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The History of Wedding Cakes

With so many options available to loved up couples looking to utter those two little words ‘I do’, weddings now-a-days can look somewhat different from those of times gone by, however, many aspects of modern-day weddings are steeped in tradition. We’ve delved back into the history of the irresistible wedding cake to see where it all began and just how different wedding cakes today are from their humble beginnings.

It All Started with The Wedding Pie!

During the 16th and 17th century the wedding cake was actually a wedding pie, served at the wedding breakfast straight after the ceremony rather than in the evening at the wedding reception, as is more common with today’s weddings. Another key difference is the wedding pie was savoury not sweet like today’s wedding cakes.

Slowly changing over time, the bride’s pie was being served at weddings into the 18th century where the fillings had begun to more closely resemble a minced pie. This was a far cry from the earlier fillings which we have to admit aren’t to our taste! To give you an idea Robert May’s recipe taken from the ‘Accomplish’t Cook’ of 1660 is for one large pie which contained several smaller pies with fillings including egg, dried fruit similar to mincemeat; prawns, cockles and oysters; cock’s combs and lambs’ testicles; artichokes and stuffed larks. In the centre of the pie was a cavity where either live birds or even a snake was concealed which were there to provide entertainment to the wedding guests to pass the time. There is also mention of a tradition where a glass ring was placed in the middle of the bride’s pie and whoever found it would be the next to marry, similar to the modern-day tradition of catching the bouquet. Other wedding pie recipes included ingredients selected for their perceived aphrodisiac properties such as sweet potatoes and cock sparrow brains!

The Bride’s Cake

There is a mention of the bride’s cake in a poem by Robert Herrick in 1648 indicating a cross over between the bride’s pie and the bride’s cake in the 17th century but rather than a wedding cake that we are familiar with today the bride’s cake was similar to a sweet, yeasted bread which was flavoured with spices and fruit. One of the earliest recipes is from the Compleat Cook (yes that is the correct spelling) by Rebecca Price of 1655 where a recipe for a Banbury cake is outlined.

Slowly plum cakes made their way into favour and there is also a reference to a bride’s cake and a groom’s cake where the groom’s cake was typically an alcohol-soaked darker fruit cake, smaller in size to the bride’s cake. The bride’s cake was typically a pound cake, more commonly known today as Madeira cake or perhaps a loaf cake with white icing. The simple bride’s cake covered in white icing represented purity and was a sign of the bride’s virginity.

The 18th and 19th Century

The 18th century saw the introduction of a layer of almond paste placed between the cake and icing sugar, with the first suggestion of this by Elizabeth Raffald in 1769. The marzipan layer between the cake and icing helped to prevent the icing from becoming discoloured. Not only did white icing represent the bride’s purity but also the social standing of the family, as whiter icing was produced from more refined, whiter sugar which was more expensive. In the later part of the 18th century this icing provided a flat surface for embellishments and decoration (some edible and some not edible) to be added creating scenes.

By the 19th century cakes were starting to be more elaborately decorated and when Queen Victoria used white icing on her wedding cake in 1840 it gained the name royal icing. The 19th century also saw the introduction of coloured icing rather than white, although this wasn’t commonplace. It was at Prince Leopold, the Duke of Albany's wedding in 1882 where the modern wedding cake first appeared. Fully edible, each layer of the wedding cake was covered in dense icing which once hardened, allowed the layers to be stacked on top of each other, truly groundbreaking for the time. Prior to this it would only be the bottom layer that would be made from cake. Roughly 20 years after Prince Leopold’s wedding cake saw the emergence of pillars between the cake layers, made by covering broomsticks in icing. The use of pillars was again a symbol of the family’s wealth and social status as the majority of wedding cakes still used dowels within the cake to give support. Indeed, wedding cakes in general were expensive to produce and it was only towards the end of the century when it became possible to buy smaller options making them more affordable.

The 20th Century

With the cost of wedding cakes still a challenge, the 20th century saw recipes tweaked removing or substituting the more expensive ingredients such as butter which was replaced by margarine. This inventiveness was compounded further when due to rationing in both the First World War and Second World War certain ingredients were unavailable or not available in the quantities required for recipes. Couples resorted to placing replica elaboratively decorated card cakes over the top of sponge cakes to give the illusion of a grand wedding cake in the wedding photos.

The Modern-Day Wedding Cake

The options in terms of wedding cakes for couples today is endless. They can have many tiers (single, 2 tier, 3 tier and higher), be made with a rainbow of colour options, be made in the couple’s favourite flavours (Victoria sponge, chocolate, red velvet, fruit cake), and be designed to represent the happy couple perfectly, whether that be matching the theme of the wedding or personalising the cake to show the couple’s hobbies or favourite T.V. show etc. Like in the 17th century it’s now common again to have a bride’s cake and a groom’s cake so each of the couple can show their personalities. The couple may also opt for one wedding cake to cut and then have an array of wedding cupcakes rather than multiple wedding cake tiers. Opting for cupcakes, or perhaps cookies or pastries allows for many different design and flavour options. Couples may also prefer a savoury option with tiers of cheese adorned with grapes and surrounded by crackers and chutneys.

The wedding cakes of today might be unrecognisable to the 16th century bride’s pie but this is only possible through the bakers of today learning from and taking inspiration from their predecessors. Fundamentally no matter what the ingredients or design, the purpose of the wedding cake is to be eaten by loved ones celebrating the joining of two people in love.


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