Cakes have always been associated with weddings, and the sharing of wedding cake remains as important today as it was centuries ago. Ancient Greeks made a mixture of grain and honey, which was formed into a circle, and baked. Once on the wedding table, it would be encircled with a ring of ivy, symbolising the unity of marriage.
An old custom in the British Isles, involved breaking a cake over the bride’s head as she entered her new home. And up until the 19th century some country areas still maintained this tradition by crumbling cakes over the head of the bride. The tradition of eating small cakes at weddings existed for centuries, until it gradually changed into one large cake, known as the ‘Bride Cake’. For hundreds of years, wedding cakes have traditionally been round – a circle denotes eternity. Round cakes are easier to bake and decorate, and in the past only round tins were available. And so, for many years it was the tradition to have one cake at the wedding. Even Queen Victoria, when she married in 1840, had a single cake – although it did measure nearly three metres (nine feet) in circumference. White icing, made from icing sugar and egg white, decorated the cake, and this has since become known as ‘royal icing’.
But by the time the Queen’s eldest daughter married in 1858, royal wedding cakes had grown considerably. Many of the designs were based on Victorian architecture. Doors, pillars and arches (made from icing) formed part of design. Royal cakes are enormous, in keeping with the size of the rooms. When Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother married in 1923 her cake was nine feet high. However, the majority of brides at the beginning of the last century only had a round fruit cake on their wedding day. But gradually royal icing was introduced, and bakery exhibitions sprang up, giving confectioners scope for their creative ideas. Eventually these ideas filtered down into the humble bakery and brides were able to order a professionally made wedding cake. Alternatively, the bride’s mother would make the cake and, because many of the kitchen ranges were unreliable, the baker would, for a small fee, bake it.
Wooden moulds were often used to make various designs such as bells, cherubs, scrolls and doves, By pressing gum paste – similar to flower paste – into the moulds, cakes could be quickly decorated With the introduction of pillars, wedding cakes achieved height. No records exist of when pillars were first used, but a London church is said to have provided the inspiration for a tiered wedding cake. For around 40 years, square wedding cakes were particularly popular as they were easy to cut into equal portions. To save labour costs, most commercial wedding cakes in the 20th century were decorated with standard designs of shells, scrolls, loops and dots, then leaves made from stiff paper, and sprays of wax flowers would be attached.
Originally only the bride made the first cut in the wedding cake. But many found the icing too hard to pierce, so naturally the groom came to her aid, and through the simple act of placing his hand over hers, the ceremony of cutting the cake became the first obstacle they faced together in married life. Any bride married during or soon after World War II did not have a lot of choice in her wedding cake. Even when Queen Elizabeth II married in 1947 (two years after World War II) many items of food were still rationed, particularly those classed as luxury goods. In those post-war days,some brides even resorted to hiring a dummy wedding cake. Made from cardboard these ‘cakes’ looked realistic from a distance, but underneath the covering would be a forlorn fruit cake, lacking both marzipan and icing. Eventually the soft ‘ Australian Icing’ reached Britain, and transformed cake decorating. By the 1970s this ‘roll-out icing’ was being used to decorate wedding cakes. Gone were the angular edges and sharp corners of a royal iced cake, and curves, flowers and frills replaced hard lines.
With the arrival of a new type of icing came a yearning for a break from the traditional rich fruit cake. carrot, chocolate, sponge or cheesecake, are now all acceptable as wedding cakes.
And so we arrive at the 21st century and what do we find? Well, many of the current wedding cake designs have rolled back the years. In Roman times they had lots of small cakes at a wedding, and today one of the most popular designs is for miniature cakes Another of today’s designs is to have cakes stacked, one on top of another. This method of displaying cakes was used for royal wedding cakes back in the 1800s. And for our final conclusion we end with the apt quotation – ‘what goes around, comes around’.