Delving into the history of the wedding cake reveals both familiar and lesser-known customs surrounding its ceremonial role in a couple’s union. Stretching back to the Roman Empire, for instance, we see the tradition of breaking a “cake loaf”—made of whole wheat flour—over a bride’s head as a symbol of male dominance in the marriage, as purported by some; others understand it to have been
in the name of good fortune.
In medieval England, small spiced buns were arranged in a towering stack. If the bride and groom were able to kiss over the sticky spire, it presaged a lifetime of prosperity (it also boded well for fertility). In Yorkshire County, “bride pie” was customary—sometimes it was made with sweetbreads, sometimes mutton; others are said to have “consisted of a large round pie containing a plump hen full of eggs, surrounded by minced meats, fruits, and nuts and embellished with ornate pastry emblems.” A ring was traditionally placed in the pie and, much like the tossed bridal bouquet of today, the woman who found it would be next to marry.
The 17th century saw the turning of savory pie into sweet cake—the predecessor of today’s wedding cake. Fruitcakes, in particular, were emblems of fertility and prosperity, and gradually became the centerpieces for weddings. Also common were separate cakes for grooms—they tended to be dark, heavy, small, not iced, and were often cut into squares, boxed up, and given to guests to take home. Another ritual from this century—one held over until recently—was to take a piece of cake home to be placed under an unwed woman’s pillow. At the reception, the cake was broken into tiny pieces, which were then passed through the bride’s wedding ring—those pieces accompanied guests home, where they were said to dream of their future husbands.
Also in Yorkshire County, small bits of bride cake were thrown over the heads of the newly married couple (much like today’s rice throwing). The cake often contained little charms like a silver coin, a ring, a button, and a thimble. The guest who received the slice containing the coin was assured prosperity, while the ring meant marriage within a year. Forlorn sweethearts found the button, while the thimble meant a destiny of lifelong spinsterhood or bachelorhood.
By the 19th century, the term “wedding cake” was prevalent. Icing—a sort of meringue mixture of whisked egg and sugar—first appeared at this time, and was referred to as “bliss.” It proved the precursor to “royal icing,” which earned its name following Queen Victoria’s wedding to Prince Albert in 1840; white icing, which called for the finest (most expensive) refined sugar, graced the Queen’s cake. Therefore, a pure white cake was a display of wealth. It has been known as “royal icing” ever since.
The now-traditional multitiered wedding cake—a grand affair of flavorful cake layers decorated with royal icing and embellished with sugar flowers and other decorative elements—has its origins in the cake made for Prince Leopold’s wedding in 1882. A decade later, tiers would be separated by columns, and by the beginning of the 20th century, those columns were made of hardened icing.
Nowadays, whether classic or contemporary, the wedding cake is the ceremonial centerpiece—a matrimonial crescendo of sorts. The joint cutting of the cake, we know, symbolizes the first undertaking as a married couple, while the gesture of feeding cake to each other is a sign of commitment. And, of course, classic white indicates the wife’s “purity” and “virginal attributes”—a notion that came out of Victorian times.
Here to share some sentiments about the all-important wedding cake are three of the North Shore’s most talented pastry artists:
Silver Cloud Cakes
Soft-spoken, gentle-natured Barbara Smith is in the upper echelons of cake artists. The former computer developer and mother of three came to cake making as a means of coping when her mother had Alzheimer’s disease and needed a lot of help. It was an escape—something she found relaxing.
Capitalizing on her talent for hyper-detailed work, she started making cakes more seriously in 2009. For instruction and inspiration, Smith turned to Alison Proctor’s Simplifying Sugar Flowers. “I thought, ‘I can do that.’” And that she did.
“For a while, I was into more dramatic things, like my caterpillar cake. I just love the whole engineering side of it.” But once she had mastered more technically challenging work, she moved into wedding cakes, which she found enchanting for their elegance. Her very first wedding cake was made for one of her daughters. Now, with seven years of experience under her belt (and innumerable cakes from her oven), she has worked with dozens of brides and truly enjoys the process. “I like getting their palette and theme,” she says. “I try to probe them a little to find out what is meaningful to them.” Once she has direction, she weds the cake design with the venue.
Smith offers clients a selection of flavors as a starting point. She finds most people are content choosing from among those options, but every now and then she’ll get a request for something off-menu, like carrot cake, which had her doing some research (at that point, she hadn’t had a carrot cake she liked). Eventually, she went with a recipe from English pastry chef Mich Turner, who adds brown sugar and citrus to a traditional French recipe. “It provides a nice contrast to the rest of the cake’s heavier flavors,” notes Smith.
Making a wedding cake is a week-long process during which Smith uses recipes from renowned French-trained pastry chef Rose Levy Beranbaum. She makes a classic chocolate buttercream frosting that “tastes like the inside of a truffle—that’s [Beranbaum’s] recipe but I might add hazelnut praline to it if someone wants to go the nut route.” After baking and cooling cakes in the fridge, she frosts them and puts them back in to firm up. Then, she adds ganache covered with fondant. “There’s nothing prettier than fondant—it looks like alabaster, with that soft matte finish,” says Smith, who uses a high-quality imported fondant with a citrus essence that she works until it is very thin, making application easier. Asked about ingredients, she says: “Butter, sugar, heavy cream, chocolate, and eggs—the classic French ingredients. Weddings are not a time for dieting!”
Among Smith’s repertoire are appliqué leaves made from white chocolate clay with corn syrup, which makes it more malleable. She designs florals with wafer paper—a somewhat newer material printed with edible inks. She will also use Sugarveil lace, which is merengue powdered sugar and edible gum that is mixed, set into a mold, dried in the oven, then laid onto the cake. She also paints with edible petal dust.
Of the wedding cake tradition, Smith says: “I really think it’s lovely…it gives a certain focus and [guests] can compliment it and enjoy it. The best part is that drama—when everybody gets up to watch the bride and groom. It’s good for all ages—you’ve got this mix of people, some don’t know each other, there are things going on behind the scenes…but the cake always works.”
Kelly Delaney and Katrina O’Donnell
Cakes for Occasions
For the last 19 years, Kelly Delaney has devoted herself to the mastery of cake making. Though she attended Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland and the Cordon Bleu in London, she says, “That was more for fundamental training—it had nothing to do with cake design.”
It was while working at the Ritz Carlton in Boston that she discovered her present-day passion. Originally interested in garde-manger and ice and fruit sculpting, she was, nonetheless, placed in the pastry department. It turned out to be a blessing. “I quickly learned that carving and decorating cakes is very similar to garde-manger—it’s just…a different canvas.” Ultimately, she was put in charge of wedding cakes.
Today, in her Danvers shop—a location she chose because she felt the town was “starving for a pastry shop, not just a bakery”—she rarely makes cakes herself, but rather oversees her 30-member staff. “We hire artists,” says Delaney. “You can’t train someone to be an artist. I can train them to make buttercream and bake a cake but to design it and have that vision—that’s something that is embedded in people.”
When couples come in to choose their cake, it’s Katrina O’Donnell they consult. It’s clear she values her role in the selection process. “It’s important to them—it’s their one cake,” she says. “They want to get it right and we want to get it right.” O’Donnell draws sketches based on what people like but also finds knowing what they don’t like is helpful when narrowing in on the final design. She notes that cakes today are less traditional and much more personalized. “I think for some people the cake ties the entire wedding together.” It should complement the flowers, linens, place settings, etc. “Knowing what they chose for all those details helps us put the cake together,” adds Delaney.
The pair note how techniques for making wedding cakes are always changing. There are new tools and materials available today that weren’t around when Delaney first opened. “Now we can even emboss fondant,” she says, attributing some of that to the DIY movement. “You can go into Michael’s and find the same things in the cake making section as you would in the calligraphy aisle,” she muses. Other trends include the heavy use of texture, which may come in the form of fondant polka dots or chevrons.
An old custom that O’Donnell notes is coming back is the inclusion of groom’s cakes. “I think it is a way for the bride to thank the groom—to give him something special,” she says, “because typically, the wedding cake is designed by the bride.”
Asked what she thinks makes the wedding cake so important, Delaney answers: “There are so many emotions behind the cake. It sets the tone for the wedding.” She views it as an artwork—one that is deliberately put on display to receive focused attention. She notes, too, that the cake is documented in photographs the couple will have for the rest of their lives. “It’s something they need to know they will still like in years to come. It needs to be timeless.”
Arriving with the cake can be the most rewarding part of the process. “To walk into the reception area and to see that you have nailed it—it’s fun,” says Delaney.
Both women agree: When the cake is right, the day is extra special.
Jenny’s Wedding Cakes
Slight, stylish, and intent on her work, Jenny Williamson methodically pipes white icing while she explains her cake odyssey. “It was Project Runway that taught me to find my own style and perfect it,” says the designer, noting how in the beginning she tried to do it all. “Now, I don’t try to be everything,” she explains. “I have my own style…people aren’t going to come to us for wacky and colorful, they are going to come for this,” she says pointing to a number of elegant compositions. “And I am okay with that.”
Since 1997, Williamson has nurtured her artistic nature—one she always recognized, but wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. While in her early 20s, she started a small catering company, which had her pulling off some inspired desserts. Ultimately, a friend requested Williamson make her wedding cake. And cake, as it turned out, is her medium. “I did the research. I loved it and it just took off,” she says, paying homage to Martha Stewart, whose own confectionary undertakings proved a valuable resource.
Artist first and foremost, but pragmatist, too, Williamson’s plan B had her earn a degree in marketing. But, happily, cake panned out. At first she worked from her home kitchen in New Hampshire; then she moved to Newburyport, and finally Amesbury, where she once again worked from home for over 11 years. Today, she has a commercial kitchen in Amesbury and a consulting studio in Middleton. Of her small operation, for which she employs just one assistant, she says, “We aren’t retail. Everything we do is to order. I like it that way.”
The cake designer looks most often to nature for color and texture ideas. She also has a penchant for fashion and architecture—both of which inform her work. Sugar flowers are among her specialties. She also does a lot of painting by hand on cakes with petal dust. “We have a pretty consistent look,” says Williamson. “We are on the feminine side of things.”
Noting how new materials are constantly coming onto the market, she says today’s metallic sprays are making things especially fun. “I would spray everything with pearl dust if I could,” she says.
In terms of current trends, Williamson notes textured rustic buttercreams. “Most of the work now is done with a spatula to get that more polished rustic look.” When she first started out, fondant was just becoming popular—a contemporary modern look with sleek fondant and sugar ribbons was the thing. Next came over-the-top elaborate works. For now, she sees “the rustic natural” look sticking around. “I see it going into next season, but I also see a lot of variety coming up too.” Gold, either hand painted or sprayed, is coming into vogue, while silver and crystals are fading away, according to Williamson. As for fondant, “If you love the look of it, there is no other way to get it.” It’s not going anywhere soon—of that she is certain.
To this day, Williamson does all of her consultations herself. She does a lot of sketching and asks questions of the couple to get “a feel for the thing”—to find out if they are informal, formal, forward-thinking, or traditional. There are so many factors to consider—and so many things have changed over time…like matching the cake with the dress. “I have mothers of the brides tell me, ‘The dress is white-white.’ I tell them, ‘The buttercream is not-not,’” she laughs.
Of the wedding cake as tradition, Williamson says: “People always look for the cake—I think that’s fantastic. It’s another way for [couples] to express their style in a way that is meaningful.” She supports people doing whatever it is that reflects who they are, even if that means not having a cake at all.
The delicate design she works on as she speaks will feed only 75 people, though 150 will be in attendance. But, she explains, were she to make it bigger, that delicacy would be lost. “We go by design first.” And she makes sheet cakes to supplement. “I never do fake cakes…I think if you are going to show a cake, you should serve it. It would be like putting out bottles of champagne but not serving champagne.”
On a last note, the artist says: “The cake is an emotional thing for people. Everyone is different. Everyone has their own style.” And, for many, Williamson’s own style is just right—a match made in Heaven…with sugar flowers.