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Where Did the Wedding Cake Tradition Come From?

Photograph by Twenty20

It's no question that beyond the bride's entrance and the couple saying "I do," the wedding cake is arguably one of the most anticipated events of a wedding.

With layers upon layers of fondant-encrusted tiers, the cake can also eat up a sizable chunk of a couple's budget. But, as most couples justify, it's OK because the cake is such a storied part of the dream wedding. But why is it cake and not some other dessert? And what's with all those layers?

Like many wedding traditions, the history of the wedding cake goes back to ancient Rome. The Romans would conclude the ceremony by breaking a cake of wheat or barley over the bride's head, which symbolized good luck. The married couple would then eat a few crumbs of it together, and the wedding guests would gather up the crumbs as tokens of good luck.

In medieval times, wedding guests would stack small cakes as high as possible before they teetered over. The bride and groom would then try to kiss over the stack, and if successful, it was believed they were guaranteed a lifetime of prosperity. This is where the tiered-cake tradition began.

A more "civilized" tiered cake was introduced in the 1600s by a French chef who used pieces of broom sticks to elevate the cakes. However, he apparently was ahead of his time, and the trend didn't catch on. The tiered cake was later reattempted in 18th century London by a baker's apprentice who wanted to impress the baker's daughter.

The ingredients used and how cakes were prepared also took on traditions of their own. Fruit cakes, for example, were considered symbols of fertility and prosperity. Sharing the cake and having each guest take a bite was also important to ensure fertility, so long as the newlyweds cut the first slice together.

MORE: 10 Doable and Delicious Cakes

Icing began to appear on wedding cakes in the 17th century for those who could afford sugar. The most popular wedding frosting was known as "bliss," which was a combination of egg whites and sugar—similar to a meringue. Just as white dresses were a status of wealth since they could only be worn once, white cakes received similar status due to the costliness of pure refined sugar.

As with the white bridal gown, Queen Victoria played a role in the modern-day wedding cake as well. When white icing was used to decorate her multi-tiered wedding cake at her wedding in 1840 (which measured over nine feet in circumference and required two pedestals to support the sculptures of cupids adorning it), it became known as "royal icing," and "wedding cake" became synonymous with having a multi-tiered cake like Victoria's.

Tiered cakes consequently became another symbol of status and were common at royal weddings and weddings of wealthy families. Queen Elizabeth II's 1947 wedding to Prince Philip boasted one of the heftiest tiered cake of all time, scaling nine feet and weighing 500 pounds (although, Chelsea Clinton's 5-foot, 500-pound gluten-free cake in 2010, and Kim Kardashian's 8-foot, 600-pound cake in 2010 certainly rivaled it).

With such an increase in wedding cake volume (and the leftovers!), it became customary to not only send guests home with cake but also to deliver cake to guests who were unable to attend. The top tier of cake was also reserved for the bride and groom, who would freeze it with the intention of serving it at their first child's christening. Though freezing the top tier still remains a tradition, it's typically thawed in celebration of the couple's first anniversary instead.

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