The multi-tiered extravaganzas with frosting flowers and sometimes fanciful designs we now associate with wedding cakes are a Victorian invention, as are most of our modern wedding customs. That does not mean, however, that wedding cakes did not exist before Victoria and Albert’s 300 pound confection.
Cake at a wedding dates back at least to Roman times when a cake of wheat or barley was partially eaten by the groom, then broken over the bride’s head, followed by the crumbs being tossed into the crowd. This represented prosperity and fertility and good fortune.
In various forms, the custom continued through the middle ages and into our time of the Regency. Some evolutions took place along the way. Wheat poured onto the bride’s head replaced the cake breaking, though some evidence reports that an oat cake was broken over the bride’s head in Scottish weddings well into the nineteenth century.
In the Regency, bride cakes ranged from what sounds like what we recognize as fruit cake such as those passed around at Christmas, though much, much larger, to flour cakes stacked and held together with icing.
Stacking cakes was a more modern form of the “stack” a pile of wheat rolls piled high to represent prosperity over which the bride and groom kissed. Cakes replaced the rolls, but piling them together created the problem of keeping them piled, making sure they did not crumble away, and keeping them from going stale. Frosting them together seemed like a natural way to solve this problem.
Not too long before the Regency, bride pies became the custom. This was a savory, not a sweet pie. A glass ring was baked into this pastry, and the lady who received the piece with the ring was sure to wed within the next year, rather like the ring in a Christmas pudding.
Many cake customs had not died by the Regency. One that seems to have survived was the cutting the cake into small pieces to distribute through the guests. Young women took their pieces home to lay beneath their pillow. They thought this would help them dream of the men they would marry. Other brides carried this further and the piece of cake had to be drawn through the wedding ring as many as nine times before it would reveal the recipient’s future spouse.
Here is a recipe for bride cake from an 1818 housekeeping book by Elizabeth Raffald.
(Note: I have changed the s that look like f to a modern s for ease of reading.)
To make a Bride Cake.
TAKE four pounds of fine flour well dried, four pounds of fresh butter, two pounds of loaf sugar, pound and sift fine a quarter of an ounce of mace, the same of nutmegs, to every pound of flour put eight eggs* wash four pounds of currants, pick them well, and dry them before the fire, blanch a pound of sweet almonds, and cut them lengthways very thin, a pound of citron, one pound of candied orange, the same of candied lemon, half a pint of brandy: first work the butter with your hand to a cream, then beat in yeur sugar a quarter of an hour, beat the whites of your eggs to a very strong froth, mix them with your sugar and butter, beat your yolks half an hour at least, and mix them with your cake, then put in your flour, mace’, and nutmeg, keep beating it well till your oven is ready, put in your brandy, and beat your currants and almonds lightly in, tie three meets of paper round the bottom of your hoop to keep it from running out, rub it well with butter, put in your cake and lay your sweetmeats in three lays, with cake betwixt every lay, after it is risen and coloured, cover it with paper before your oven is slopped *ip: it will take three hour* bakings
To make Almond-Icing for the Bride Cake.
BEAT the-whites of three eggs to a strong froth, beat a pound of Jordan almonds very fine with rose water, mix your almonds with the eggs lightly together, a pound of common loaf sugar beat fine, and put in by degrees; when your cake is enough, take it out, and lay your icing on, then put it into brown.
To make Sugar-Icing for the Bride Cake.
BEAT two pounds of double refined sugar with two ounces of fine starch, sift it through a gauze sieve, then beat the whites of five eggs with a knife upon a pewter dish half an hour; beat in your sugar a little at a time, or it will make the eggs fall, and will not be so good a colour, when you have put in all your sugar, beat it half an hour longer, then lay it on your almond icing, and spread it even with a knife ; if it be put on as soon as the cake comes out of the oven it will be hard by the time the cake is cold.