Even the Cake was in Tiers (in honour of Episode 10 – the Finale – of The Great British Bake Off

Posted on: 22/10/2013 with tags: An Appetite for Violets, baking, food, history, Hoefnagel, Martine Bailey, The Great British Bake Off, tiered cake, Wedding, Wedding cake

It’s the grand finale of The Great British Bake Off this week, and what could be more fitting than to bake a tiered wedding cake? No bakery item is so laden with superstition, folklore and potential difficulty. Attempting to follow the crumb trail back through history, we discover bride cakes pictured in about 1570 in Hoefnagel’s A Wedding Fete at Bermondsey.


Hoefnagel’s A Wedding Fete at Bermondsey showing bride cakes.

Looking like gigantic trays slung around the necks of young men parading just behind the dancers, these are in fact vast, pastry-covered plum cakes that will later be distributed to the wedding guests.

By the eighteenth century bride cake had evolved into a large fruit cake covered in almond and sugar icing – but still had no tiers. Superstitions surrounding the cake included the ritual of passing small pieces through a wedding ring, after which unmarried guests hoped to dream of their future spouses. In AN APPETITE FOR VIOLETS, Biddy Leigh’s journey to Italy disrupts her wedding plans, bringing a premonition of misfortune: ‘My spirit shivered to think of my own bride cake mouldering to dust in the larder at Mawton, and all the ill luck that might bring me.’

Only in the Victorian age did the cakes for royal weddings first combine fruitcakes and sugarpaste in multi-tiered extravaganzas.


The first tiered wedding cake produced for the Princess Royal’s wedding 1858.

Lured by the challenge of baking my own wedding cake, I remember well the sense of doom when such a symbolic creation starts to go wrong. My chocolate 3-tier cake for a hundred guests had baked well and I’d meticulously frozen boxes of hand-rolled white chocolate curls to decorate it. But when I assembled it just before the wedding, most of the fragile chocolate curls shattered to white dust. In my diary, I wrote of the miserable sleepless night before my wedding:

3 am: I’m so, so worried about the cake. And I’m so tired. What if I can only finish two tiers of the cake? It will look so stupid half covered. Feel like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, having to physically restrain myself from going downstairs and trying to finish the cake. It’s all my own fault. I’ve completely ruined my own wedding…

At the eleventh hour, after praying to the Aztec god of chocolate, I remade the decorations with my last bag of couverture white chocolate. Reader, I felt I could finally marry him…


Martine’s hand-made white chocolate wedding cake.

Baking can make you ludicrously emotional and tiered cakes are notoriously difficult. Whether it’s a Bake Off final or a nerve-jangling wedding day, the old joke still rings true: ‘It was an emotional day for everyone – even the cake was in ‘tiers’.’

Martine Bailey’s debut novel, AN APPETITE FOR VIOLETS will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in May 2014. In the meantime, you can follow Martine on Twitter here.

Amy Dolman

Post author: Amy Dolman

Amy is responsible for the smooth running of the H for History website, and enjoys reading history-based fantasy. She also like to photograph sites of historical interest in her spare time with a cup of bovril and a pork pie for company. Favourite period of history: Ancient; Favourite historical read: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave; Upcoming book i'm most looking forward to: Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick

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