The Victorian love of neo-Gothic colonnaded buildings helped create the style of today's tiered wedding cakes, and the trend toward elaborate, decorated cakes continues even though there are some changes in flavors and colors.
The earliest known wedding cakes were unsweetened loaves of barley or wheat, but later the tradition changed to small, coarse, biscuity cakes and then, in Anglo-Saxon England, to sweetened buns.
Later the buns were joined together with icing to form a large cake topped by miniatures and figurines.
Then, much later, the lower part of the cake, a dark, substantial, fruitcake, was called the groom's cake, while above it a lighter cake with spun sugar and ornaments was known as the bride's cake.
French pastry chefs were the first to ice cakes after the introduction of refined sugar about 1600, but from its ruffled base to its bonnet of blossoms or bells at the top, today's wedding cake is also a souvenir of the lady of fashion of the Victorian age.
"The tiered cake is the one part of the reception that doesn't change," says Willy Ritz, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel's pastry chef.
"Even the cabaret-style reception of Joey Travolta and Wendy Shawn had one. We do many with old-fashioned scrolls and initials, or swans, lovebirds, and bells and bows."
The tiered cake does, of course, lend itself to spectacle, and some of the cakes at the Waldorf rise six to eight feet from the tabletop. Chef Ritz created one that had a spiral staircase and miniatures of the wedding party ascending the stairs.
Often three or four chefs work on one cake at the Waldorf. It's not systematic, but whenever they have a spare minute they pick up a pastry bag and add a few well-executed decorations.
The chef explains: "Two days before the wedding, we prime with the first coat. The next day we put on a finishing coat and decorate each layer. Then we tie it all together the day of the party."
The trend in appearance today is away from a stark snow-white cake. Decorations in pastel pink, yellow, or light green garnish an uncolored buttercream base.
"The hues must be very pale," says Chef Louis Szathmary, owner of The Bakery restaurant, Chicago. "They should melt it with the real flowers. Sometimes you can't tell which is the rose of buttercream and which rose is real."
Not only icing but sometimes, for the sake of manageability, a portion of the cake too is trompe l'oeil.m Chef Louis tries to dissuade customers from ordering a huge cake.
At The Bakery they make mostly three- tiered cakes 24 or 30 inches tall, of which only the top, a six-inch cake, is edible. The rest is Styrofoam covered with icing.
Set aside are several cakes baked in loaf pans. "We decorate every slice beautifully. This way we serve a wedding of 500 easily," Chef Louis says.
Although most bridal couples still have the traditional pound cake, some changes have occurred in taste as well.
Surprise fillings such as lemon, apricot, and praline, and cakes of almond, walnut, sponge, yellow, and especially chocolate, are today's preferences.
Sy Graf, owner of John Vie Pastry Shop in Greenwich Village, New York, says, "The braver go for chocolate inside and white outside. The very brave take chocolate throughout."
Chef Graf reminisces with a master's pride of the biggest cake he ever made, a towering eight-tiered confection all in chocolate with "gold" piping, for a 50 th wedding anniversary. It took us a full day just to decorate."
Chicago's The Bakery served an all-chocolate cake for the wedding of the director of the Lincoln Park Zoo, Dr. Lester Fischer. Chef Louis used a mixture of melted chocolate, dark cocoa, and butter for the decorations. They were several shades deeper than the cake. Piping, scrolls, and filigree were white.
So the cake itself is no longer a mere stage for the decorations. The trend is away from the overornate to the simpler.
"People want a fine edible dessert," one bakery owner said. "It is a beautiful change. You see fresh flowers at the crown of the cake and less of the marzipan and pulled sugar dolls."
What makes a good cake? According to Mr. Graf of John Vie's, it should be "light, tender, and not cloying. Often you go to a reception where the cake is so overpoweringly sweet that no one eats it.
"My customers tell me how much everybody liked the wedding cake and how they ate it all. That's what's important. If 300 people eat a cake, then you know it's not there as a ceremonial piece."
But, as a Swiss whose career of cakemaking at the Waldorf spans 35 years, Wally Ritz believes that the success of a wedding cake is largely subjective.
"What makes the cake exceptional? The moment. It's a matter of sentiment and ritual. A hot dog is really not that good, but at a ball game it can taste like a million dollars.
"If the atmosphere is right, the cake tastes great. On the other hand, you may have a memory of memories -- one special cake at your wedding or another's -- by comparison with which all later confections disappoint."
If you are interested in making your own cake, here is a very simple recipe from Connie Pollard, a cooking teacher and caterer who makes wedding cakes in Brookline, Mass. Her cake is similar to a pound cake, dense and moist, with a delicious subtle flavor. Connie Pollard's Wedding Cake 4 eggs 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract 1 teaspoon almond extract 2 cups sugar 2 cups all-purpose flour 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup unsalted butter 1 cup milk
Preheat oven 375 degrees F. Cut circles of wax paper to fit pans by tracing around them with a metal skewer, then cutting out. Grease pans with vegetable shortening, insert circles, and grease the paper.
Beat eggs with electric mixer until thick. Add vanilla and almond extracts. Start mixer and gradually add sugar, beating until all is added. Turn off mixer.
Measure and mix together flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
Place butter and milk in saucepan and heat until butter melts. Do not let it come to a boil, because it easily boils. Add flour mixture to egg-sugar mixture and beat together until dry flour disappears. Immediately add hot milk and beat into the batter -- slowly, or it will splash out of the mixer bowl.
If you have a splash guard for your mixer, this is a fine time to use it. As soon as the hot mixture has been incorporated, increase speed and beat batter for one minute. Pour into pan and bake as follows:
One recipe will make one 14-inch round layer, baked 30 minutes, or two 10 -inch round layers, baked 25 minutes.
Half this recipe will make two 7-inch round layers, baked 25 minutes.
A three-tier cake consisting of two 7-inch layers, two 10-inch layers, and two 14-inch layers will require this recipe to be made 3 1/2 times. This will be enough cake for 100 servings.
When all layers are baked and cooled, assemble each tier by spreading your favorite buttercream or seedless raspberry jam between each matching layer.
Prepare two recipes of Wedding Cake Icing (below) and assemble the following: one 16-inch pressed-board circle, covered with foil; one 18-inch paper doily; one 4-inch white ceramic souffle dish, with florist's oasis cut to fit. Wedding Cake Icing 1/2 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature 2 1/2 pounds confectioner's sugar 1/2 cup milk
In large bowl of electric mixer, beat butter until soft and smooth. Add 1 pound confectioners' sugar and beat until smooth. Add milk, mix thoroughly. Add remaining sugar, 1/2 pound at a time, beating until smooth after each addition. Keep icing in covered container until ready to apply. You may need to thin it with milk, adding a teaspoon at a time, for spreading consistency.
To crumb-coat the tiers, remove 1 1/2 cups of the above icing to a bowl and add milk, tablespoon by tablespoon, until icing is the consistency of honey.
Spread over each tier in a thin, see- through layer. The purpose is to trap all of the surface crumbs so they won't get mixed in with the final coat of regular icing. Let the crumb coating dry for several hours before applying the final icing.
To assemble the cake, place a tablespoon of icing in the center of the foil-covered cakeboard. Cover it with the doily, centered, and smooth down the lump of icing underneath.
In the center of the doily place another dab of icing. Center the largest cake tier on the doily. The dabs of icing will keep the parts from sliding.
With a large metal spatula spread a smooth, even coat of icing entirely over the sides and top of the largest tier.
Center the next largest tier on the just iced top and press down gently. Completely and smoothly cover this tier with icing, and repeat with the smallest tier.