The wedding cake has always been important to the marriage celebration. In ancient Roman times, bread was broken above the head of the bride, signifying good luck for the couple. As time passed, different foods replaced bread and were stacked, the happy couple expected to lean over it and kiss before dismantling and serving. The contents evolved into buns and small cakes or pastries, sometimes even meat pies which were eaten as part of the meal. But the symbolism has pretty much remained the same, that of fertility and good fortune, as the newlyweds ceremoniously cut the cake and share with each other prior to their guests.
Contemporary cakes are often not even edible but merely disguised cardboard or styrofoam, elaborately decorated, then whisked away to the kitchen where a simple sheet cake is cut and served to the unsuspecting guests. Traditionally the top layer, often called the groom’s cake, is saved and consumed at a later date, or may be separate entirely. At some weddings, the cake consists of tiered cupcakes for easy serving, or displayed on an elaborate “sweet table” of desserts where the guests can help themselves.
During the Victorian age in Britain (1800s) the royals and elite class took the wedding cake to a new high (literally) with sweet cake and white icing as a status symbol of the bride and groom, exemplified by the lavish display served at the 1871 wedding of Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise, which took three months to complete. One has to wonder how well it held up literally during all that time and was it still edible. Apparently so, as pieces of the original were auctioned off years later. One buyer described the texture as “firm,” an understatement to be sure. Although most royals favor a lavish but somewhat traditional cake, elaborate reproductions of palaces and historical landmarks have been prominently featured at some elite children’s weddings.
No longer the traditional white cake or fruitcake (favored by Brits) the contemporary cakes have evolved into spectacles of artistry, with unique themes, sculptures, photos and even replicas of the bride and groom themselves. They may be carrot cake, chocolate or cheesecake, with colorful icing and decorations of any flavor, and frequently come with a price tag far surpassing the bridal gown. Specially trained pastry chefs compete on Food Network and have their own businesses which create wedding cakes exclusively.
Possibly, the most famous wedding cake in history belongs to the character Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ legendary novel Great Expectations. The jilted spinster, left at the altar, spends the rest of her life in her bedroom wearing her wedding dress, the rotting wedding cake on display, covered with cobwebs. Although not so dramatic, here are some famous modern-day cakes that deserve mention:
Actress Grace Kelly’s celebrated marriage to Prince Rainier III of Monaco featured a six-tiered wedding cake at their reception in 1956, and depicted a three-dimensional replica of Monaco’s Pink Palace, her soon-to-be new home.
When a radiant Elizabeth Taylor carved into a five-tiered white cake at her lavish first wedding to hotel heir Nicky Hilton in 1950, it was topped with traditional wedding bells, created by the pastry chef at the chichi Bel-Air Country Club in California. Imagine the lucky bakers who were commissioned by Elizabeth Taylor and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Although the cakes got smaller and smaller with each subsequent marriage, they still had a terrific repeat business from each of the two actresses.
At the 1947 royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth, soon to become Queen of England, the 500-pound fruitcake (a traditional British favorite) stood 9 feet tall. It required 660 eggs, 300 pounds of dried nuts and fruits, and three-and-a-half gallons of Navy rum. (And some of us complain when we receive a measly two-pound fruitcake at Christmas.)
Prince Charles and Diana’s five-foot tall cake was adorned with marzipan Windsor coats of arms and was so vital to the royal celebration that a duplicate copy was made, in case of an accident. (Kind of like “an heir and a spare.”)
When Kennedy daughter Eunice married Sargent Shriver, she had to stand on a step ladder to cut the cake, it was so tall (which brings new meaning to the phrase “standing up for a wedding”).
Elvis Presley married Priscilla in 1967, where the wedding featured a large yellow cake, which came with a price tag of $22,000, a staggering amount in 1967. Created by the pastry chef at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, he proudly proclaimed the layers of his masterpiece were filled with apricot marmalade and liqueur-flavored Bavarian cream, then glazed with fondant icing, topped off with marzipan roses. Fit for a king.
Donald Trump and Melania’s cake cost $50,000 and could not be served to the guests because of the amount of wiring used to keep it intact. Reportedly the cake was a stunning seven-tier work of art, weighing in at over 200 pounds and consisted of yellow sponge cake flavored with orange zest, soaked in Grand Marnier, filled with butter cream, and adorned with 2,000 individually constructed flowers spun from sugar. (Author’s note: I don’t know about anyone else, but it sounds so delicious that I would have gladly picked out the wires and devoured it.)
No question, the simple wedding cake has evolved into an art form, where creativity and ingenuity know no bounds. If you can dream it up, and absorb the cost, you will find a willing and talented baker to create it. In the words of a famous French royal, “Let them eat cake.” Indeed.