Many tiers of joy
Wednesday, June 22, 2005
"The most dangerous food in the world is wedding cake," maintains an old American proverb. This is the month of the year -- named after Juno, the patroness of marriage -- when lots of people choose to live dangerously.
Contributing to the anxiety of June brides and grooms is the fact that these days nothing about planning a wedding is a piece of cake, not even the cake. Today's couples have far more to consider than just the number of layers. They may even find themselves asking whether they want a cake at all.
Thus, some newlyweds opt for tiramisu, creme brulee or chocolate truffles. Croquembouche, that classic tower of cream puffs, long a tradition for special occasions in France, is also popular. A few couples have been so inspired by it as to request towers of Ding Dongs or Krispy Kreme doughnuts instead. No less a connoisseur than Gale Gand, who just might be the best pastry chef in the United States, prepared a tower of cupcakes in lieu of a traditional cake for her own wedding.
Even couples not daring to depart from tradition by shedding the conventional tiers of joy are likely to choose something other than a white cake with white icing as the focal point of their first act together as husband and wife, preferring instead chocolate, carrot or even cheesecake.
These trends are the latest in the evolution of a culinary custom that, as food historian Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat points out, goes back to ancient Greece and Rome. Carol Wilson, writing in "Gastronomica," describes the role played by cake back then: made of wheat or barley, it was smashed over the bride's head and the resulting crumbs eaten by the newlyweds and the wedding guests as tokens of good fortune. Over time, no doubt to the relief of new brides, the smashing evolved into mere crumbling.
By medieval times these cakes were replaced by a tall stack of sweet rolls (in parts of France they used waffles), a precursor to today's wedding cake. The bride and groom were required to kiss over this pile of buns, a challenge which, if met, ensured them a prosperous future.
In his seminal work on the subject, British anthropologist Simon Charsley reveals that the first recorded recipe for a dish specifically designed to be eaten at a wedding was actually for a pie. Called bride's pie, it was a concoction of pastry and meat into which a glass ring was inserted. The person who found the ring was destined to be the next to marry.
In the 17th century, through French influence, bride's pie evolved into bride's cake, essentially a fruit cake covered with white icing. Further refinements in the 19th century resulted in the familiar three-tiered cake said to have been modeled after the spire of St. Brides Church in London.
Wedding cakes continue to evolve in the direction of greater grandiosity, making them big business today, though, as the "Joy of Cooking" suggests, baking one at home can be a "glorious undertaking," as I discovered years ago when I constructed a four-layer affair and hauled it to Dallas for a friend's nuptials. Preparing your own, however, carries additional danger, as Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of the "Cake Bible," learned when she made a cake for her brother's wedding. It got stranded at the Newark airport by a snowstorm and was subsequently eaten by airline employees.
Wedding (Cup) Cake
A tower of cupcakes makes a surprisingly impressive bridal cake. And what could be easier to serve at the reception? There's no cutting! Even if you're not celebrating a wedding, this recipe, adapted from Gale Gand, makes the perfect yellow cupcake for any occasion.
2 sticks butter
2 cups sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups sifted cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
Cream together butter and sugar. Gradually add vanilla and eggs and mix well. Sift together dry ingredients and add to butter mixture alternately with milk. Bake in paper-lined muffin tins, filling three-fourths full, at 350 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes until golden brown. Frost and decorate cupcakes as desired. Gand suggests buttercream frosting, pearlized fondant balls, and Victorian cake pull charms. Arrange on stacked, graduated cake stands.
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