Aug 07

Of wedding cakes and all good things

There was a strange rumour in Highbury of all the little Perrys being seen with a slice of Mrs. Weston’s wedding-cake in their hands: but Mr. Woodhouse would never believe it. (Jane Austen, Emma)

I was greatly tickled, while recently rereading Emma, by Jane Austen’s account of the wedding cake that inflicted such distress on Emma’s valetudinarian father, Mr. Woodhouse, and his tender digestive tract. But the wedding cake that came to mind was not one of those fluffy, highly decorated, tiered creations with ruffles and roses and brides and grooms, as we think of the wedding cake today. Rather, the wedding cake I pictured was akin to that homely but magnificently delicious creation called the fruitcake.

Royal wedding cake

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s royal wedding cake, April 2011. Baker Fiona Cairns created the eight-tier cake from fruitcake so that a tier could be saved for the future, telling the press that “after 30 months it’s even more delicious.”

Wedding cakes during the British Regency appear to have been mostly simple fruit or plum cakes containing dozens of eggs and flavored liberally with spices and alcohol. Some sources cite the tradition of keeping a slice of cake to eat on the couple’s first anniversary; steeping the cake in a bottle of brandy and spices would surely preserve it for posterity. Another tradition was for young ladies to sleep with a slice of wedding cake beneath their pillow so that they would dream of their future spouse. Both traditions seem to have survived well past the Regency, as I remember them from my childhood more than a century and a half later, while growing up in the American Midwest.

A discussion of these fruity wedding cakes is especially timely right now, as we are rapidly approaching the Jewish mini-holiday of the 15th of Av, which falls this year on the night of August 10. The Talmud tells us that many years ago the “daughters of Jerusalem would go dance in the vineyards” on the 15th of Av, and “whoever did not have a wife would go there” to find himself a bride. According to Rabi Shimon ben Gamliel (Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 26b), “On these days, the young maidens of Yerushalayim would emerge in the streets wearing borrowed white clothing so as not to embarrass the poor who did not have [garments of their own]. They would form a circle [and dance] in the vineyards. What would they say (while they danced)? ‘Young man, lift up your eyes and appreciate whom you are selecting [to marry]. Don’t look at our beauty. Instead, look at the family (from which we descend).’ ”

I must admit that I do not know anyone who has found her spouse by dancing in the vineyard on the 15th of Av. However, I can tell you that the Jewish wedding season is in full swing, now that we are past the “Three Weeks” of mourning on the Jewish calendar. The wedding season will continue until the Jewish New Year, which coincides this year with the night of September 24 on the secular calendar.

Royal wedding

1816 Charlotte and Leopold wedding, by Robert Hicks, published by Nuttall, Fisher & Dixon, after William Marshall Craig. Public domain.

If you are planning a wedding during this period and would like to serve your guests a cake that is just a little different from the standard, sugary wedding cake fare, perhaps you will want to ask your caterer to create this modern version of the Regency wedding cake that all the little Perrys ate nearly 200 years ago:

Easy Fruitcake

I am indebted to my former coworker, Yehudit Lindblom, and her late mother, Joyce Bayer, for this delicious and easy recipe.

1-1/2 cups raisins
8 oz. dates, cut up
5 tbsp. shortening or oil
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
3 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. cinnamon
2 cups chopped mixed fruits
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. salt
1 cup walnuts (optional)
1 cup candied fruit such as cherries (optional)
Brandy for steeping (optional)

Simmer together raisins, dates, oil, water, and sugar until the water has been mostly absorbed by the raisins and dates. Set aside and cool. Meanwhile, grease loaf or bread pans well and line with baking paper. Grease the paper.

Mix together remaining dry ingredients and add to cooled raisin mixture. Mix well. The mixture will be very stiff.

Bake at 325° F (165° C) for 1-1/2 hours. When cool, wrap the loaves in cheesecloth that has been soaked with brandy and let sit a few months before serving. Or, if you don’t want to include the brandy, wrap them in plastic wrap and then in foil, and let sit a few weeks before serving.

The Regency Plum Cake

Regency-era home economist Mary Eaton, in The Cook and Housekeeper’s Complete and Universal Dictionary (1823), provides a recipe for bride cake that includes currants, yeast, and a gill (1/2 cup) of rose water. She also includes several pages of plum cake recipes, many of which include yeast as the leavening agent.

“This is such a favourite article in most families, and is made in so many different ways, that it will be necessary to give a variety of receipts, in order that a selection may be made agreeably to the taste of the reader, or the quality of the article to be preferred,” Mrs. Eaton writes, and proceeds to supply 12 plum cake recipes in a single paragraph.  The recipe below appears to most closely resemble the rich fruitcake served at weddings:

PLUM CAKE: For a rich cake, take three pounds of well-dried flour, three pounds of fresh butter, a pound and a half of fine sugar dried and sifted, five pounds of currants carefully cleaned and dried, twenty-four eggs, three grated nutmegs, a little pounded mace and cloves, half a pound of almonds, a glass of sack, and a pound of citron or orange peel. Pound the almonds in rose water, work up the butter to a thin cream, put in the sugar, and work it well; then the yolks of the eggs, the spices, the almonds, and orange peel. Beat the whites of the eggs to a froth, and put them into the batter as it rises. Keep working it with the hand till the oven is ready, and the scorching subsided; put it into a hoop, but not full, and two hours will bake it. The almonds should be blanched in cold water. This will make a large rich plum cake.