The elaborate wedding cakes of the 21st century, oftentimes the centerpiece of the wedding reception, have their origins in humbler, much more ancient confections. Some food historians claim that the tradition of serving cake at a wedding derives from the ancient Roman custom of breaking wheat bread over the head of the bride in a fertility and prosperity ritual. Much later, in medieval England, the tradition was to stack sweetbreads into a tall pile between the bride and groom and have the couple attempt to kiss each other without toppling the breads. A successful kiss would portend a prosperous union. When a French baker visited England during the same period and observed the practice, he, in typical French fashion, thought he could refine the English tradition, thus creating the Gallic equivalent: croquembouche, a tower made of profiteroles and crowned with spun sugar. The tradition survives in France to this day, though the croquembouche is typically placed atop a cake-base to form the top tier of the wedding cake.
From the middle of the 17th century and until the beginning of the 19th century, the bride’s pie became fashionable in England. Not a dessert, but more akin to a present-day pot pie, filled with meat and flavored with spices, a glass ring was concealed in the pie, and the maiden who was served the portion containing the ring was deemed the next person destined for marriage—in a tradition similar to the tossing of the bouquet or garter at modern Western weddings.
With the increasing availability of sugar imported from the New World as a result of the Trans-Atlantic Trade of enslaved Africans, sugar became more widely available and, because of its dry consistency, transformed cuisine, especially pastries. Soon, the bride’s pie gave way to the wedding cake—one for the bride, and one for the groom, plum or mixed-fruit cakes being the tradition of the day.
Despite the increased availability of sugar in the 18th and 19th centuries, refined white sugar was still a luxury, affordable only to the wealthiest of families. So as displays of economic prowess, white cakes with white icing became standards amongst Europe’s powerful families. When Queen Victoria wed in 1840 and used white icing on her bridal cake, the term “royal icing” became a part of the vernacular.
Eventually, the groom’s cake (which was generally smaller than the bride’s and darker in color—on account of typically including fruits in its recipe) yielded to the bride’s cake, usually a pound cake covered with white icing. Today, the groom’s cake has become a rarity, seen primarily in some southern states of the United States and parts of the English-speaking Caribbean.
To a large degree, the wedding cake as it is known today owes much of its character to that served at the 1882 wedding of Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany. The cake, created in several layers, each separated by a dense icing for support and stacked upon the other to achieve height, was entirely edible. The stacking technique was innovative for its day. The use of pillars to separate sections of a cake, giving additional height, and the use of dowels to support the weight, appeared about 20 years later, at the beginning of the 20th century.
Today, wedding cakes of royalty and the wealthy have been known to reach several feet in height, weigh several hundred pounds, and cost thousands of dollars.
Many couples delay the cutting of the wedding cake until near the end of the reception since guests tend to view the cutting of the cake as the culmination of the reception, departing shortly thereafter. So traditionally, after the meal has been served and after much dancing and socializing, the bride and groom—after summoning their guests to witness what is regarded as the marquee event of the reception—cut the cake, the bride holding the knife and the groom, with his hand placed atop hers, guiding the knife. In the case of a military groom who weds in full regalia, he cuts the cake with his sword. In a same-sex, gender-neutral wedding, the older groom should guide the hand of the younger groom in the cutting of the cake, the older placing his hand atop that of the younger as they cut. And as in the traditional wedding, after the first slice of cake has been placed onto a dessert plate, each groom, using his fingers (Some grooms prefer to use a dessert fork), picks up a portion of the slice and places the portion into the mouth of the other groom in an intimate tradition symbolizing their promise to care for and support each other.
When the cake is comprised of several tiers, the topmost tier is first carefully removed and placed aside since, traditionally, that tier is frozen or preserved with brandy to be eaten on the couple’s first anniversary. The rest of the cake is cut from top, down, tier by tier, and served. When the circumference of the tiers is such that full wedges would be too large, a circular core is first cut into the center of the cake by inserting the blade of the knife into the full depth of the tier, then cutting a core of the desired diameter. Once the core has been cut, the portion of the tier outside the core is then sliced into wedges, leaving the core, which is also then cut into wedges and served. Some grooms preserve slices of their wedding cake to be eaten on the major anniversaries: fifth, tenth, twenty-fifth, etc.