hearth on a bakestone because ovens in homes were scarce. The pastry cake would seal in currants and be dusted with sugar. It sounds quite delicious to me.
Admittedly, I had to look up numerous references for when the first white frosted cake appeared. It’s still a mystery because some say it surfaced during the 17th century, while others declare its debut was during the Victorian Times, which is quite a bit after. So I’ll give it to you straight: I don’t have the answer. But let’s still talk about it. Royal icing, probably named this because it was used for decorating Queen Victoria’s wedding cake when she wedded Prince Albert, was the first sign of a white ingredient frosting a cake. I doubt anyone does it now, but the icing, known as “bliss” when used on wedding cakes, was applied directly to a freshly baked round and placed back in the oven to set and firm up. It was later paired with almond paste. By the end of the 19th century, powdered or confectioners’ sugar became a common ingredient in crafting these ceremonial desserts.
Returning to my mention of Queen Victoria, her cake was among the first to be multitiered and dubbed an actual “wedding cake.” Extravagant is putting it lightly. The makers adorned the cake with sculpted cupids and turtledoves. The tiers were propped up by pedestals, and the largest of the layers spanned more than nine feet in circumference. Other notable tiered cakes to mention was that of Queen Victoria’s daughter Vicky, who opted for a centerpiece that only consisted of cake in the bottom tier (yes, the others were cake dummies – likely constructed of hatboxes); Prince Leopold’s celebratory dessert, which was the first time a wedding cake was made entirely of cake; and Queen Elizabeth II’s cake, which stood tall at nine feet and weighed an incredible 500 pounds.
As for today, brides and grooms focus less on traditional white, a color highly once sought after for its symbolism of purity. Contemporary cakes follow no set rules unless that is the preference. You can find wedding cakes in single-tiered form outfitted with fresh florals, deconstructed across a long table, covered in gold leaf or bold colors and shaped to look like objects. Traditional or trendy, wedding cakes are simply whatever a happy couple dreams.