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?
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.
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.
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
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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)
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