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Of Weddings, Cakes and Tradition

With the entire family gearing up for the wedding of the youngest, the days have turned into an organizational fiasco. Considering all the hectic preparations underway, the easier option would have been to elope and have a very quiet wedding. But then the entire family would miss out a chance to meet up, have loads of fun and enjoy great photographic moments or memories.

Although the event management team as well as the wedding planner were working on the arrangements, from gowns to venue settings to catering, last minute details were to be ironed out. As a part of my research into various ideas, I had chanced upon some fascinating historical facts and traditions that went along with wedding cakes in particular.

As early as the era of the Roman empire, a loaf of bread or biscuit made of meal (matzo cake), wheat or barley was crumbled over the bride’s head to provide good luck. After the newly married couple would eat a few crumbs together as one of their first unified acts, the leftover crumbs would be scooped by the wedding guests for good luck. With the Romans conquering Britain, the tradition was carried further by throwing the bread at the bride for good luck and fertility. Slowly the bread changed to more flatter cake like versions.

In England during the medieval era, instead of the plain wheat cakes; spiced buns, scones, and cookies were stacked as high as possible and the bride and groom would try to kiss over it. Legend said if they would have good fortune if they smooched successfully without knocking the whole thing down. From this the French tradition of Croquembouche was created. The myth tells of a Pastry chef while visiting Medieval England had witnessed such a wedding where sweet rolls were piled. Back in France, he had piled sweet rolls up into a tower to make the first Croquembouche. The modern croquembouche tower (usually built from profiteroles) is now placed on a bed of cake and make it a top tier, sometimes given a halo of spun sugar.

In some areas, especially mid 17th to 19th century, bride pies were made wherein a ring would. To symbolize the acceptance of the proposal, traditionally the bride would place a ring inside the couple’s portion of the cake. Alternatively a glass ring would be placed in the middle of the dessert and the maiden who found it would be the next to marry. Bride’s pie would evolve into the bride’s cake. As an oven was still a rarity, two pastry crusts would be baked on the hearth with currants between them like a sandwich and sugar sprinkled on top. At this point the dessert was sweeter than earlier versions. Over time, the ingredients progressed to include candied fruits, almonds, spices, raisins and even rum. In the Victorian era, white icing was also a symbol of money and social importance which has since then been carried on.

Interestingly, in the 17th century, two cakes were made, one for the bride and one for the groom as the bride cakes were too feminine for men. The groom’s cake was typically the darker colored, rich fruit cake and generally much smaller than the bride’s cake. Initially the bride’s cake was usually a simple pound cake with white icing with white as a symbol of purity. This is still carried over today at some weddings, although sometimes the groom’s cake is served at the rehearsal dinner.

Towards the late 18th century, tiered cakes had got their start when the apprentice of a London baker fell in love with his boss’s daughter. Inspired by by the tiered spire of St. Bride’s Church, legend has it the apprentice baker recreated the look in pastry form to impress her. Later on the traditional wedding cakes in England and early America were fruit cakes, often topped with marzipan and icing with tiers.

Symbolism and Superstitions. From bread to pies then cakes, the latter was originally intended to be distributed among the guests by only the bride for consuming the cake would ensure fertility. As weddings grew with increase in number of guests and tiered cakes with icing became popular, cutting the cake was a joint venture with the groom assisting the bride. As this tradition began the bride and groom would share a piece of cake before distributing it not only as a symbol of their union but also as their promise to take care of each other forever.

In the traditional American wedding, ribbons would be attached to the bottom layer of the wedding cake of which one would contain a charm or ring. Maidens would be invited to pull ribbons and whoever gets the charm will be the next person to marry. Some places, the wedding cake is broken over the bride’s head to ensure fertility and good fortune. Also bridesmaids would take a piece of cake home and place it under the pillow, or put it in their left stocking and sleep for dreams on their future husband and good luck as well.

Besides being celebratory, initially wedding cakes were a sign of social status. Over the centuries with the advent of wedding cake toppers, fondant, flower-paste, royal icing, glaceing, filling flavours ranging from chocolate, carrot, pistachio to Italian cream, lemon-thyme, passion fruit-lime, Mexican-hot chocolate to name a few; the options are endless as the wedding business grew to new and big proportions. Of recent the single or multiple tiered cake is for family and close friends at the wedding while little cupcakes and pastries have made their way into the reception. It’s little wonder that in all the wedding planning details, the cake takes its fair share faced by a great deal of choices, minor specifics, tastings, trepidation and artwork laced with innumerable amount of rethinking and decisions to be made.