The unique Yorkshire traditions behind celebration cakes
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 July 2014
There are some unique Yorkshire traditions behind celebration cakes as Annie Stirk our food and drink consultant discovers
If you’re planning a wedding this summer, I’m sure a stylish sponge or fabulous fruitcake will be at the top of your wedding wish list: a centerpiece to symbolise your nuptials and a sweet present for your guests. Just thank your lucky stars you aren’t tying the knot in the Middle Ages because rather than eat the cake, it was more common to throw the confection at the bride as part of a good luck tradition, while guests scrambled for the crumbs, or pile it high into a mound – along with the rest of the wedding banquet – over which you and your new husband would kiss. If you didn’t topple it, you’d be blessed with a lifetime of happiness and good fortune.
While our ancestors had some unusual uses for their bakes, cakes have always been at the heart of every celebration and life event. At my niece’s recent 40th birthday party, the centerpiece was a Victoria sandwich with fondant icing that her son (with a little help from his grandma) had lovingly constructed. Its haphazard icing, wriggly decoration and oodles of personality had much more meaning than an expensively wrapped gift. And, whether it is a homespun sponge or professionally polished four-tier tower, a cake is the ultimate sharing food that brings people together. ‘My grandmother always baked a cake to mark family events and the cake was the big thing – even more important than the presents,’ says Alison Platts, owner of The Cake Lady Harrogate. ‘I’m lucky to have inherited many of her old yellowing recipe books, which have notes in the margins from successive members of my family – and celebration cakes perfected by the generations.’
It’s said the ancient Greeks were the first to create cakes for celebration, with moon-shaped honeyed loaves taken to temples to honour the Goddess of the Moon (it’s thought they were the first to place candles on the cakes too, in order to make them glow like the moon), but it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that sweetened breads, crafted into the shape of the baby Jesus and later used to commemorate all birthdays, gave rise to the modern-day celebration cake.
It wasn’t until the 17th century, however, that technological advancements in baking – reliable ovens, moulds and refined sugar – led to celebration cakes resembling what we know and love today. Early icing, made from sugar and egg whites, was flavoured with herbs and spices and poured over the cake before being baked.
For a while, only the rich could afford these fine sugars and, for weddings at least, the pristine white icing became a symbol of wealth. Later, however, when Queen Victoria served a large, iced plum cake at her marriage to Prince Albert in 1840 – and the first three-tiered wedding cake made its debut at London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition – the fashion for big cakes (and even bigger dresses) was set, and as sugar became cheaper it was possible for working class families to imitate these celebratory confections.
Early superstitions that suggested all sorts of horrible troubles would befall you if you baked your own cake are echoed in modern symbolism. ‘For years, three-tier weddings cakes were made so that the bottom tier could be eaten on the day by guests, the middle saved for the celebration of the first anniversary and the top for the christening of the first-born child,’ says Kate Clarkson, owner of York Cakes, who was creaming butter and sugar together to make cake batter before she could walk. ‘They continue to have huge sentimental connections and there’s always a great story behind every cake.
‘A few years ago I made a wedding cake in the shape of a church because the bride’s father was a vicar at that church,’ adds Kate, who left her job in the financial services five years ago to indulge her love of cake making. ‘My biggest competition is always the grandma because it’s very traditional for a friend of the family to make a cake for an event as a special gift.’
Of course, as the home of parkin, Pontefracts and fat rascals, to name but a few, it’s unsurprising that our county had its own particular traditions when it comes to celebration cakes. Bride Pie was reputed to be one of the most important dishes at Yorkshire weddings in the 17th century and as late as the 19th century. It consists of a hen stuffed with eggs, minced meats, fruit and nuts with, later, sweeter versions made of rich fruit and spices (minus the chicken) called Matrimony Cakes.
Another Yorkshire tradition was to have the bridal bake waiting at a nearby pub where the guests would watch as the bridegroom broke the cake ceremoniously over the bride’s head (food fights again) and fragments would be passed through the wedding ring as a symbol of good fortune. In East Yorkshire, they made smaller bride cakes, which were offered to the happy couple upon arrival at their new home, where there was yet more cake throwing, this time with the groom smashing the plate that the cake was sitting on over his own head. If it broke in two, it ensured future happiness for the couple – perhaps after a visit to the local hospital first.
In the Yorkshire Dales, funeral cakes – shortcake biscuits flavoured with caraway seeds and imprinted with hearts or roses – were baked in honour of the deceased, and shared at the reception to celebrate their life. ‘People have always wanted cakes to show that they’re proud of where they came from,’ says Alison from The Cake Lady. ‘And cakes made from local ingredients with little Yorkshire touches continue to be massively popular.’
Indeed, Yorkshire born and bred Alison is the creator of perhaps the world’s first and only range of dry-stone wall cakes that combine the agricultural heritage of Yorkshire with a good bake. ‘I make each brick individually and sandwich them together just like a real bricklayer, then I make little pieces of ivy and wooden gates, and add personal touches for people such as Land Rovers, dogs and green wellies,’ says Alison, who can work for up to 15 hours to perfect her wonder walls.
Kate from York Cakes says Yorkshire is often the subject of her cakes too. ‘I’ve been asked to incorporate the Yorkshire Rose and have had Canadian/Yorkshire weddings that have combined maple leaves with roses and Scottish/Yorkshire weddings that have mixed thistles with roses,’ she says.
But the availability of increasingly advanced baking equipment and techniques has led to a flurry of more unusual celebration cakes too. ‘The only thing that limits people these days is their imagination,’ says Kate. ‘While cupcake towers were big a few years ago, now people are asking for macaroon towers – and they always want to push the boundaries. Ultimately, cakes are a luxury item that we don’t eat every day so it has to have that wow factor.’
Talking of the wow factor, Thierry Dumouchel creates extraordinary French-style croquembouche wedding cakes at his Leeds bakery, made from a base of nougatine (sugar, nuts and butter) topped with a pyramid of crème patisserie-filled profiteroles knitted together with spun sugar glue and decorated with spun sugar birds and flowers. These magnificent works of art take two days to build with ornaments and choux buns created on day one and the entire cake painstakingly constructed on the day of the wedding. It would be a nerve-racking feat for any baker, but Thierry has honed his incredible technique to perfection over more than 30 years. ‘People are looking for something different from their celebration cakes these days and they’re starting to embrace the French tradition of a fresh cake, with fresh ingredients, that’s eaten on the day rather than the English tradition of taking the cake away to eat many days or, sometimes, months afterwards,’ said Thierry.
At The Cake Lady, Alison says she’s also noticed a trend towards freshness. ‘The latest craze, at weddings at least, is for so-called naked cakes which are un-iced and covered in a sort of butter cream with fresh fruit decorations and a sprinkling of icing sugar,’ she says. ‘We’ve come full circle – going back to the cakes of our grandparents.’
The Cake Lady
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