When, on April 18, 1956, American actress Grace Kelly wed Monaco’s Prince Rainier, no extravagance was spared. Sixty seamstresses worked on the bride’s ornate lace dress for six weeks. Guests — including Cary Grant, Ava Gardner, Aristotle Onassis, and Conrad Hilton — feasted on caviar, lobster, and plenty of champagne (all paid for by MGM studios). The centerpiece of the reception was a 200-pound, six-tiered wedding cake, the base of which was a sugared replica of Monaco’s pink palace. Some sources say that crowning the top was a sugar cage that held two live turtledoves; the birds were released when the couple sliced into the cake with the Prince’s sword.
It’s safe to say that when humanitarian and former American actress Meghan Markle marries Prince Harry at St. George’s Chapel on the grounds of Windsor Castle — about an hour by car west of London — there will be just as much excitement and a decent helping of Hollywood’s own royalty. But the cake won’t be nearly as ornate — and represents a shift in British royal wedding cake style.
American-born baker Claire Ptak of East London’s Violet Bakery is making this royal cake. (Markle has known Ptak for some time; the future duchess interviewed the pastry chef for her now-defunct lifestyle site in 2015.) According to the Palace, 200 Amalfi lemons, 500 organic eggs from Suffolk, 20 kgs of butter, 20 kgs of flour, 20 kgs of sugar, and 10 bottles of elderflower cordial from the Queen’s Sandringham estate in Norfolk will go into the cake.
A lemon sponge will be soaked in elderflower syrup, and then layered with “very tart” Amalfi lemon curd; the whole cakes will be coated in a “very sweet” Swiss meringue butter cream, laced with the elderflower cordial. Each individual round is separated into four layers, with three layers of curd in between. The cake was assembled at Buckingham Palace, and then transported to and assembled at Windsor Castle.
Before the wedding, in a statement to the press, Ptak said the cake would be presented in a non-traditional way, but did not elaborate except to say that the style was approved by Markle and Prince Harry. It was stacked atop royal silver and gold footed bowls and trays.
Watch as baker Claire Ptak begins work on the #RoyalWedding Cake! pic.twitter.com/OTdcF9hc0a— The Royal Family (@RoyalFamily) May 18, 2018
Elderflower — a small sprightly bundle of white blooms in the honeysuckle family — is mean to be a nod to what Kensington Palace calls the “bright flavors of spring.” Though Ptak can’t speak directly with the press until after the wedding, she’s well-known in and around London for her floral and fruit-forward cake flavors. Ptak’s cakes range in price from about $40 (for a 6-inch cake) to over $1,000 (for a cake that serves 150). This royal wedding cake will need to serve at least 600 guests.
Bea Vo, a London-based pastry chef and founder of Bea’s of Bloomsbury as well as the Feed Your Soul restaurant group, says Ptak “is a refreshing and modern choice” for this wedding cake. “Lemon and elderflower is definitely a unique flavor combination... even though elderflower is a thoroughly British ingredient, it’s not often used in cakes.” Though “chocolate or Victoria sponge cakes” (vanilla cake with jam and cream) are also becoming popular celebration cake flavors in the U.K., “most British wedding cakes are still fruitcakes,” Vo says.
The fruitcake wedding cake tradition has a long history. Wedding parties in medieval England featured a pile of unsweetened buns, symbolizing prosperity in all forms. That evolved into a single dish called “Bride’s Pye” or “Bride Cake.” Before sugar hit the British Isles in the mid-1500s, these celebration dishes often combined seafood and offal in a bread-type crust — with plenty of spices to offset the off flavors.
Once greater quantities of sugar came to England from the Americas, along with fruit shipped in from across the commonwealth, a cake made from grain, sugar, eggs, and dried or candied fruit, became the de facto celebration cake in Britain — at least among the wealthy. (All of that fruit and sugar was prohibitively expensive for most English bakers to procure.) Fruitcake’s sugar and high alcohol content — the fruits or cake itself are soaked in a high-proof spirit — also mean it had literal staying power, or built-in preservatives. It was thus a popular sweet before home refrigeration.
Still, these celebration cakes, while practical, weren’t pretty to look at; they were dense brown square or round lumps. For over a century, only the ruling class could afford the most refined (read: whitest) sugar, which became synonymous with purity. In Wedding Cake: A Slice of History, historian Carol Wilson notes that Queen Victoria’s was the first royal wedding cake to be white, as it was covered in a thick layer of fine white sugar blended with egg whites, or what’s now called royal icing. “One of the great advantages to having fruitcake is that it gives the pastry chef a lot of time to do some really elaborate and intricate royal icing piping,” Vo says. Sometimes, marzipan made its way into the mix too, adding a nutty note.
As their exteriors changed, fruitcake remained a tradition in English royal weddings. Despite wartime rationing, the 1947 wedding of Queen Elizabeth to Prince Phillip featured a 500-pound, four-tiered fruitcake — said to contain donated fruit from Australia as well as 80 oranges and lemons, 660 eggs, and more than three gallons of Navy Rum — covered in royal icing and sugar paste, which was molded into scenes from the couple’s travels as well as lacy arches and trellises. In 2011, British pastry chef and cake designer Fiona Cairns made a rather Victorian-style multi-layered fruitcake for Prince William and Catherine Middleton’s wedding. (There was also a simple no-bake chocolate and biscuit Groom’s cake.)
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s cake won’t look anything like the cakes of English royal weddings past: In addition to not being a fruitcake, Ptak doesn’t decorate her cakes with royal icing, sugar paste, ornate piping, or candied pearls. Trained in part in California under Alice Waters, Ptak’s become known in the U.K. for making deeply flavored cakes that are neither dry nor overly soaked. She decorates them with soft swirls of pillowy Swiss buttercream and fresh flowers. Ptak’s goal with this royal wedding cake is to focus on “food provenance, sustainability, seasonality and most importantly flavor,” as she said in an official palace press release.
As British food writer and historian Bee Wilson notes in the The New Yorker, this royal couple’s choice of Ptak as their cake maker demonstrates “the transformation of British attitudes toward baking... [t]hanks in large part to the massive popularity of The Great British Baking Show,” it seems the British public has taken home baking on as a hobby in droves. So it only makes sense that for this rather modern wedding, the sweet centerpiece will be one that doesn’t just look good, but that tastes good, too, with neither a soggy bottom nor a messy top.
Still, rumor has it that there may also be a fruitcake, but that might be just for tradition — or at the behest of the Queen herself.
Update 5/19 10:04 a.m.: This post has been updated to reflect new information.