When you think wedding, one of the first images that tends to pop up is that of a white, three-tiered wedding cake. Like the bride’s dress, it has come to be a focal point in most weddings. Of course, wedding cakes take many forms. Some couples opt for cupcakes, an assortment of ice creams, or even a table of pies. But the emphasis on the wedding dessert is still ever present. So where did this idea originate, and how did it become such a vital part of the wedding day?
1. THE TRADITION BEGAN IN ANCIENT ROME.
The idea of wedding cakes dates back to Ancient Rome. In the early days of the Republic, the most ritualized and ornate form of marriage was called confarreatio, which is believed to translate as “sharing of far” which was probably their name for spelt. Specifically, it was a reference to a special cake called farreum, made from far, that the bride and groom consumed at their wedding. But the core of the tradition might be much older. In his biography of Alexander the Great, first century CE author Quintus Curtius Rufus described the betrothal of Alexander and Roxane. Roxane’s father was so excited by the prospect of this marriage that he “ordered bread to be brought ... for this was the most sacred symbol of betrothal among the Macedonians. The bread was cut with a sword and both men tasted it.”
2. IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE, BRIDES AND GROOMS HAD TO KISS OVER A MOUNTAIN OF CAKES.
First, cakes were stacked as high as possible; then the bride and groom were challenged to kiss over the top of the stack without knocking them all down. A successful kiss signified a prosperous life together. A kiss that resulted in a cake domino effect spelled certain doom. (OK, not really, but it definitely wasn’t the best sign.)
This cake pile was very likely the prequel to the tiered wedding cake we know so well which first made an appearance in the 18th century.
3. THAT TRADITION INSPIRED A POPULAR FRENCH DESSERT.
The Croquembouche, which translates to “crunch in mouth,” originated in French weddings, and is still found at the more traditional ones today. These mountains of profiteroles (cream-filled puff pastries) are held together in a conical shape by caramel. The story behind how it became the staple wedding dessert in France is that a French pastry chef allegedly witnessed the tower of cakes tradition in medieval England, and took the idea back home with him.
4. SOMETHING CALLED "BRIDE'S PYE" PRECEDED THE TRADITIONAL WEDDING CAKE.
The first recipe for a wedding pastry was called a “Bride’s Pye,” and it was about as far from a traditional cake as you can get. Recorded in The Accomplisht Cook in 1685, the Bride’s Pye consisted of a large, round pie decorated with elaborate pastry designs, and filled with oysters, pine kernels, cockscombs, lambstones (testicles), sweetbreads, and spices. Think Fisherman’s pie, but less appealing.
Bride's Pye was a staple of English weddings from the 17th to the 19th centuries, because it represented the bride and groom’s union, and united all the guests. Each guest was expected to have a small piece of the Bride’s Pye (no matter how gross the inner contents were), and if anyone refused, it was considered incredibly rude.
5. SINGLE LADIES GOT A SPECIAL SURPRISE IN THE BRIDE'S PYE.
Traditionally, the bride would place a small, glass ring inside the Bride’s Pye, and the lucky lady who found it would be the next to marry. Think of it as the precursor to the bouquet toss, without all the unnecessary jumping, pushing, and scratching.
6. THERE WERE ONCE TWO CAKES INSTEAD OF ONE.
Before there was one wedding cake, there were two—one for the bride and one for the groom. This tradition began in 17th century England, and while the groom’s cake was traditionally smaller (and richer, taste-wise), it was still as prominently displayed as the bride’s, which was lighter, and often covered with white icing to symbolize virginity. Eventually, the groom’s cake became less prominent, and the bride’s cake took center stage as the official wedding cake. Some weddings still serve a groom’s cake, but it’s usually a much smaller, less formal offering.
7. THE FIRST REAL WEDDING CAKE (AS WE KNOW IT) CAME OUT OF AN ADORABLE PROPOSAL.
Here’s one for the storybooks. Allegedly, the first tiered wedding cake appeared when a baker’s apprentice fell in love with his boss’s daughter in 18th century London. On the day that he proposed to her, he presented her with an ornate, tiered cake modeled after the spire on St. Bride’s Church. Needless to say, we’re pretty sure she said “yes.”
8. THE FIRST MULTI-TIERED WEDDING CAKES HAD FAKE UPPER TIERS.
In Victorian England, the multi-tiered wedding cake was reserved for English royalty. However, at first, pastry chefs didn’t know how to balance the upper tiers properly so the entire cake didn’t collapse. Thus the top two tiers were original made out of spun sugar, not cake. An illusion, yes, but a very pretty one.
9. THE GROOM USED TO THROW CAKE OVER HIS BRIDE'S HEAD.
In the 18th century in East Yorkshire, England, it was customary for the groom to throw a piece of wedding cake, on a plate, over his bride’s head. Apparently, the more pieces the plate holding the cake broke into, the luckier the new couple would be in marriage. This lesser-known tradition has morphed into brides and grooms shoving cake in each other’s faces during the cake cutting ceremony.
10. EVERYONE WANTED A REALLY WHITE CAKE.
The whitest white icing for a wedding cake was most sought after in Victorian times, not only because it denoted the bride’s purity, but because the ingredients for white icing were expensive. Pure sugar was hard to come by—so an extraordinarily white cake meant the bride’s family was well-off and prominent in the community.
11. NEWLYWEDS USED TO SAVE THE TOP TIER OF THE CAKE FOR SOMETHING BESIDES THEIR FIRST ANNIVERSARY.
You know that bizarre tradition of newlyweds freezing the top of their wedding cake for a year, then eating it on their first anniversary? Most think it’s just a nice way to commemorate the occasion, but it was actually meant to celebrate another exciting event—the couple’s first baby. Back in Victorian times, most newlyweds got right to the baby making after their marriage, so that saved piece of cake would often end up going on top of their first baby’s christening cake.