Taking the cake

It’s an iconic image: The bride in white laughing as she and her just made- official-moments-ago husband attempt to cut into a tiered wedding cake covered with white icing.

Though that primarily monochromatic image will always remain the epitome of the traditional bride, you might be amazed at the number of Tiffany-blue stacks of presents, tiers of red velvet cupcakes and even orange and black-layered Halloween-themed wedding cakes that appear as couples literally bring their individuality to the table.

The wedding cake can be traced back to the Roman custom of breaking a loaf of bread, or a cake of wheat or barley called a mustaceum, over the bride’s head to symbolize the guests’ wishes for a fertile and fulfilling married life. The newly married couple would then eat a few crumbs (their first “meal” as husband and wife ,called confarreatio or “eating together” – though I bet the bridegroom didn’t try and shove a large piece into his wife’s face, since without the icing it wouldn’t have been as much fun).

The guests would then gather up the crumbs as good luck tokens. When the Romans invaded Britain in 43 A.D., they brought their customs and traditions with them. Many of these, including the wedding cake, stuck. In medieval England, small, spiced buns were stacked as high as possible. This served a twofold purpose: the size of the tower of buns conveyed the couple’s wealth because the larger the stack was, the higher the couple’s status in society, and if the couple could kiss over the buns (and the stack didn’t fall over) it portended a lifetime of prosperity.

Though different versions of wedding cakes can be found through the centuries in many cultures, a pure, white-colored cake has been much sought after, since white symbolizes purity and virginity (for which we have the Victorians to thank). But pre-Victorian times, white cakes were a practicality. The ingredients for a bride cake were expensive, especially the sugar for the icing (white icing being composed of the finest, most refined sugars) thus, the whiter the cake, the greater the family’s wealth.

There have always been superstitions involved with wedding cakes. In the 17th century, for example, a Groom’s cake of dark, heavy fruitcake was served alongside the Bride’s cake, cut up and boxed for guests to take home as a favor; it was believed that if a young girl placed that slice of cake under her pillow, she would dream of her future husband. For awhile, brides would even pass small crumbs of the wedding cake through their wedding ring so that the guest could place the crumb under his or her pillow to dream of their future partner.

This fell out of popularity when another superstition arrived: that if a bride took off her wedding ring after the wedding her husband would be sure to cheat. Others include that sharing the cake increases the couple’s fertility and prosperity; that every guest must eat a small slice of the cake to ensure that the couple is blessed with fertility; and that the bride who bakes her own cake is asking for a troubled (and probably short) marriage. Also, legend has it that if the bride tastes the cake before the wedding, she’ll lose her husband’s love but if she keeps a slice she ensures his fidelity (and now you know why Marge has a slice of her and Homer’s wedding cake in their freezer in The Simpsons!).

There is also a tradition stemming back to the 17th century, and possibly even earlier, that has had a resurgence. Though we call them “cake pulls,” attach them to pieces of silk ribbon and place them in an easily accessible semi-circle around the bottom of the wedding cake, charms (see sidebar for meanings) including a ring, thimble and coin among many others, were originally baked into the wedding cake.

Traditionally, the maid of honor selected the first piece, then the best man with the other attendants following in hopes that they would find a special charm that would give a glimpse into their futures.

Now that you know its history, let’s get down to the brass tacks of choosing your cake. Wedding cakes can cost from 90 cents to over $10 per slice depending on how many slices you’ll need, the type of icing you desire (see sidebar), the number of flavors and fillings you want and how intricately the cake is decorated. When choosing your perfect wedding cake, remember to take your location and the season in which your wedding will take place into consideration. A Doberge layer cake might be your dream but, as Sam Scelfo Jr., owner of Gambino’s Bakery says, “it’s impossible to put custard layers in the bottom layers of a tiered wedding cake; it would fall apart under the weight.”

Also, you may want a five-tier cake shaped to look like gift boxes but that smooth, almost porcelain look would require fondant icing and it, as well as “meringue and pulled sugar are near to impossible to work with in New Orleans in the summer,” says Doyle DeForest, owner of Flour Power Confectionery.

In addition, remember to take guests’ tastes into consideration as well as your vision of the perfect cake. Different icings can have different textures than traditional icing and creating a replica of your home might call for icings you may not like to taste. Cakes are often started up to a week before the wedding (though some bakeries swear that they can produce a wedding cake within two days). So, once you make your decision, be ready to stick by it.

Though many local bakeries can build the cake of your dreams, (Gambino’s Bakery has a wedding cake that features an actual fountain within the cake), most feel that wedding cakes are tending away from the very elaborate wedding cakes of years past. “Square cakes are making a comeback,” says David Haydel Jr. of Haydel’s Bakery. Also making an entrance are “a plate of cakes and cake tables [with many different cakes set up to look cohesive],” says Steve Himelfarb, owner of New Orleans Cake Café and Bakery. In the past, when roses and other flowers appeared on wedding cakes they were often made out of icing and even marzipan. Couples are now individualizing their wedding cakes but incorporating flowers from the wedding bouquets onto the cake.

The one trend that all bakeries can agree on is the amount elaborate colors finding their way onto wedding cakes. “You never saw bold colors on a wedding cake before 10 years ago,” says Gambino’s Scelfo. “Usually if there was color, it was only in the flowers; now, they’re in the decoration, the drapes and the trims.” The most popular colors mentioned are deep reds, oranges and blues, Tiffany blue, rich pinks, warm browns, gem tomes, edible gold, silver and pearl dusts and even black.

As the colors of wedding cakes become more elaborate, so do the flavors. Most bakeries have a range of flavors to choose from, from the simple strawberry or butter cream, to the traditional almond (what we here in New Orleans call “wedding cake”), to champagne and liqueurs, to even what Steve Himelfarb, owner of New Orleans Cakes Café and Bakery, describes as chocolate raspberry- coconut-almond (though not all on the same layer).

Even before Marie Antoinette supposedly said, “Let them eat cake!” wedding cakes have been an integral part in every couple’s wedding day. Present day, couples have integrated their tastes via flowers, flavors, shapes and colors with the traditions that are important to them. No matter your preferences, pick a cake that makes you happy and that you want to eat because, after all, it’s your day and it’s your cake!