There is a long history of tradition and symbolism attached to the wedding cake. The cakes have evolved over centuries in different ways, in different countries and cultures. Consistently throughout history the wedding cake has been the centre of the wedding celebration and a symbol of the couple's love, future happiness and fertility. The wedding celebrations (wedding reception / wedding breakfast) just aren't complete without a wedding cake.
Earliest references to the wedding cake date back to the Roman Empire, when the wedding cake wasn't a 'cake' as we know it today at all. Records and references to the wedding cake exist throughout Medieval times and across the whole millennium to present day. The cake itself has greatly evolved and it's use and significance has evolved with it….
Wedding cakes have a fascinating history, with the earliest references dating back to nuptials in the Roman Empire. The wedding cake and its significance have radically changed over the centuries, but the principal of having a cake at a wedding has always remained. Roman wedding cakes were made by baking a mixture of wheat or barley (symbols of prosperity and fertility) and salt into small cakes - rather like large bread rolls. Originally, guests would throw these cakes at the bride to bestow good wishes on her. Later in the Roman era, this became one wedding cake, and the groom would eat a piece of the wedding cake and then break the remainder over his bride's head (wedding traditionalists may wish to note this point - but we don't recommend it with today's wedding dresses and cake productions!). The significance of this would be as a sign of good fortune and fertility in the future.
Following the groom breaking the cake over his bride, the wedding guests would gather around to take a small piece of the broken wedding cake for themselves, they believed this to bestow good fortune on themselves. This sharing of the wedding cake created the concept that has continued over centuries to the modern tradition of sharing the wedding cake with loved ones and guests.
A further reason for this Roman tradition of breaking the cake over the bride's head was that it brought benefits to any children born to the couple later in their married life. Not only was it thought that the cake brought good fortune to the couple, but it is recorded in Roman history that only children from a couple who had performed this ritual at their wedding could be considered for high office in the Roman Empire. So the couple were ensuring a potentially better future for their children by undergoing this cake breaking ritual.
By medieval times the wedding cake had evolved to a 'flour-based' cake without sweetening. Over the period this was to become small sweet buns (used for many different celebratory occasions, including weddings), and the guests brought these along to the wedding. The collection of sweet buns were stacked in layers and positioned in front of the newly married couple. The tradition in medieval England was that the couple would kiss over the top of the tower of cakes, without knocking it down. If successful, it was believed that this brought good health and prosperity to them for their married life. (This stage of evolution of the wedding cake(s) meant that breaking the cake over the bride's head was no longer practical at weddings, although some countries and cultures continued the Roman style tradition for a much longer period of time.)
Towards the end of the medieval period the small cakes were often provided by the bride and frosted together to form a more stable tower for the bride and groom to kiss over (and less chance of them knocking it over). This is believed to be the forerunner of the wedding cake as we know it, but it was to take many more years before today's 'tower style' of cake was to become adopted as a wedding cake.
Today, many couples are having wedding cake designs that are constructed from a number of small cakes (cupcakes), assembled together to form a tower. The age-old custom of the wedding cake being constructed from a number of individual cakes has gone full circle and is being featured in many weddings once again.
The medieval tradition of the bride providing a stack of cakes (frosted together) for her wedding gave way to the introduction of the "Brides Pie" at many weddings in the 17th century. This wedding dish consisted of a pie that was filled with sweetbreads or mutton, or a mince pie. Whichever filling was used, the bride would add an extra ingredient to the pie of a glass ring (similar to the concept of adding a 'sixpence' to a Christmas pudding). The belief was that whichever lady amongst the guests found this glass ring would be the next to find true love and marry. The Brides Pie became a feature at many, but not all, weddings for a relatively short span of history and it is believed that they appeared mainly at the functions of those less wealthy - whilst the tower of cupcakes remained for the wealthier couples.
In the mid 17th century, the wedding cake had a further enhancement, and started to form the style of wedding cake that we understand as the 'traditional cake' presently. A French chef who was travelling through England attended a wedding and was bemused to see the pile of cupcakes which the bride and groom were expected to kiss above. He was moved to design a sturdier wedding cake, tiered and frosted. The French chef (who's name has been lost in the annuls of time) used a coating of lard to prevent it from becoming dry and to preserve the cake until the wedding day, at which time it was removed before serving. At a later date sugar began to be added to the lard coating to sweeten and improve the taste, this was the original concept of a wedding cake having 'icing' around it.
Information on wedding cakes from the earliest records in Roman times, over the centuries to modern day. Steeped in history and tradition, it's good to know why we have a wedding cake and it's significance today and over past years.