The wedding cake is an essential part of most English nuptial feasts, but it has had many different guises over the centuries. The earliest examples, including the ‘bride pye’, were rather less sweet and often included some gruesome surprises. With Prince Harry and Meghan Markle about to tie the knot, food historian Sam Bilton explores the origins of this symbolic wedding day treat.
It all started with a pie
During the 16th and 17th centuries it was bride pies rather than cakes that were most popular at wedding feasts. Some recipes, like Thomas Dawson’s Tarte that is a courage to a man or woman from 1596/7, included ingredients like sweet potatoes and cock sparrow brains, both of which were believed to have aphrodisiac properties.
Other bride pies were far more elaborate. Robert May’s 1685 recipe was in fact one large tart containing several distinct pies. Fillings included egg and dried fruit (rather like mincemeat); prawns, cockles and oysters; cocks’ combs and lambs’ testicles; artichokes and stuffed larks. The pièce de résistance was a central compartment filled with live birds or a snake, “which will seem strange to the beholders, which cut up the pie at the Table. This is only for a Wedding to pass away the time”. Recipes for bride pies were still appearing in the 18th century although their fillings were more likely to resemble a minced pie than the exotic ingredients of earlier centuries.
Bring in the cake
But ‘bride cakes’ were also made during this period, and they’re mentioned in a poem by Robert Herrick in 1648:
This day my Julia thou must make
For Mistresse Bride, the wedding Cake:
Knead but the Dow and it will be
To paste of Almonds turn’d by thee:
Or kisse it thou, but once or twice,
And for the Bride-Cake ther’l be Spice.
These bride cakes were more like sweet yeasted breads with spices and fruits than the kinds of cakes we know today. One of the earliest recipes for cake definitely linked to weddings appeared in the Compleat Cook by Rebecca Price (1655). It was called The Countess of Rutlands Receipt for making the rare Banbury Cake which was apparently highly praised at her daughter’s (the Right Honourable the Lady Chaworth’s) wedding. As well as currants and spices such as nutmeg, the cake was scented with musk, and even ambergris – whale vomit to you and me!
Gradually, enriched yeast cakes made way for ‘plum cakes’, known as fruit cakes today. It was common for such cakes to be glazed with a sugar icing (although not marzipan). The whiter your icing, the better and more expensive the sugar. It was Elizabeth Raffald (1769) who first suggested icing a bride cake with almond paste and sugar icing. Although bride cakes were iced in the 18th century, fancy embellishments were only included in later years.
The bigger the better
By the 19th century, the wedding cake would have looked completely unrecognisable to its 16th-century originators. Bride cakes were usually a single, large plum cake. But from the beginning of the century the cakes were becoming more elaborately decorated, and sometimes had coloured icing rather than the customary white. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are often associated with the kind of extravagance on show at Osborne, their palatial holiday home on the Isle of Wight. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the couple’s wedding cake weighed 300 lbs (136kg), had a three yard circumference and was over a foot tall.
It was described by Charles Hindley:
“On the top was a device of Britannia blessing the bride and bridge groom, who are dressed, somewhat incongruously, in the costume of Ancient Rome. At the foot of the bridegroom was the figure of a dog, intended to denote fidelity; at the feet of the Queen a pair of turtle doves. A host of gambling Cupids, one of them registering the marriage in a book, and bouquets of white flowers tied with true-lovers’ knots, completed the decoration.”
Some 18 years later her daughter, the Princess Royal, had a three tiered cake standing between 5 and 7 feet high. Based on a design first displayed at the Great Exhibition in 1851, only the bottom layer was actually made from cake. The top two tiers were made from sugar sculptures. This sort of sugar work was popularised by Antoine Carême – a pioneer of the elaborate grande cuisine cookery styles – at the beginning of the 19th century. These cakes were often the ‘official cakes’ served to dignitaries, with a second cake kept for the ‘special use of the Royal family’. By the time the queen’s youngest son, Prince Leopold, got married in 1882, all of the tiers were made from cake.
Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding cake was made by McVitie and Price, which later became McVities. The firm had to resort to flying the main ingredients in from around the commonwealth due to the restrictions of rationing in 1947. Nicknamed ‘The 10,000 Mile Cake’, it contained four tiers and reached a height of nine feet.
A cake for the masses
Even in the 19th century, wedding cakes were expensive to produce and therefore only available to the wealthy. Towards the end of Victoria’s reign it was possible to buy smaller and cheaper versions. To bring the cost down further in the 20th century, certain high-cost ingredients would be omitted, like candied citron, or substituted, like margarine would be for butter and almond essence for whole nuts.
During the Second World War rationing meant that couples had to be inventive when it came to the wedding cake. Elaborately decorated cardboard cakes were designed to sit over a plain sponge or a light fruit cake, giving the effect of something much grander for the obligatory wedding photograph. Today the popularity of the heavy fruit cake has dwindled in favour of lighter sponge cakes which are often served without any icing.
Recipe: Elizabeth Raffald’s Bride Cake
(From The Experienced English House-Keeper 1769)
This Georgian recipe has been adapted for you to try at home, and it’s delicious at a wedding or with a cup of tea at home. It includes brandy, fruit and nuts and has a rich flavour. Raffald’s original recipe calls for four times the amounts here, which would have made a very large cake indeed! However, this version will still make a good sized cake to easily serve 20 or so.
- 450g unsalted butter, softened
- 225g light brown sugar
- 4 large eggs, separated
- 450g plain flour
- ½ tsp each ground mace & ground nutmeg
- 75ml brandy
- 450g currants
- 110g blanched almonds, sliced lengthways
- 450g diced mixed peel including citron if possible.
- 23cm springform tin
- Greaseproof paper
- Brown paper
- Free standing mixer with paddle attachment (or a wooden spoon and plenty of elbow grease!)
- Weigh the bowl you will be using to make the cake and make a note of it. Grease & line a 23cm springform tin. Cut a double piece of greaseproof paper to the same width as the cake tin. Cut a hole in the centre of the paper (about the width of a 50p piece). Preheat the oven to 150℃.
- Cream the butter and the sugar together (using a food mixer with a paddle attachment if you have one) until light and fluffy. Then beat in the egg yolks one at a time.
- Sift the flour and spices together in a separate bowl. Whisk the egg whites until stiff.
- Add the spiced flour to the cake batter and beat well. Add the brandy and beat well again.
- Fold in the beaten egg whites followed by the currants and almonds.
- Weigh the bowl containing the mixture, and subtract the weight of the bowl that you noted earlier to work out how much a third of the batter should weigh. Place a third of the batter into the prepared tin. Smooth the top down, then scatter with half of the diced mixed peel. Repeat these layers and finish the cake with the final third of cake batter.
- Tie a band of brown paper around the outside of the tin. Bake the cake for around 2 hours. Test the cake to see whether it is cooked by inserting a skewer. If it comes out clean the cake is cooked. If there is batter still attached to it cook it for a little longer. Allow to cool in the tin before applying the almond icing.
Ingredients for the almond icing
- 1 large egg white
- 225g ground almonds
- 225g caster sugar
- 1 tbsp rose water
- Preheat the oven to 180℃.
- Beat the egg white until stiff.
- Place the almonds and sugar into a bowl then mix in your beaten egg whites along with the rose water until you have a firm paste.
- Roll the almond paste out into a circle large enough to cover the cake then put it in the oven on a baking tray to brown for 10 minutes.
Ingredients for Sugar Icing
- 500g icing sugar
- 3 medium egg whites
NB This is the method used by Elizabeth Raffald. Personally I would wait until the cake has cooled before applying the sugar icing.
- Sift together the icing sugar.
- Place your egg whites in the bowl of a food mixer with a whisk attachment (or use a hand held electric whisk). With the mixer on a low speed gradually add the icing sugar. Once all of the above has been incorporated increase the speed of the mixer and beat vigorously for around 10 minutes until the icing stands in stiff peaks.
- Carefully remove your cake from the tin then spread the icing over the warm cake using a palette knife. The icing should be hard by the time the cake is cold.
Historical kitchens to visit
Get inspiration from the cooks of the past when you visit one of our recreated historical kitchens. Plus, see our full collection of Victorian recipes and let Avis Crocombe teach you how to make her historical dishes.
- The 1880s Service Wing, Audley End House, Essex: With its stunning open range, high ceilings, kitchenware and copper pans, see the working Victorian kitchen as it would have looked in the 1880s. Feel the heat of the oven and take in the smells, as the staff prepare Lord and Lady Braybrooke’s favourite seasonal dishes.
- Swiss Cottage kitchen, Osborne, Isle of Wight: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had the Swiss Cottage built for their children, in the grounds of their island holiday home. The play house featured a three-quarter sized kitchen, where the royal children learned to roast chicken, bake pies and even make their own dairy products.
- The Great Tower kitchen, Dover Castle, Kent: This large medieval kitchen is on the ground floor of the keep of England’s biggest castle. See the room as it would have looked during Henry II’s reign, with hanging meats, cooking pots and a fire pit.
Find more inspiration for days out, events and things to do on our website.