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From Queen Victoria to Cake Boss: The history, evolution, and artistic variety of the wedding cake

These days, there seem to be no rules when it comes to nuptials. Some weddings might be on a tropical beach or take place in a diner; they might serve backyard BBQ or a ritzy six course meal. Yet, it seems that no matter the venue (or the menu) or how far the event strays from tradition, there is almost always cake. In fact, the cake custom not only survived the test of time, it has thrived — evolving from a simple dessert to a wedding centerpiece that could take a three-thousand-dollar bite out of the wedding budget.

Modern Wedding Cake
Modern Wedding Cake

But, why is cake even served? Sure, it’s delicious, but so are donuts. And éclairs. And s’mores. How did it evolve into the elegant (and expensive) wedding must-have it is today? Turns out the root of the wedding cake is quite interesting; a tale lined with history, love, and fondant. And, like many cakes today, it’s also filled with delicious surprises, the first being that the wedding cake stems from a tradition of serving, well, not cake.

Back in Ancient Roman times, wedding ceremonies ended with the ceremonial breaking of bread over the bride’s head. It was a symbol of good fortune and fertility, and also a sign of the husband’s dominance over his wife (which is perhaps why it’s not so popular today). The couple would taste a few bits of the bread to symbolize a life of eating together, afterwhich guests would gather up crumbs for good luck. But the ancient Romans weren’t the only ones to have a ceremonial snack.

In Medieval England, the happy couple would try to kiss over a tower of spiced buns. If the bride and groom were able to smooch over the stack without knocking down the rolls, they were ensured prosperity and fertility…and a delicious desert. By the 17th century, though, England had a new tradition, the Bride's Pie, which was the first documented recipe specifically intended for a wedding. It wasn’t your basic apple or cherry pie; it likely contained ingredients such as oysters, lamb testicles, and pine kernels… oh my!

This pie was often considered the most important dish at a wedding, as it was seen as essential to the couple’s happiness. It was also important that all guests ate a piece, or risk being extremely rude. Once a guest took a slice, he or she would inspect it for a hidden glass ring. Much like with the more modern bouquet toss, whoever found the ring — it was said — was sure to be the next to be married. But with all these breads, buns, and pies, how did cake become so popular?

By the end of the 17th century, the bride's pie evolved into the bride's cake either made of shortbread, plum cake, or fruitcake to symbolize fertility and prosperity. Around the same time, sugar became more readily available in England so, many couples had their cake covered with a meringue mixture of egg and sugar, creating a white frosted look. The Victorians preferred the white icing on their cakes, as it was seen as a symbol of purity.

Victorian Wedding Cake
Victorian Wedding Cake

But it also showed status, as pure white icing meant that only the finest sugar had been used. Thus, displaying the bride’s family’s wealth. The style really took off after Queen Victoria’s wedding to Price Albert in 1840. Her white cake (by then the name was changed to "wedding cake") was extravagant: 9 feet in circumference, with many tiers, decorated with what is now called “royal icing” in honor of her cake, and even sculpted cupids writing the date of the wedding into tablets.

After her wedding, many people copied her white, multi-tier cake, inspiring the classic look some couples still use today. Of course, variations were made over the years, especially in the United States when many bakers began to use white cake instead of the traditional fruitcake, but the look was essentially the same. Cakes followed this mold (pun intended) all the way to the 1980s, when, in Europe, the intricate piped royal icing was often replaced with soft icing, and in the United States, single layer cakes or unconventional flavors like key lime and carrot cake became popular.

Today, however, the wedding world is changing again. In just the past decade, cakes have taken off in creativity and originality, moving far away from Victoria’s white-iced wonderland and into a world of feathers, color, and fondant masterpieces. TV shows like Cake Boss, Cake Hunters and Ace of Cakes have pushed the envelope and encouraged cake designs to explore their wild side, creating cakes such as Ace of Cakes’ Stanley Cup replica wedding cake (Season 5, Episode 7) or the Cake Boss Dove Cake, with a secret compartment which live doves were released from (Season 1, Episode 7).

These days, so many couples want an extravagant and original cakes — bakers go all out for their clients. Some cakes are decorated with jewels, seashells, or fondant dragons. Others are made to look like the log of a tree, a towering castle, or a stack of presents. Some tech-savvy cakes even use 3D mapping to design light projections that play images on the frosting.

Large Wedding Cake
Large Wedding Cake

While large cakes, or cakes made by celebrity bakers, will display the family’s wealth (a goal of Victorian tradition), this isn’t necessarily the point of many of these modern show-stopping confections. Instead, many cakes aim to demonstrate the couple’s creativity, to highlight their personality, and even tell their story. They come in a variety of colors to match the wedding décor and will often feature the couple’s favorite things — like beloved pets or camping gear — to personalize it.

Today, it has become so expected to have an intricate and beautiful cake that some people have started to fake theirs. One company recently featured on Shark Tank allows customers to rent a beautifully decorated Styrofoam cake. They could still take the ceremonial first bites using a hidden compartment in the back (filled with Twinkies), but the guests will be served from a separate sheet cake.

While renting a cake is not yet the norm, there are many blogs dedicated to instructing couples on decorating these just-for-show desserts. One, for example, suggests frosting and decorating large Rice-Krispie treats. The blogger also points out how much more affordable having a decoy cake is as an alternative, and how easy it is to store the real, edible cakes in the fridge until ready to eat, making for a better desert experience.

Fake cakes are not a new practice, though. This practical alternative was done as early as 1858, when Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, Vicky, had a cake in which only the bottom layer was edible, the others being purely decorative. While many couples may not know the historical reasons they serve cake at their reception, it has proven to be a fun and creative way to express their love. Though many traditions have come and gone, brides and grooms are lucky the cake has stood the test of time.

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