Saturday, July 26, 2008

Wedding Cake History

The wedding cake and the traditions that accompany the cake as we know it today, have evolved over centuries. Many cultures havebrought the wedding cake from its humble beginnings as a small bread-like cake to the towering iced confections that amaze and delight us in the 21st

The history of cake dates back to ancient times. The first cakes were bread-like and sweetened with honey. Nuts and dried fruits were often added. According to food historians, the ancient Egyptians were the first culture to show evidence of advanced baking skills. The word "cake" is a derived from 'kaka' a 13th century Old Norse word.

The ancient Greeks baked sesame seed cakes which the bride and groom cut together, symbolizing fertility and happiness. The Romans made small mini-cakes or cupcake sized cakes of wheat and barley that were not eaten but thrown or smashed over the bride's head! Any breadcrumbs guests managed to retrieve were thought to bring good fortune.

During the Middle Ages, sweet meat cakes were eaten at the wedding reception. A special ale called "bryd ealu" or "bride's ale" was often drunk with the cakes. The word "bryd ealu" over the centuries became the word "bridal".

Another popular tradition during medieval times in
England was the custom of guests bringing biscuits, scones, or sweet sticky buns to the reception and piling them up in front of the happy couple. The higher the pile of goodies, the more popular the bride. Good fortune and blessings of a long, fruitful, and happy marriage would be theirs if the couple were able to kiss over the top of the pile of sweets. Thanks to a French chef visiting England during the mid-1600's. wedding cake design took a turn towards the style of cake we are familiar with today. Food historians state that the chef's aversion to the mess of bland wedding biscuits falling to the floor prompted him to design a multi-tiered iced cake--a wedding cake design that quickly became the rage and still remains popular today.

According to food historians, the precursors of modern cakes (round cakes with icing) were first baked in Europe sometime in the mid-17th century. This was possible primarily because of more reliable ovens, the manufacture of cake pans, and the availability of refined sugar. Because of the rarity of sugar during the 17th century, cakes made with sugar were generally enjoyed by the weathy.

In the eighteenth century, brandied fruit cakes were popular because they were able to keep fresh for so long. The Pilgrims brought the tradition of the fruit cake over to the Americas. The tradition of the fruit cake eventually gave way to a white wedding cake.

Around the Victorian era, only the rich could afford the very finest sugars needed to make pure white icing, thus resulting in a white wedding cake design becoming a symbol of wealth rather than purity and innocence. The national American obsession with a "white wedding cake" and a "white wedding" during the mid-20th century came into being with the solidification of the wedding industry in America.

Wedding cake baking in America during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries was generally done in the home of a relative or home-based baker, as custom dictated that the wedding itself took place at the bride's home. Cake decorating catalogs and supply companies came into being during this time period.

Home-based wedding cake baking provided an opportunity for entrepreneurs to start their own catering services. Mrs. Clifford Anderson, a Minnesota farm wife, started baking and decorating children's birthday cakes in the early 1940's. Her business eventually expanded into a thriving home-based wedding cake business. Edith McConnell ran a successful catering business from the 1920's to the 1950's serving elite clientele like the DuPont family. Wedding cakees were McConnell's specialty. One can only assume that Wilton Enterprises which first advertised cake decorating classes in 19929, has given thousands of men and women the skills to start their own cake decorating businesses.

The Grand Dames of Cake Design

Pastry Chef Cile Belleflleur-Burbidge became a prominent wedding cake designer in the 1950's. Ms. Bellefleur-Burbidge worked with her husband, renowned wedding gown designer, John Burbidge, Priscilla of Boston, and became depressed after having several children and leaving work. Her doctor's prescripton was to "get out of the house". She took a 5-week cake decorating classes at a YMCA which led to almost 50 years of extraordinary work. Ms. Bellefleur-Burbidge's wedding cake trademark "delectable Victoriana" is graceful garlands of sugar pansies, daisies, and lavish icing baskets filled with clusters of berries cascading over delicate latticework tiers. She bakes her cakes in her hometown of Boston, Massachusetts and travels around the world to assemble her confections at the wedding site. Bellefleur-Burbidge's architectural masterpiece "Wedded Bliss" is currently on exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum from February - September 2008.

Another iconic wedding cake designer is Sylvia Weinstock. Sylvia Weinstock, NYC, began cake decorating in the 1970s and continues to be one of the most sought after cake designers in the world. Her delicate sugar orchids, tulips, roses, and lilies are so life like that at first glance one could mistake them for fresh flowers.

Today, the familiar round tiered cakes iced with white buttercream icing and decorated with white piping have evolved into towering confections (usually of fondant covered tiers) of various colors, shapes, and themes that are only limited to the bride's imagination and the wedding cake designer's skill and creativity.

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