The contemporary wedding cake has grown out of several different ethnic 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.
The wedding cake was originally a luxury item and a sign of celebration and social status. The bigger the cake, the higher the social standing. Wedding cakes in England and early America were traditionally fruitcakes, often topped with marzipan and icing with tiers. Cutting the cake was an important part of the reception. White icing was also a symbol of money and social importance in Victorian times, so a white cake was highly desired. Today, many flavors and configurations are available in addition to the traditional all-white tiered cake.
In Medieval England, cakes were stacked as high as possible for the bride and groom to kiss over. A successful kiss meant they were guaranteed a prosperous life together. From this, the croquembouche was created. The myth behind this cake tells of a pastry chef, visiting Medieval England, who witnessed their tradition of piling sweet rolls between the bride and groom, which they attempted 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, where it is now common to place the croquembouche tower on a bed of cake and make it a top tier. This traditional French wedding cake is built from Profiteroles and given a halo of spun sugar.
In 1703, 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 couple’s portion of the cake to symbolize acceptance of the proposal. During the mid-17th century to the beginning of the 19th, 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 tradition 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 would evolve 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 fruitcake. The myth that eating the pie would bring good luck was still common but the glass ring slowly died out and the flower bouquet toss replaced it.
Tiered cake with calla lilies, was a symbol of purity. Fruit cakes were a sign of fertility and prosperity, which helped them gain popularity because married men wanted to have plenty of children. The bride’s cake would transform into the modern wedding cake we know today. In the 17th century, two cakes were made, one for the bride and one for the groom. The groom’s cake would die out and the bride’s cake become 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, sugar became easier to obtain during the time when the bride’s cakes became popular. The more refined and whiter sugars were still very expensive. So, only wealthy families could afford to have a very pure white frosting. This display would show the wealth and 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 would originate at the 1882 wedding of Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany; his wedding cake was the first to actually be completely edible. Pillars between 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 would harden the tiers could be stacked, a groundbreaking innovation for wedding cakes at the time. Modern wedding cakes still use this method, with an added form of support with dowels embedded in the cake to help carry the load especially of larger cakes.
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. A Banbury cake is a spiced, currant-filled, flat pastry cake similar to an Eccles cake, although it is more oval in shape. Once made and sold exclusively in Banbury, England, Banbury cakes have been made in the region to secret recipes since 1586 and are still made there today, although not in such quantity. The cakes were once sent as far afield as Australia, the East Indies and America, normally in locally-made wickerwork baskets.
Banbury cakes were first made by Edward Welchman, whose shop was on Parsons Street. Documented recipes were published by Gervase Markham (in The English Huswife, 1615, pages 75–76) and others during the 17th century. These recipes generally differ greatly from the modern idea of a Banbury cake, in terms of their size and the nature of the pastry. 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.