So a well known fact about me amongst my friends is that I wrote my Master’s thesis on the history of the American wedding cake. I sort of stumbled upon the idea while frantically pawing books in the New York Public Library and came across an interesting article about Queen Victoria’s children’s wedding cakes. Unfortunately, Simon R. Charsley beat me to the British versions so I settled for American. A major component of my thesis was to gather as many recipes for wedding cake as I could. I now have a compendium of roughly 80 recipes spanning from the early 19th century up to the 1950s for both wedding cake and bride’s loaf/cake.
While I was rather enthralled with my topic and most females I told it to were equally as intrigued, it proved to be a rather awkward conversation starter with men. Luckily for me, or unluckily I suppose, I was single when the research for my thesis was really heating up. Needless to say, I tried my hardest not to mention my topic on the first date, because nothing says crazy quite like a twenty-something girl researching wedding cakes day in and day out, while owning a cat. Yeah, didn’t do much for my street cred.
When the topic came up I usually tried to avoid it with vague responses, “Oh just the history and developmental changes in baking in American history since the 19th century.” But inevitably, if a female companion was with me, or God forbid my mother was around, a squeal of, “Oh! But you have to tell them specifically what you’re writing about!” would escape their lips. At which point I would have to look the person square in the eye in the hopes they caught my air of desperation not to take this wrong way and I would mumble, “Wahddingcahkes.” (You know like Martin Short’s character from “Father of the Bride”).
Despite the intense awkwardness of my thesis topic, I somehow managed not to scare away The BF when we met (though that is likely because I blindsided him while he was hungover and captured him as mine) and I was able to gleefully research wedding cakes with out fear of retribution from the male world.
So, a fun fact about wedding cakes: starting around the late 18th century, they were traditionally just a giant fruitcake. Some recipes I found called for as many as 40 eggs. Good lord, can you imagine beating 40 eggs by hand in a giant bowl? And who in their right mind enjoys fruitcake? Not only did your parents chose your mate for life in these times but then you forced those around you “celebrating” the union to eat fruitcake? Ugh, what dire times indeed!
And I’m not the only one who holds the belief that fruitcake is inedible. I found several satirical articles in the 1890s about that very topic. When I first came across them, because I was searching a database that removed the articles from their original source I was never sure in what section of the paper they were listed and it took me awhile to figure out they were indeed satire. Not being one to enjoy fruitcake myself, I never made any of the recipes I found, that is until I entered the Edible Book contest.
So may I present to you recipe number two from Miss Haversham’s bride cake in Great Expectations. The original recipe was, understandably, huge and I didn’t want to carry something that large so I cut the recipe down to a quarter and that made one 8-inch round fruit cake of astonishing weight. I never tried the cake, and in fact forgot to put the molasses in, but it looked more or less edible when I pulled it out of the oven.
*Just a Note: This recipe calls for equal parts raisins and currants and 1/3 that amount of citron. For the life of me I couldn’t find currants so I just used raisins, and I have no idea how the original recipe could fit 7 pounds of raisins, currants and citron in the batter because just the 3/4 lbs of raisins in my recipe was nearly overwhelming. Likewise, spices were not as potent back then as they are now, due to long travel time between the point of origin, so the amounts called for are alarmingly large. Feel free to cut back to your own preference. Again the instructions are my own from trail and error the original recipes contains only a list of ingredients.
Mrs. Dyer’s Wedding Cake
Recipe adapted from Mrs. Jewett P. Cain’s Recipe book 1862-1872, Winterthur archives
2/3 cups (4 oz) flour
1 stick (1/4 lb) butter, softened
1/2 cup (4 oz) sugar
12 oz raisins
4 oz citron (I used candied lemon peel, recipe to follow next week)
1/4 oz cinnamon (this proved to be far more than seemed necessary so I just threw in 2 tsps)
1/4 oz nutmeg (again, an astonishing amount, I used 1 tsp)
1/4 tbsp cloves (insanity, I used two pinches)
1/4 cup buttermilk (recipe calls for sour milk)
1/4 cup molasses
1 oz brandy
1 oz wine (I didn’t have any opened bottles so I just doubled the brandy, also it’s relatively unclear in all the recipe if this is red or white wine, I generally think it’s a white to add extra sweetness)
Preheat oven to 350°F, grease and flour an 8-inch round pan.
Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy. In a separate bowl whisk together the flour and spices. In a large measuring cup combine the milk, brandy, and wine (if using) and set aside. In a large bowl toss the raisins and citron with flour, this keeps them from sinking to the bottom of the batter when added.
Add the eggs one at a time to the butter and sugar mixture, beating well between each addition. Add the molasses and beat until thoroughly combined. Working in three batches add the flour mixture to the butter and sugar, alternating with two batches of the milk and brandy mixture. Mix just until no streaks of flour remain.
Add the raisins and citron and fold in carefully. Pour into prepared pan and bake 40-50 minutes, or until the top is golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Immediately upon removing from the oven run a sharp knife around the edge to keep the raisins and citron from sticking. Allow to cool for twenty minutes on a rack before removing from the pan. You may have to loosen the edges again and parts of the bottom as well.
Traditional frosting called for was usually an egg white and almond mixture however just a dusting of powder sugar would suffice. Or you can keep it overnight at which point, if left unwrapped, it could serve nicely as a doorstop if cut into wedges. It’s also an excellent self-defense item, sort of like a ninja star, but with a little more weight and slightly more blunt.