Anne Byrn knows a thing or two about cakes. The best-selling author of the Cake Mix Doctor cookbook series, she's recently penned a new cookbook about the history of cakes in the U.S. entitled American Cake: From Colonial Gingerbread to Classic Layer, the Stories and Recipes Behind More Than 125 of Our Best-Loved Cakes ($30, Rodale Books). Tracing the history of cakes in the U.S. chronologically from 1650, Byrn covers the evolution of the dessert across the country's various regions, sharing fascinating stories of how economics, technology, and even war shaped the way cakes were created through the years.
Wedding cakes have evolved, too. From the ingredients of early versions (they were soaked in brandy!) to the story behind how the word "icing" came to be, Anne shares 10 surprising facts about the history behind the wedding-day dessert.
1. The first American wedding cakes weren't white—they were fruitcakes, studded with currants and soaked in brandy.
2. When Queen Victoria of England wed Prince Albert in 1840, her massive 300-pound cake—a fruitcake—was cloaked in white icing. It was a visual the rest of the world wouldn't forget, and from thereafter, wedding cake in England and America became white, as did the bride's dress and veil.
3. Back in the day, baking white cakes was an expensive task—white sugar was pricey, and was needed not only for the cake but for the icing, too. Thus, white wedding cakes became a status symbol.
4. One early version of the American white wedding fruitcake, popular in North Carolina, was called the Sally White Cake and contained almonds, coconut, and citron.
5. Some white wedding cakes contained 16 egg whites, beaten to stiff peaks. The yolks were either discarded or, especially in the South, used to make boiled custard to drink alongside the cake.
6. In contrast, the wedding cake of the Appalachian Mountains was the apple stack cake. It was customary for friends of the bride to bake one layer, and those sorghum-sweetened layers were sandwiched together with a thick apple filling. The saying went that the more cake layers, the more popular the bride. The ultimate do-ahead cake, the stack cake improved in flavor and texture if baked in advance. And it still does!
7. The earliest wedding cakes were far from sweet and white. At ancient Roman weddings, cakes of barley or wheat were broken over the bride's head. The guests ate the crumbs.
8. And in medieval England the bride and groom attempted to seal a kiss over a tower of sugar buns.
9. The tradition of freezing the top layer of wedding cake to eat on a couple's first anniversary came from post World War II America, when homes contained freezers.
10. The earliest, and easiest, wedding cake icing was made by combining beaten egg whites and ground sugar, brushing this onto a baked cake, and returning it to the oven where it baked into a shiny topping that looked like ice. And that's where we get the word "icing."