Wedding cakes have been part of the marriage ceremony ever since medieval times. Originally they were made of wheat which was a symbol of fertility and prosperity. As a relic of once performed fertility rites, these ‘wedding cakes’ would have been thrown at the bride.
Around 1900 years ago the Romans began baking wheat and salt into small cakes to be eaten. During the 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. It was only the children born to the couple whose marriage had been celebrated this way, that could qualify for high office in Roman culture. Not only did the cake give good fortune to the couple, it insured a bright future for their as yet unborn children. History also tells us 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 evolved into the larger, modern version, it became physically impractical to properly break the cake over the bride’s head. The tradition disappeared fairly quickly in some places, though there were still reports in Scotland, as late as the 19th century, of breaking an oatcake over the bride’s head. It was also reported that in Northern Scotland, friends of the bride would put a napkin over her head and then proceed to pour a basket of bread over her!
In Medieval England, wedding cakes were described as breads which were flour-based foods 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 in a large pile in front of the newlyweds. Stacked as high as possible the idea was to 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. Eventually, the idea of stacking them neatly and frosting them together was adopted as a more convenient option.
It is told that later in the 1660’s during the reign of King Charles II, a French chef (whose name, unfortunately, is no longer known) 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. These earliest tiered wedding cakes utilized short-cut broom sticks to separate their layers. Since such elaborate wedding cakes needed to be prepared days in advance and because of the lack of modern refrigeration or plastic wraps, the wedding cakes were frosted in lard to keep them from drying out. The lard was scraped off just before their serving. In later years, sugar was added to improve the taste of the lard and allowed the lard to be left on the wedding cake as a decorative icing.
The wedding cake took yet another course correction when in the 17th Century a popular dish for weddings became the Bride’s Pie. The pie was filled with sweet breads, a mince pie, 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 objects also were given the prefix of bride, such as the bride bed, bridegroom and bridesmaid. By the late 19th century, wedding cakes became really popular, and the use of the bride pie disappeared.
Early cakes were simple single-tiered plum cakes, with some variations. There was also an unusual notion of sleeping with a piece of wedding cake underneath one’s pillow which dates back as far as the 17th century and quite probably forms the basis for the tradition of giving cake as a gift. Legend has it that sleepers will dream of their future spouses if a piece of wedding cake is under their pillow. In the late 18th century this notion led to the curious tradition 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. The custom was curtailed when brides began to get superstitious about taking their rings off after the ceremony.
White Wedding Cakes…
In the minds of most people, wedding cakes are supposed to be white. The symbolism attached to the color white, makes explaining this tradition rather simple. White has always denoted purity, and it relates to white wedding cake icing that first appeared in Victorian times. Another way in which a white wedding cake relates to the symbol of purity, has its basis in the fact that the wedding cake was originally referred to as the bride’s cake. This not only highlighted the bride as the central figure of the wedding, but also created a visual link between the bride and the cake. Today, that link is being further strengthened as more contemporary brides have contemporary wedding cakes co-ordinated with their wedding gown colour, even if it’s not white! Previous to Victorian times, most wedding cakes were also white, but not because of the symbolism. Ingredients were very difficult to come by, especially those required for icing. White icing required the use of only the finest refined sugar, so the whiter the cake, the more affluent the families appeared. A white wedding cake became an outward symbol of affluence.
Cutting the Wedding Cake…
Wedding cakes take centre stage in the traditional cake cutting ceremony, symbolically the first task that bride and groom perform jointly as husband and wife. This is one 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 task originally was delegated exclusively to the bride. It was she who cut the wedding cake for sharing with her guests. Distributing pieces of wedding cake to one’s guests is a part of that tradition from the Roman Empire when guests clamoured for the crumbs. But, as numbers of wedding party guests grew, so did the size of the wedding cake, making the distribution process impossible for the bride to undertake on her own. Wedding cake cutting became more difficult with early multi-tiered cakes, because the icing had to be hard enough to support the wedding cake’s own weight. This made cutting the wedding cake a joint project. After the cake cutting ceremony, the couple proceed to feed one other from the first slice. This provides another lovely piece of symbolism, the mutual commitment of bride and groom to provide for one another.
Multi Tiered Wedding Cakes…
The once simple wedding cake has evolved into what today is a multi-tiered extravaganza. The multi-tiered wedding cake was originally reserved for English royalty. Even for the nobility, the first multi-tiered wedding cakes were real in appearance only. Their upper layers were mock-ups made of spun sugar. Once the problem of preventing the upper layers from collapsing into the lower layers was solved, a real multi-tiered wedding cake could be created. Pillars as decoration existed long before multi-tiered wedding cakes appeared, so it was a natural progression for cake bakers to try using pillars as a way to support the upper tiers. To prevent the pillars from sinking into the bottom tier, icing was hardened to provided the necessary support. There are some brides today who can’t resist saving the top layer of her multi-tiered cake. Couples freeze the wedding cake with the intention of sharing it on their first wedding anniversary. The tradition has its roots in the late 19th century when grand cakes were baked for christenings. It was assumed that the christening would occur soon after the wedding ceremony, so the two ceremonies were often linked, as were the cakes. With modern wedding cakes becoming more and more fancy and elaborate, the christening cake quickly took a back seat to the wedding cake. When three-tiered cakes became popular, the top tier was often left over. A subsequent christening provided a perfect opportunity to finish the wedding cake. Couples could then logically rationalize the need for three tiers — the bottom tier for the reception, the middle tier for distributing and the top for the christening. As the time between the weddings and the christenings widened, the two events became disassociated, and the reason for saving the top tier of the wedding cake changed. Regardless of the underlying reason, when the couple finally does eat the top tier, it serves as a very pleasant reminder of their very special day.