Kitchen Call: Weddings take the cake

Linda Bassett

My calendar is sprinkled with weddings and bridal showers for upcoming weeks. As the invitations pile up, I learn about new traditions or new twists on long-standing ones. Some, like a feast of salmon and strawberries, hold as they make seasonal good sense, leftover from the times when the family harvested both fish and fruit. Other customs get facelifts, like showering newlyweds with foodstuffs for good luck.

Rice tossed at the happy couple as they leave the ceremony has fallen out of favor because of the possibility of a guest slipping on rolling grains. In the past, brides and grooms of Italian heritage risked a good thump on the head as guests pelted them with hard candies, called confetti. In fact, the projectile good wishes imperiled all members of the wedding party.

While modern brides wisely substitute beautiful, biodegradable rose petals, families of Italian heritage preserve the confetti tradition, wrapping five sugar-coated almonds in ribbon-tied mesh at each place setting. Each candied almond represents a specific wish — health, happiness, prosperity, children and long life.

The candies, which descended from the “sweetmeats” of classical Greece, became a custom during Rome’s toga times. Since the dried seeds, nuts and dried fruits were bound with costly honey, the treats were reserved for special occasions.

The earliest written recipe for confetti appeared during the early Renaissance, listing almonds, dried fruits, aromatic seeds, hazelnuts, pine nuts and cinnamon as ingredients, a few centuries after the writer Boccaccio first use the word confetti on paper. It took 300 years for all but the almonds to disappear, and the addition of the hard sugar coating. The commemorative confetti arrived in the U.S. with Italian immigrants.

Today, bakeries and craft shops carry them in bags of single or mixed colors. Each color represents an important life milestone: white for weddings; green for engagements; pink or blue for new babies; red (rare outside of Italy) for graduations; and silver or gold for anniversaries.

A Groom’s Cake, on the other hand, is a completely American invention, first appearing in the South shortly before the Civil War.

Before that, a wedding cake was a single-layered, dense fruitcake, as were all celebration cakes starting with Colonial times. Old cookbooks, like Amelia Simmons American Cookery, list cakes like Independence Cake and Federal Cake made with heavy brown flours to celebrate national holidays. As baking technology evolved, brides wanted white cake (made with lighter flours) to fit the theme of the wedding. The lighter layers could be built into a tower of graduating tiers.

It was southern ladies, whether the actual lady of the house or her servant, who raised cake-baking to an art. As with holiday-centered cakes, it seemed a natural progression cakes should trace the arc of courtship. Mrs. Porter’s New Southern Cookery Book from 1871 lists recipes for Bachelor’s Cake, Lady Cake, Acquaintanceship Cake, Introduction Cake, Flirtation Cake, Engagement Cake — and of course Bride’s Cake.

However, senior wedding guests still wanted their old-school fruitcake. So, a generous father-of-the-bride would spring for two cakes. The traditional fruitcake was called the Groom’s Cake. Since guests ate the Bride’s Cake at the reception, they wrapped the Groom’s Cake in a napkin to take home. That, in turn, began the tradition of young women placing a slice of cake under a pillow to dream of a future husband.

Today, more likely — and more economically — the couple chooses a single special cake for their celebration.

Just for fun — don’t try to bake it — the cake below from the mid-19th century represented the future with flour, sugar and butter as well as the past with the inclusion of the raisins, currants, candied peel and ginger.

“One pound of flour, half a pound of sugar, quarter of a pound of butter or lard, four wine-glasses of milk, half a pound of sultana raisins, quarter of a pound of currants, the same of candied peel, quarter of a nutmeg, two teaspoonful of ground ginger, one teaspoonful of cinnamon and one teaspoonful of carbonate of soda; mix well together, and bake slowly for an hour and a half.”

— Mrs. Porter’s New Southern Cookery Book

The following pound cake recipe doesn’t need to be reserved for a wedding. Slice it thinly and use it as a base for sliced strawberries or strawberries topped with whipped cream. Simple and elegant as dessert on a wedding shower menu, it takes a more down-to-earth turn, cut in thicker slices and topped with a scoop of ice cream at a weekend barbecue.

Evan Jones, who published “American Regional Cooking” for Time-Life Books in 1978 (and whose wife was Julia Child’s publisher Judith Jones) included a pound cake among a large group of all-American cakes. He recommended serving this “at breakfast spread with butter.”

EVAN JONES’ POUND CAKE

Makes one 9x5x3-inch loaf

2 teaspoons plus 1/2 pound unsalted butter, softened

2 tablespoons plus 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/4 cups sugar

6 large eggs

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest (yellow portion of the peel)

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread the 2 teaspoons softened butter evenly over the bottom and sides of a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan. Sprinkle the 2 tablespoons flour over the butter; shake the pan to spread it evenly over the butter; then invert the pan and rap it sharply to remove excess flour.

2. Cream together remaining butter and sugar until they are light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then beat in the lemon rind and vanilla.

3. With a wooden spoon, beat in the remaining flour, a cup at a time. When the batter is smooth, pour it into the prepared loaf pan, smoothing the top with a spatula. Bake in the center of the oven for 1 hour and 20 minutes until the cake begins to shrink away from the sides of the pan. Turn the cake onto a wire rack; let it cool to room temperature.

Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by e-mail at KitchenCall@aol.com.