A Brief History of Wedding Cakes - Traditional to Contemporary
The Earliest Wedding Cakes
The wedding cake is the showpiece of any modern wedding. Elaborately decorated and often costing thousands of dollars, the bride's cake is one of the key features of the wedding reception. For as long as people have celebrated special occasions, milestones like weddings were the time at which the best and most costly foods were served. This is a look back at the origins of the wedding cake, cake traditions, and the decidedly modern direction that wedding cakes have taken in recent years.
It is believed that the custom of the wedding cake dates back to Roman times. The baked good served at a Roman wedding, however, bore no resemblance to the sweet confection that we now associate with weddings. The Romans made not a sugary cake, but rather a loaf of barley bread. Not only was the Roman idea of a wedding bread different than our own cake, but the ritual involving it was also somewhat different than the cake cutting ritual to which we are accustomed. When the barley bread was served, the groom would eat part of the loaf, and then break the rest of it over his new bride's head. This act was to symbolize his dominance over her, and the rather barbaric sentiment probably has a lot to do with why this particular bit of wedding tradition has long since been abandoned.
By Medieval times, the wedding dessert was still not quite the tiered cake served today. There was a custom in which a pile of sweet buns was placed in front of the newlyweds at the wedding dinner. The idea was that they would try to exchange a kiss over the buns without toppling the pile. The bride and groom who could manage this feat were assured that their union would be blessed with many children. And even if they failed in their task, they would still get to enjoy the sweet buns.
The Grand White Wedding Cake
Around the 17th century, frosted cakes began to appear in Europe, but it was not until the 19th century that the modern wedding cake took its familiar form. As with many wedding customs, it was the Victorian era that firmly established what we now take as longstanding custom. In the 19th century, wedding cakes were generally plum cakes or fruitcakes, often created in the stacked tier format which is typical today. White icing had become the preferred decoration for wedding cakes. The concept that the color white represents purity in a wedding came about only when Queen Victoria wed Prince Albert in 1840.
White frosting on a wedding cake had a very important significance even before then, however. To create a pure white frosting required a great deal of finely refined white sugar, which was a rare and costly ingredient in the 19th century. Therefore, the brighter white the icing on the cake, the more wealthy the bride's family appeared to be. The cakes were at times also decorated with costly ornaments such as fresh flowers and even real pearls. Today, such a status would be achieved not by using white frosting, as it is readily available, but by hiring a celebrity baker to create an outrageously ornate confection for the wedding. The height of the wedding cake is another way in which brides can allude to the cost of the cake, and therefore the affluence of her wedding. It should be noted, however, that celebrity bakers like Sylvia Weinstock strongly refute the idea of wedding cakes as status symbols. Despite the fact that her cakes can cost over $10,000, she always urges brides to order only as much cake as they can afford.
By the late 19th century, the tiered white wedding cake as we know it was the standard in England and America. There are some interesting variations, however, between England and the United States. In England, the traditional wedding cake filling is still a rich, moist fruitcake created from cognac soaked raisins, currants, dates, prunes, dates, and orange peel. English wedding cakes are customarily frosted with firm icings, such as Royal icing, marzipan, or fondant. They also observe the original custom behind saving the top tier of the wedding cake. In times when the birth of the first child was expected to be within a year of the wedding, the top layer of the cake was reserved for the baby's christening. In the United States, this custom morphed over time into the notion that the top layer of the cake should be saved to eat on the first wedding anniversary, largely as a result of the ever-widening gap between the time of a wedding and the arrival of the first baby.
Victorian and European Wedding Cake Customs
A very sweet custom arose in Victorian England which involved placing silver charms into the wedding cake. Each charm was tied on a ribbon, and would be baked into the cake or inserted under a layer to be pulled out by one of the bridesmaids at the reception. The charms had special meanings, and whichever symbol a bridal attendant pulled represented what her future would bring. The wedding ring charm indicated that the young lady would be married within a year, the anchor stood for adventure, the coin for prosperity, the four leaf clover or horseshoe for luck, and the thimble for spinsterhood. The tradition of Victorian wedding charms is alive and well today, particularly in the Southern United States, however most brides no longer include the unpopular thimble charm!
Other European countries have wedding cake customs which are entirely different than the tiered frosted confection commonly served in British and American weddings. In France, the traditional wedding dessert is a croquembouche, a tall stacked pyramid of profiteroles (cream filled pastries) which are drizzled with caramel and sometimes chocolate. Customary decorations for a croquembouche include sugared almonds, flowers, and ribbons. In Germany, the newlyweds share a rich sponge cake with liquers, jam, and sometimes marzipan or nougat. The wedding cake is then frosted in either fondant or chocolate ganache. A very interesting difference between French and German wedding cakes and our own cakes is that they are never artificially colored. The towering croquembouche or the rich German cake are displayed in the natural colors of the ingredients used to make them.
20th Century Cake Design and Cake Toppers
In the early 20th century in the United States and England, the tiered wedding cake was the standard. Very tall cakes, however, were largely purchased only by families with wealth. One of the biggest challenges in building a large cake was to support the weight of each tier so that it did not collapse into the layer below. This is no small task; the 1947 wedding cake of Queen Elizabeth (then Princess Elizabeth) and Price Phillip weighed in at a staggering 500 pounds. The heavy tiers were a large reason behind the popularity of Royal Icing well into the 1970s. That particular type of frosting dried with a hard surface, which was helpful in supporting the tiers without incident. Another approach was to use columns to hold up each layer of the wedding cake, an innovation which lasted for decades. Cakes with columns are still available in bakeries today, although they are not particularly in vogue, having last been extremely popular in the 1980s.
The hardness of Royal Icing was one of the origins of the custom in which the bride and groom cut the cake together. At one time, the bride would slice the cake herself, but as cakes grew larger, and the frosting harder to support the layers, cutting into it was actually pretty challenging. Thus the tradition of the groom placing his hand over the bride's to cut the first piece of wedding cake, which was both practical and a nice way to show how the newlyweds would work together when faced with a difficult task. The moment of the reception in which the newlyweds feed each other a bite of the first slice of cake symbolizes that they will always provide for each other in their marriage. Knowing that, the alternative in which the bride and groom smash cake into one another's faces is not only in poor taste, but makes for pretty disheartening symbolism!
The traditional bride and groom cake topper was first seen in the late 19th century, and was a popular addition to the wedding cake by the 1920s. The little figurines representing the newlyweds were initially homemade out of materials like plaster or gum paste. Commercially made cake toppers began to become widely available by the '20s, and they were created in a variety of things such as porcelain and wood, later Bakelite, and eventually plastic. Generally the bride and groom were dressed in formal attire, and the cake topper was considered a special keepsake from the wedding.
Many modern brides eschew the traditional bride and groom figurines, although there is a lively demand for vintage cake toppers. Some of the most sought after were made in Germany in the 1920s and '30s. As virtually all of the tiny brides and grooms were made with white skin, there are some highly collectible vintage cake toppers in antique shops which had been repainted by African-American couples in the first half of the 20th century to resemble their own skin tone. Specialty toppers featuring the groom in military attire are also among the more rare and desirable for brides with an interest in vintage wedding paraphernalia.
Wedding cakes remained fairly predictable in design well into the 1970s. The white tiered cake, possibly with columns, decorated with the bride and groom figurines on top was standard. Ever fashion forward, Miss Jacqueline Bouvier broke with custom when she opted for flowers on top her her cake at her wedding to John F. Kennedy. It would be a surprise to many modern brides to learn that flowers were a non-traditional cake topper in the 1950s.
Sylvia Weinstock and Martha Stewart Change Wedding Cakes Forever
Everything began to change in the U.S. in the 1970s when celebrity baker Sylvia Weinstock first hit the scene. She got her start as an apprentice baker, and in 1975 made a wedding cake for her daughter's friend. The bride-to-be worked in a restaurant, and displayed her gorgeous wedding cake in the front window. The cake was noticed by the head baker for one of New York's most prestigious society caterers, and wedding cakes have not been the same since. Soon Weinstock was creating her ornate cakes for all of the wealthy in New York, and before long her confections were in demand with celebrities around the country and even internationally.
Sylvia Weinstock's wedding cakes were a major departure from the standards in the 1970s. She would only frost in buttercream, due to its superior flavor. Even to this day, Weinstock will not cover a cake in the rolled fondant which is so popular. The “Queen of Cakes”, as she is known, uses buttercream to create a variety of classic icing finishes, upon which she will add the lavish decorations for which her cakes are renowned. The frosting finishes are: smooth, Cornelli (lace), latticework, basketweave, dotted Swiss and grouped dotted Swiss. Perhaps the one thing for which Sylvia Weinstock's cakes became most famous is their abundance of handmade sugar flowers. The incredibly time consuming process of handcrafting every single perfect blossom, stem, and leaf on a wedding cake accounts for the hefty price tags paid for their wedding cakes by celebrities such as Donald Trump, Michael Douglas, and Mariah Carey. Of course, not all of Ms. Weinstock's brides and grooms are famous; as word of her talent spread, so did the desire for one of her couture cakes among discriminating brides of all walks of life.
The masterpieces created by Sylvia Weinstock forever changed the way American brides view wedding cakes. As she became a favorite in Martha Stewart Living and made television appearances, she brought about a revolution in what brides wanted from their wedding cakes. Another extremely talented pastry chef, Ron Ben-Israel, was “discovered” by Martha Stewart, and from there the desire for luxurious, unique, and personal cakes exploded across the bridal industry. Bakers of a previous generation could never have predicted that wedding cakes would be such a hot topic that there would be numerous television shows about specialty cakes, such as Cake Boss, Ace of Cakes, and Amazing Wedding Cakes.
Modern Showpiece Wedding Cakes
Without a doubt, the wedding cake has always been one of the central parts of the reception. In fact, when Lady Diana Spencer wed Prince Charles in 1981, a duplicate was made of the 5 foot tall marzipan confection, just in case the original was somehow damaged. The difference is that modern brides expect their confections to express their personality or match the theme of their wedding in a way that was unimagined in the past. White cakes remain popular, but colorful bridal cakes have really come into their own as well. Flowers, either fresh or sugar, are favorite decorations for more classic contemporary wedding cakes, but bakers and brides are also not afraid to venture into more unusual designs. Crisp patterns rendered in rolled fondant are very popular, as are cakes which mimic something luxurious, like a stack of Tiffany blue gift boxes. Monograms, either in frosting, or emblazoned in dazzling crystalsfor cake toppers are a hot way to personalize a wedding cake.
Some modern wedding cakes are now so elaborate that they are more sculpture than pastry. In fact, to make intricate shapes possible while keeping costs under control, some wedding cakes are actually made primarily from inedible materials like Styrofoam or plywood. A small section of real cake is inserted into the shaped form so that the newlyweds can have the traditional cake cutting ritual, and then the entire creation is frosted and decorated. A sheet cake is then cut in the kitchen and served to the guests, since the show “cake” in these instances is usually not enough food for all of the assembled guests.
There is no telling where the popularity of custom wedding cakes will take us. The rise of celebrity bakers in magazines and especially on television has introduced brides to the concept that when it comes to wedding cakes, anything is now possible. While there will always be traditionalists for whom a wedding cake is a white cake with neatly stacked round tiers, for many couples today, the wedding cake should be as unique as it is delicious. One thing is certain, newlyweds are taking great delight in being able to “have their cake and eat it too”.