Wedding Cakes in Jane Austen’s World

Courtship and Marriage5

Though nearly all of Jane Austen’s works end with a wedding, she does not spend much time detailing the weddings or the festivities surrounding them. What did regency wedding cakes look like?

Wedding Cakes

Since weddings were held in the morning (except of course, those by special license which could be held any time at all) the meal eaten afterwards was considered breakfast. “The breakfast was such as best breakfasts then were: some variety of bread, hot rolls, buttered toast, tongue or ham and eggs. The addition of chocolate [drinking chocolate] at one end of the table, and wedding cake in the middle, marked the specialty of the day.” (Austen -Leigh, 1920)

Chances are though, that what you have in mind when I say wedding cake bears little resemblance to what was actually served in the day. 

Most likely you’re thinking of something that looks like this:  A layered and tiered creation of delicate sponge, filled with something fruity or creamy and covered in delicious, soft, sweet icing. Over all of that would be a lovely work of piping, or perhaps sugar flowers or similar confectionary masterpiece. Sorry to disappoint, but a regency wedding cake bore almost no similarity to that at all.

Not remotely.

To start with, the cake resembled a fruitcake, soaked with liberal amounts of alcohol: wine, brandy or rum. With all the alcohol, wedding cakes kept for a long time. Possibly a very long time. Pieces would be sent home with family and friends, delivered to neighbors and even sent over distances to those who could not be part of the celebrations. Just think for a moment about the mail service back in the day and what would be required for the cake to survive that kind of transport. Sounds appetizing, huh?

 Elizabeth Raffald, in The Experienced English Housekeeper, (1786) published the first recipe for an iced bride cake. Taking a good look at the recipes can give us a good idea of how they would have tasted and looked like.

To make a Bride Cake.

Bride cake from 1900

TAKE four pounds of fine flour well dried, four pounds of fresh butter, two pounds of loaf sugar, pound and sift fine a quarter of an ounce of mace, the same of nutmegs, to every pound of flour put eight eggs, wash four pounds of currants, pick them well, and dry them before the fire, blanch a pound of sweet almonds, and cut them lengthways very thin, a pound of citron, one pound of candied orange, the same of candied lemon, half a pint of brandy; first work the butter with your hand to a cream, then beat in your sugar a quarter of an hour, beat the whites of your eggs to a very strong froth, mix them with your sugar and butter, beat your yolks half an hour at least, and mix them with your cake, then put in your flour, mace, and nutmeg, keep beating it well till your oven is ready, put in your brandy, and beat your currants and almonds lightly in, tie three sheets of paper round the bottom of your hoop to keep it from running out, rub it well with butter, put in your cake, and lay your sweetmeats in three lays, with cake betwixt every lay, after it is risen and coloured, cover it with paper before your oven is stopped up; it will take three hours baking.

(Yes, it was the style of the day that recipes were written in a single, run on sentence. Crazy-making, isn’t it?) 

So we’ve got four pounds of flour and butter, seven pounds total of dried fruits, two pounds of sugar, THIRTY TWO eggs and some spices. Then you need to plan on mixing this thing–beating actually–for a total of an hour. Can we say ‘Oh my aching shoulder?’ (Moments like this make me love my kitchen-aid mixer!)

All of that is going to bake up into a very dense, heavy cake that would look much more like the picture above, from a 1900 cookbook’s bride cake recipe very similar to this one. Layers and tiers would not really be feasible with a cake like this either. It is too heavy to stack up very high. The bottom tier would crush under the weight of those above. Layers wouldn’t work very well either, because cutting a nice smooth horizontal slice with all the fruits and nuts inside doesn’t work well. Nor does baking individual layers when you consider what that would require.

So then, how to make it look like something other than a brown round lump on a cake plate?


To make Almond-icing for the Bride Cake.

BEAT the whites of three eggs to a strong froth, beat a pound of Jordan almonds very fine with rose-water, mix your almonds with the eggs lightly together, a pound of common loaf sugar, beat fine, and put in by degrees; when your cake is enough, take it out, and lay your icing on, then put it in to brown.

Although the recipe doesn’t specify how long to beat the eggs, to get a strong froth takes some time. Pounding the almonds fine enough to be suspended in the egg white froth was no small order either. So you’ve got quite the workout in store.

But even when you’ve done all that, you’re still putting it in the oven to brown. So, the cake still remains quite brown.

What to do?

Well, if a family wanted to display wealth, the cake would be covered in refined (white) sugar icing and left very white. Pure white, refined sugar was very expensive and a sign of affluence.

To make Sugar Icing for the Bride Cake.

BEAT two pounds of double refined sugar, with two ounces of fine starch, lift it through a gauze sieve, then beat the whites of five eggs with a knife upon a pewter dish half an hour; beat in your sugar a little at a time, or it will make the eggs fall, and will not be so good a colour, when you have put in all your sugar, beat it half an hour longer, then lay it on your almond icing, and spread it even with a knife; if it be put on as soon as the cake comes out of the oven it will be hard by the time the cake is cold.

Ok, more beating to a froth, and this time for a full hour. This would give you fair stiff peaks, if you did it correctly. This recipe strongly resembles that for modern royal icing. If you’ve never used royal icing, let me suggest that you don’t actually ice a cake with it. It’s great for decorations, like roses. I have some that I made, no joke, 10 years ago–maybe more—and they are still going strong. It is also the stuff you glue together gingerbread houses with. I swear, it is nearly indestructible when it dries. I’m pretty sure it can survive hurricane force winds. I might just build my next house with it.

So I’m just guessing that when the bride cake icing hardened, the cake could definitely survive the post or just about anything else. It might have required a chisel to cut into the cake, but hey, that’s what the servants were for!

At least the cake would no longer be brown, right?


Courtship and Marriage in Jane Austen’s World, available in ebook and paperback



Please support this author and website by using this affiliate link.


A Lady of Distinction   –   Regency Etiquette, the Mirror of Graces (1811). R.L. Shep Publications (1997)

A Master-Key to the Rich Ladies Treasury or The Widower and Batchelor’s Directory by a Younger Brother, published in 1742.

Day, Malcom   –   Voices from the World of Jane Austen. David & Charles (2006)

Gener, S., and John Muckersy. M. Gener, Or, A Selection of Letters on Life and Manners. 3rd ed. Edinburgh: Printed for Peter Hill …, A. Constable & and A. MacKay ;, 1812.

Jones, Hazel   –   Jane Austen & Marriage . Continuum Books (2009)

Lane, Maggie   –   Jane Austen’s World. Carlton Books (2005)

Laudermilk, Sharon & Hamlin, Teresa L.   –   The Regency Companion. Garland Publishing (1989)

Le Faye, Deirdre   –   Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry N. Abrams (2002)

Ray, Joan Klingel   –   Jane Austen for Dummies. Wiley Publishing, Inc. (2006)

Ross, Josephine   –   Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners. Bloomsbury USA (2006)

Selwyn, David   –   Jane Austen & Leisure. The Hambledon Press (1999)

Vickery, Amanda   –   The Gentleman’s Daughter. Yale University Press (1998)


Skip to comment form

  1. Hi, this sounds really interesting. I’m British and the traditional wedding cake here is still fruit cake, though most go for sponge or other alternatives. I was wandering , because how long the cake could potentially survive, do you think they may have followed the tradition of saving part of it for the christening of their first child?
    Thanks Kristin

    1. That’s a really good question, Kristen. I will need to do a little research and see if I can find out when and where that tradition started! I sense another research rabbit hole opening up!

    • Glynis on June 6, 2017 at 4:29 am
    • Reply

    My wedding cake in 1974 was a three layer fruit cake with royal icing so was pretty much like a high class recency cake I suppose. I actually prefer fruit cake to sponge cake so that was good.
    A friend of my mum made it so I’m not sure if she spent several hours beating it 😱
    I fear if I had to make one I would definitely need a mixer because 2 minutes beating and that’s me done!!!
    Thanks so much for this post Maria, I enjoyed it. 😊

    1. Thanks, Glynis! Mixers are wonderful things. I’s really amazing how much beating and mixing in the kitchen will wear you out. Makes me think the head cooks in those days must have had some serious upper body strength!

    • Adam Q on June 6, 2017 at 5:56 am
    • Reply

    My mother made a dark Christmas fruitcake every year and iced it with royal icing over marzipan. I can attest to the icing’s hardness but a good saw edged bread knife will cut through it. My sister in law baked a three tier fruitcake for my niece’s wedding but she used fondant icing. Those cakes are pretty dense, I don’t think that the lower tier would crumble under the weight of the upper tiers. I really prefer a fruitcake to those frothy sweet confections which pass for wedding cakes nowadays.

    1. The trouble with a fruitcake, even a dense on is that all the bits of fruits and nuts create weak points in the structure of the cake. A smaller cake might survive without a problem, but as cakes get larger, they do become disaster prone. I done a fair number of fancy cakes and have my share of successes and disasters.

  2. I really, really want a stand mixer! But I get a lot done with the handheld.

    Reading this reminded me of the day before Laura Ingalls’ wedding. She was complaining about how hard it was to whip all the eggs for her cake.

    1. I had forgotten about that bit from Laura Ingalls! Now I’m going to have to reread that! The stand mixer is a very new addition to our kitchen, and I’m still forting out how to get the best use out of it. I tend to reach for the handmixer because that’s what I’m used to.

    • Katherine Schmitt on June 6, 2017 at 7:04 pm
    • Reply

    While I don’t think there is much chance that I’ll bake one of these, I now understand the reason behind fruit cake! Who would have thought that rum and brandy were preservatives? All I remember is my dad grousing that the annual Christmas gift from one of his vendors would be with us for generations to come!

    1. My grandmother used to send home baked fruitcake at Christmas.They would last near forever!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: