Around 1900 years ago the Romans began baking wheat and salt into small celebration cakes. During the wedding ceremony the groom would eat part of a loaf of this barley bread and then he would break the rest over his bride’s head. This was taken as a sign of good fortune and a blessing for long life and many children. The guests would try and obtain a crumb for themselves as they too believed they would then share in the good fortune and future prosperity of the couple. In Roman culture it was only children born to the couple whose marriage had been celebrated in this way that could qualify for high office. Not only did the cake give good fortune to the couple, it ensured a bright future for their as yet unborn children. History also suggests that breaking the bread symbolized the breaking of the bride’s virginal state and the dominance of the groom over her.
As the wedding cake developed into the larger, modern version, it became physically impractical to properly break the cake over the bride’s head. The tradition disappeared fairly quickly, though there were still reports in Scotland, as late as the 19th century, of breaking an oatcake over the bride’s head.
In Medieval England, the wedding cake was more like a bread, a flour-based dough without sweetening. The breads were included in many celebratory feasts of the day, not just at weddings. No accounts tell of a special type of wedding cake appearing at wedding ceremonies. There are, however, stories of a custom involving stacking small buns into a large pile in front of the newlyweds. Stacked as high as possible the idea was to make it difficult for the newlyweds to kiss one another over the top. If the bride and groom were able to kiss over the tall stack, it was thought to symbolize a lifetime of prosperity.
In the 1660’s during the reign of King Charles II, a celebrated French chef visited London and was appalled at the cake-piling ritual. The chef, who was travelling through England at the time noticed the inconvenience of piling smaller cakes into a mound and conceived the idea of constructing them into a solid stacked system. This earliest tiered wedding cake utilized short-cut broom sticks to separate its layers. Since such an elaborate wedding cake needed to be prepared days in advance and because of the lack of modern refrigeration or plastic wraps, the wedding cake was frosted in lard to keep it from drying out. The lard was then scraped off just before serving. In later years, sugar was added to improve the taste and allowed the lard to be left on the wedding cake as a decorative icing.
The wedding cake took yet another diversion when in the 17th Century a popular dish for weddings became the Bride’s Pie. The pie was filled with sweet-breads, a minced meat, or may have been merely a simple mutton pie. A main ‘ingredient’ was a glass ring. An old adage claimed that the lady who found the ring would be the next to be married. Bride’s pies were by no means universally found at weddings, but there are accounts of these pies being made into the main centrepiece at less affluent ceremonies. The name Bride cakes emphasized that the bride was the focal point of the wedding. Many other items also were given the prefix of bride, such as the bride bed, bridegroom and bridesmaid. By the late 19th century, the wedding cake became really popular, and the use of the bride pie disappeared.
Early cakes were simple single-tiered plum cakes, (plums = prunes) with some variations. There was also the notion of sleeping with a piece of wedding cake underneath one’s pillow which dates back as far as the 17th century. Legend has it that sleepers would then dream of their future spouses. In the late 18th century a curious tradition developed in which brides would pass tiny crumbs of wedding cake through their rings, and then distribute them to guests who could, in turn, place them under their pillows. That custom declined as brides began to get superstitious about taking their rings off after the ceremony.
White wedding cake…
In the minds of many people, the wedding cake should be white. White has always symbolised purity, and so it is unsurprising that the white iced wedding cake developed popularity during Victorian times. Another way in which a white wedding cake relates to the symbol of purity, is that the wedding cake was originally referred to as the ‘bride’s cake’. This highlighted the bride as the central figure of the wedding, and also created a visual link between the bride and the cake. Today, that link is once more being strengthened as brides now choose a contemporary wedding cake which is colour-coordinated with their wedding gown, even though it may not be white! Previous to Victorian times, the wedding cake was also white, but not because of the symbolism. Ingredients were very difficult to come by, especially those required for icing. White icing required the finest refined sugar, so the whiter the cake, the more affluent the families appeared. A white wedding cake therefore became an outward symbol of wealth.
Cutting the wedding cake…
The wedding cake naturally takes centre stage. The traditional cake cutting ceremony is symbolically the first task that the bride and groom perform jointly as husband and wife. After the cake cutting ceremony, the couple proceed to feed one another from the first slice. This evocative symbolism, displays the mutual commitment of bride and groom to provide for one another; a tradition that most of us have witnessed many times. The first piece of wedding cake is cut by the bride with the “help” of the groom. This duty was originally performed exclusively by the bride, who cut the wedding cake for sharing with her guests. Distributing pieces of wedding cake to one’s guests dates from the Roman tradition, when guests clamoured for the crumbs. Wedding cake cutting became more difficult as the multi-tiered cakes used hard ‘Royal’ icing. Henceforth, cutting the wedding cake became a joint project.
The multi tier wedding cake…
The once simple wedding cake has evolved into what today is a multi-tier extravaganza. The multi-tier wedding cake was originally the preserve of English Royalty. For the lesser nobility, the first multi-tier wedding cakes were real in appearance only. Their upper tiers were mock-ups made of spun sugar. In order to prevent the pillars from sinking into the bottom tier, the icing was hardened to provide the necessary support, hence the term ‘Royal Icing’.
Some couples save the top layer of their multi-tiered cake. They store the cake with the intention of sharing it on their first wedding anniversary. This tradition has its roots in the late 19th century when a grand cake was baked for Baptisms and Christenings. It was assumed that the first child would appear within the year after the wedding ceremony so the wedding and baptism cakes were baked together and the two ceremonies thereby linked. As modern wedding cakes became more intricate and elaborate, the christening cake gradually took second place to the wedding cake. However, as multi-tiered cakes became popular, the top tier was often left over. A subsequent Christening provided a perfect opportunity to finish the wedding cake. Couples then logically rationalized the need for three tiers — the bottom tier for the reception, the middle tier for distributing to absent friends, with the top tier stored for the Christening. The time-span between the wedding and the arrival of children has widened but nevertheless a top tier of rich fruit cake will if stored correctly keep for several years. It can then be re-iced for celebration of the firstborn. Regardless of the underlying reason, when the couple finally does eat the top tier, it serves as a very romantic reminder of their very special day.