Whenever my mother attends a wedding, the first thing she reports back on is the quality of the cake. She might also casually mention that the groom didn’t show up, or that the church burned down, but ultimately those small details are irrelevant—it’s the cake that matters. She can still recall her favorites from over the years, looking back most fondly on those events where she was able to slip a few extra slices into a box and bring them home for later.
Given that she’s such a cake connoisseur, it was no surprise that when I got engaged myself, one of the first questions she asked was, “Where will we get the cake?!” She wasn’t just excited about the towering wedding cake; her joy extended to the less celebrated, but no less important, groom’s cake, a wedding tradition that I had no idea even existed.
A Sweet Souvenir
The groom’s cake most likely originated in eighteenth-century England, when fruitcake was the dessert traditionally served at weddings. These cakes, often made with marzipan, dried fruit, and nuts and soaked in liqueur or brandy, were less expensive and stayed fresh longer than flour cakes, especially before modern refrigeration. Slices of cake were usually packaged and sent home with the guests, especially unmarried female guests, since they often put a piece of cake under their pillow at night to elicit dreams of their future husbands. Some couples also opted to save part of their cake to eat at their first child’s christening (or their first anniversary), and eventually wedding hosts began serving one large cake for guests to eat immediately and a smaller cake that could serve any of these traditional purposes.
In the Victorian era, when ubiquitous pomp and extravagance made expensive, towering white-flour confections all the rage, the humble and traditional fruitcake was still served alongside the showy white “bride’s cake” as a counterpoint, earning it the nickname “groom’s cake.”
Fruitcake may have fallen out of favor, but many people (especially those in the South) still serve a groom’s cake that contrasts with the style and the taste of the traditional wedding cake. Whereas wedding cake is typically a fluffy vanilla or lemon flavor, a groom’s cake is usually a darker cake, such as chocolate, devil’s food, or red velvet, and often still features fruit, nuts, or liqueur. Cheesecake, pie, and other desserts are also occasionally served as a groom’s cake.
Groom for Dessert
The groom’s cake is coming back into favor with many brides, although how it’s served is still subject to various interpretations. Some couples slice their groom’s cake and present it to guests in favor boxes as a tasty souvenir of the wedding. Some couples serve the cake (or pie, cupcakes, or cookies) at the reception as an alternative to traditional wedding cake; some serve it for dessert at the rehearsal dinner. Since the groom’s family is the traditional host of this event, a cake honoring him is a natural choice.
Modern groom’s cakes have become not just different in texture and flavor, but also in appearance. Many brides consider this cake a gift to their husbands, and therefore try to make the cake as personal and individual as possible. Many are baked in the shape of college sports-team logos, favorite pastimes, or other novelties, all to inject a bit of the groom’s personality into a day that’s otherwise all about the bride.
America isn’t alone in its unusual cake-related traditions. Decadent Western cakes are increasingly being requested all over the world, but depending on where you travel, the notion of a wedding cake may take on a whole new meaning:
- A traditional French wedding cake is called a croquembouche; it is a tall tower of profiteroles (cream-filled pastry puffs), sometimes covered with caramel, chocolate, or macaroons.
- Scandinavian countries celebrate with a kransekage (as it’s called in Danish), a towering cake made of delicately baked almond pastry rings of decreasing size, placed on top of each other to make a pyramid that’s filled with chocolate or cream, and then iced and decorated with trinkets.
- Japanese couples who opt for a Western-style wedding often get an elaborate faux wedding cake—made of paper, wax, or rubber—decorated to look like a real cake. The couple preserves the symbolism of slicing into the cake (which sometimes has whipped cream at the base so that something sticks to the knife), but often no actual cake is served.
- In Indonesia, many wedding cakes take the form of a lapis legit, an intricate layer cake in which two different batters (light- and dark-colored) are baked in alternating layers, flavored with spices like mace and anise. Some cakes have layers that are fashioned into intricate designs or patterns.
- At Ukrainian weddings, a large loaf of bread called a korovai often takes the place of a traditional cake. The korovai is decorated with ornaments baked from bread dough; designs often include two birds (to symbolize the marrying couple) or other objects that symbolize friends and family.
- A tree cake, known as šakotis in Lithuanian, sekacz in Polish, and baumkuchen in German, is the traditional dessert at Eastern European weddings. These cakes are baked using a specialized technique that results in a pyramid-shaped cake with spikes or branches protruding from the sides.
Whether you’re nibbling on a croquembouche, a lofty white wedding cake, or a bleeding-armadillo groom’s cake, remember that all wedding cakes are meant to symbolize fertility, happiness, good luck, and prosperity for the newlyweds. So enjoy, and don’t forget to take home an extra slice to enjoy later. My mother insists.