Wonky, weird and wonderful – wedding cakes with a difference
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
If you had married in the late 17th century, your wedding cake might have been flavoured with oysters, cockles or sparrow’s brains. Live frogs could have jumped out of the centre, and snakes may have wriggled inside.
“Bride pies”, as they were called back then, played a central role at a wedding. “It’s all about celebration,” says food historian Sam Bilton, who has attempted her own versions of historic wedding cakes. She explains that in the 1685 recipe by English chef Robert May, the inclusion of live frogs and snakes was a “form of entertainment”. Other recipes chose sparrow’s brains to “create lust”.
These days the outlook is a little sweeter, with cockles subbed out for vanilla and soft buttercream. However, there remain similar attempts by cake makers to add novelty and surprise. “Weddings are becoming less formulaic,” says New York-based wedding planner Jove Meyer, pointing to a recent “gay Great Gatsby” event with a cake inspired by Gilded Age architecture. Another involved “[pulling] at the heartstrings” of French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s head baker to make an enormous carrot cake for a November wedding. Meyer is currently working on a cake for a wedding in September. The brief? “Fun as fuck.” And while couples are beginning to “question wedding norms’’, cake is a tradition most won’t pass up. “I can’t think of a dessert that is hot on the tails of a wedding cake,” says Meyer. “Cake is here.”
One of Meyer’s new collaborators is self-taught baker Aimee France, best known for the lopsided green strawberry and lilac-studded cake at Chloë Sevigny’s wedding to Karma gallerist Siniša Mačković last May. “It goes two ways,” says France from her Brooklyn studio, a space filled with foraged fruit, flowers and foliage that she uses for decoration. “People either want a white cake with intricate piping, or they want something black or blue or pink.” France, who avoids artificial colourings, dyes her cakes with activated charcoal, butterfly pea tea and beetroot, and is inspired by baroque architecture and ballet costumes.
France represents a new generation of bakers who are rewriting old rules and updating tradition. Claire Ptak of Hackney’s Violet Cakes famously ruffled feathers by ditching traditional royal fruit cake for lemon and elderflower at Prince Harry’s 2018 wedding to Meghan Markle. Others create bakes that are closer to sculptures – see Yip Studio’s carved rock cakes decorated with whole fruit and flowers. London-based baker Olivia Hill’s recent commissions include multi-tiered retro creations with elaborate pink and red piping; flavours include classic raspberry compote and white chocolate buttercream.
A change in direction is music to American events planner Marcy Blum’s ears. But she maintains high standards when it comes to flavour. “My clients care about food, and they want a cake that’s delicious – it’s not enough for it to be pretty,” she says of a design inspired by Elvis and Priscilla Presley’s wedding cake, an eight-tier showstopper by Miami-based Elegant Temptations. Six different flavours were on offer, from cookies and cream to chocolate and Funfetti (with sprinkles in the sponge), and all levels were real. (“I rail against fake cakes,” says Blum.)
The best-timed cakes will arrive shortly after dinner. “You don’t want to sit there and have a piece of cake – you want to get on the dancefloor,” says Blum. The Elvis-inspired creation was served in a separate “speakeasy”, but for smaller events she might cut the cake early and serve it later in small, passable chunks. In these cases, the cake is mostly for ceremonial purposes, leaving plenty of room for cannoli, biscotti and key lime tartlets – “anything you can scarf down”.
Another trend is the naked (unfrosted) cake, popularised by Christina Tosi of Momofuku’s Milk Bar. “People are enjoying a wilder, ‘non-perfect’ look,” says French baker Lucie Franc de Ferriere, who creates seasonal cakes – some frosted, some naked – in her Manhattan bakery. Franc de Ferriere’s speciality is pairing fruit with herbs: in summer her go-to bake is a basil and raspberry yoghurt cake; in winter, her favourite is a rosemary fromage-frais buttercream and chocolate stout. And wedding or not, a From Lucie cake is never without flowers picked locally around New York.
This summer, it’s Franc de Ferriere’s turn to get married. “I’m actually having two weddings,” she says. “An Indian wedding in June, as my fiancé is Sikh, and a French wedding on my family vineyard in south-west France.” The first will feature a buffet of Indian desserts; the second a gigantic pièce montée of lavender, basil and salted dark chocolate profiteroles. Neither is a traditional cake, but you can imagine she’s seen quite enough of them.