When it comes to weddings, the royal family have always been trendsetters. As a nation, we obsess over and imitate every detail, from the dress to the first dance. But it’s in the domain of cakes where the royals really shine.
The greatest trendsetter of all was Queen Victoria, who married Albert in 1840 — the first female monarch to wed since Queen Mary in 1554. Her cake was a behemoth: a 300lbs spiced fruitcake, with a circumference of some three yards, intricately decorated with the firm white icing that soon became known as ‘royal icing’. Victoria’s cake also bore foot-high sugar models of Britannia, Victoria and Albert, making it the first known cake with bride and groom ‘toppers’. Illustrations were published around the world, setting the standard for the fashion-conscious bride.
But it was the 1882 cake created for the marriage of Prince Leopold, Victoria and Albert’s son youngest son, which really made waves. Victoria’s cake had only one (enormous) edible tier and the rest was decorative sugar. Leopold and Helena’s three tiers were all made to be eaten. Unusual at the time, this soon became the norm.
Queen Elizabeth’s cake, meanwhile, eclipsed even her great-great-grandmother’s, weighing in at over 500lbs. The recipe was lost in a fire, but when Le Cordon Bleu recreated it last year to celebrate the Queen’s 70th wedding anniversary, they used 150lbs of marzipan and 110lbs of icing sugar just to decorate it. Rationing was still in force for the Queen’s wedding in 1947, so it was difficult for even royal cakemakers to find enough of the required ingredients. But donations, everything from dried fruit to powdered milk, poured in from across the Empire. The Girl Guide Association of Australia sent a bottle of brandy; Jamaica contributed rum and Barbados sent brown sugar.
Height is the defining feature of royal wedding cakes. The Queen’s was 9ft tall, the Queen Mother’s 10ft, while Princess Anne’s was made to her own exact height, 5ft 6in. Fruitcake is the tradition in Britain, dating back to at least 1655, but not all royals have stuck with it. In 1999, when Prince Edward married Sophie Rhys-Jones, they plumped for an American-style Devil’s Food chocolate cake. This was rather whimsically decorated with tennis rackets; a nod to the charity fundraiser where the couple met. Prince William and Kate, meanwhile, went both traditional and personal: an eight-tier fruitcake and one made from chocolate biscuits, which William used to eat at tea with his grandmother. The biscuit cake was made by McVitie’s, who also made the Queen’s cake all those years ago.
Now there’s another royal wedding in the offing. On 19 May, Meghan Markle, Prince Harry and their guests will tuck into a lemon and elderflower cake baked by Claire Ptak of Violet Bakery. It’s a cunning choice: traditional British flavours brought together by an American baker in a trendy London bakery. A masterpiece of diplomacy. The inclusion of elderflower came as a surprise to many — it’s a delicate flavour, seldom used at weddings. But for this particular wedding, it makes a lot of sense. Elderflower isn’t just quintessentially British; it’s also ubiquitous, growing in hedgerows and on roadsides across Britain. You can’t move for these delicate white blooms in early summer. Harry and Meghan have made a point of being more open and approachable than their forebears. And this cake epitomises their approach: rooted in tradition, but with a bright, modern twist.
I love the sweet, heady scent of elderflowers, which is reminiscent of Muscat grapes. When the flowers are in season in May and June it’s really easy to make your own cordial by steeping the flowers in syrup and cutting it with a little lemon juice. It will keep in the fridge for a few weeks. But to be honest, I tend to use the elderflower cordial that’s easy to find in any supermarket.
This cake is a joy. Appropriately, I have used it over and over again for wedding cakes (without the elderflower), and there’s never a crumb left. A generous dose of zest and juice make it splendidly zingy, and drizzling a lemon and elderflower syrup on to the golden sponge ensures it stays tender and moist; the ivory icing has elderflower cordial folded through it, making it floral and fragrant; it smells of English summers.
Elderflower and lemon cake
Makes One tall 8 inch cake
Takes 30 minutes, plus cooling
Bakes 1 hour
For the sponge
350g salted butter
350g caster sugar
420g self-raising flour
5 lemons zested, and all but one juiced
For the syrup
2 tablespoons elderflower cordial
1 lemon, juiced
For the icing
200g butter, soft
400g icing sugar
2 or 3 tablespoons elderflower cordial
1. Grease and line two eight inch cake tins with baking paper, and heat the oven to 140°C.
2. Zest all the lemons and add the zest to the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, and cream until pale and fluffy. This is easiest in a stand mixer using a paddle attachment, but you can do it with a handheld whisk or through sheer elbow grease.
3. Add the eggs one by one, making sure each is fully incorporated before adding the next. If the mixture looks about to split, stir in a tablespoon of flour.
4. Fold in the self-raising flour gently until there are no streaks.
5. Juice four of the zested lemons, and stir the lemon juice into the mix.
6. Divide the mixture evenly between the two tins and bake for one hour until, when pressed gently, the sponge springs back. When the tins come out of the oven, carefully run a knife around the edge. Leave to cool for 15 minutes, then remove from the tins.
7. Juice the final lemon and stir the juice into two tablespoons of elderflower cordial. Brush this over the still-warm sponges. Leave to cool completely.
8. Make the icing by creaming the butter and icing sugar together until pale and fluffy. Beat in the elderflower cordial until the icing becomes thick and creamy.
9. Spoon half of the icing on to one of the sponges and place the other one on top. Smooth the other half of the icing on top of the second sponge and decorate, if you like, with fresh flowers.