Wedding cakes soar to creative heights

In the beginning, according to bridal historians, the wedding cake was not eaten but thrown at the bride. Well, maybe not the whole cake, but the wheat from which it was made, in a custom that seems to be a precursor of the rice flung at newlyweds in our own times. Both rice and wheat represented fertility — same symbolism, different grains.

In the Roman Empire, where the wedding cake tradition allegedly began, loaves of bread were broken over the bride’s head — usually by the groom — and the guests encouraged to eat the crumbs that fell on the floor for luck. That foreshadows a later custom of wedding guests taking home a slice of the cake to place under their pillows that night.

During the Middle Ages, the bread loaves morphed into sweet buns, brought to the bride and groom by their guests and piled high. The higher the pile, the more prosperous the couple. After the bun tower was completed, the bride and groom were to kiss over the top of it. Then, evidently, the pastries were consumed.

It was not until the 16th century, when a French chef on a visit to London was disgusted by the unsanitary spectacle, that the wedding cake as we know it took shape. The chef went home, baked a multitiered confection representing the piled sweet buns, iced it and encouraged his countrymen to buy it and serve it on plates to their wedding guests. The custom caught on and, ever since, the wedding cake has been the culinary centerpiece of the reception.

As far as Jewish tradition, to the best of our knowledge it offers nothing specific regarding the wedding cake. Nor is the wedding cake a particularly Jewish confection (although there can be little doubt that Jewish wedding guests were offered a little something before or after the ceremony, perhaps an entire feast). However, along with many other customs, Jews have assimilated the cake tradition as a staple of nuptial celebration.

When it comes to cake, today’s bride usually turns to a caterer, bakery or even an online source. Then she and the purveyor must traverse the tricky terrain of fondant vs. glaze; royal icing or ganache; marzipan, dragées or a combination of the above. Or, for the truly adventurous, no cake at all.

“The trend that we’re noticing is that brides are not doing the big wedding cake so much anymore,” says Mike Reinig of Continental Caterers (also known as Too Caterers) in Menlo Park, which does the kosher catering at the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco, among other venues. “They choose fondue bars, miniature dessert or sundae bars or individual wedding cakes at the tables. The garter toss, the bouquet toss and the wedding cake are sort of going away.”

On the other hand, those at Katrina Rozelle Pastries and Desserts in Oakland, a high-end cake emporium, wedding cakes are still very much in style. It’s just that the style has changed.

“Gone are the days of the white cake with raspberry filling,” says sales manager Carolyn Smith. “Everything is very customized and we do whatever the bride wants.”

And what might that be? “They love chocolate,” she says.

At Citizen Cake in San Francisco, in addition to its take-out bakery and busy cafe and bar, the Grove Street establishment turns out six to eight wedding cakes a week in “high season,” according to wedding cake coordinator Jenny Klowden, a Jewish transplant from the Midwest.

She, too, sees some change. “We’re doing a lot more cupcakes and cupcake towers for weddings,” Klowden explains. “We don’t do fondant or sugar flowers. We use fresh flowers and seasonal fruit for decoration. Our clients tend to care a lot about high-quality ingredients and less about tradition.”

One tradition that seems to have toppled is the miniature bride and groom perched on top of the cake. “I have never seen a bride and groom on a cake,” emphatically states Bill Konrad, owner of Madrona Manor in Healdsburg, site of many a Wine Country wedding. “The cakes tend to be simpler these days and there’s a lot more chocolate.”

Still, the cake remains a classical piece of the wedding fete.

Barbara Morris, the owner of Elegant Parties of Walnut Creek, a consulting service specializing in wedding and b’nai mitzvah planning, says that the cake is very traditional in form — at least as far as her clients are concerned. They want three tiers and decorated (traditionally the bride and groom take the top tier home to share on the first anniversary).

“Of course,” she confides, “they always have a sheet cake in the back because it’s pretty hard to serve 250 people from one wedding cake.”

What about a kosher cake? Avi Cohen, owner of Avi-ously Delicious Catering, one of a select group of caterers approved for functions at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, will supply one.

He, too, finds people’s tastes are broadening. “People now are looking for different cakes,” says the Marin-based caterer. “Different shapes, different liqueurs inside. But as far as I’m concerned, the cake is just for symbolism, for the cutting of the cake.”

Still, some things never change. “The thing is, for obvious reasons, when you have a kosher wedding cake [and meat is on the menu} you can’t have any dairy products in it,” he says. “So the taste is a little off.”

If meat is not being served, of course, certified kosher cakes can include dairy, notes Maralyn Tabatsky, owner of Have Your Cake. The South San Francisco-based baker acknowledges that she sometimes has to reassure clients that the kosher cake can be delicious.

Among non-dairy cakes, the best choices include carrot, orange or vegan chocolate, Tabatsky says. “You really do have a broad variety of non-dairy options.” In terms of fillings, however, whipped cream is off the table. As is buttercream frosting.

Have Your Cake offers both kosher and non-kosher. On the other side of the bay, Grand Bakery in Oakland also specializes in wedding cakes, dairy or parve.

Kosher or not, cakes can be expensive. They are priced by the piece and range from $3 up to $15 (or more) a slice, depending on what ingredients and decorations you select, says Morris of Elegant Parties. Kosher cakes run even higher, she says.

And, if you simply must have your cake made by an elite baker in New York, it will be still more. Not only is every flower exquisitely handmade and absolutely perfect (at a cost of $2.50 per flower or more, she notes), but the cake must be transported by air in a first-class seat. And yes, it will have to have its seat belt fastened.

Also, more and more brides are having their cakes adorned with real flowers and, according to Morris, the florist can charge $150-$250 for that service.

No matter what cake you choose, it’s just a small part of the wedding package. “You have to stay within your budget,” Morris advises. “The minute you go outside your budget you are leaving yourself open to all kinds of craziness.”