Last week, equal pounds of butter, sugar, and flour gathered together in a royal kitchen with 500 organic eggs and 200 Amalfi lemons. Six gifted bakers and five days later, an elegant yet rustic wedding cake was unveiled at the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.
Collaborating with pastry chef Claire Ptak of London’s Violet Bakery, the young royals envisioned a contemporary cake focusing on seasonal, organic ingredients. Ptak was ideally suited for what might be considered the greatest of British Bake-offs, having honed her skills at the iconic Alice Waters restaurant, Chez Panisse.
The finished cake was a far cry from traditional royal wedding desserts, with nary a raisin nor a currant in the mix. For generations, traditional British wedding cakes have been constructed of dowdy, weighty, fruitcake. This had less to do with a penchant for cakes studded with dried fruits and liberally doused in spirits, and more to do with cake stability, shelf life, and a lack of refrigeration. Dating back to the Middle Ages, fruitcake took center stage at weddings (and
christenings) because the combination of fruit and alcohol worked to preserve the cake and enhance the flavor. Fruitcake was considered a sensible offering, lending itself to components such as marzipan, cavity inducing royal icing, and the malleable sugar paste known as fondant. Fruitcake laughed in the face of stifling heat and frigid temps, allowing bakers the freedom to add finishing touches to a cake over a period of weeks, sometimes even months.
Prince Harry can credit his great-great-great-great-grandmother, Victoria, for being a wedding cake trendsetter. Assuming the role of queen at age 18, two years later, in 1840, Victoria married Prince Albert. At the wedding, Victoria nibbled on a slice of cake cut from a single layer, 14-inch, 300 pound fruit cake. Adorned with edible sugar sculptures, the plum cake was decorated with orange blossoms and myrtle sprigs. Victoria and Albert’s wedding launched a white wedding cake craze amongst royals and commoners.
The innovation of icing afforded bakers the chance to cover cakes completely in white. Monochromatic wedding cakes symbolized luxury, but at the same time gave a nod to purity. Despite the fact that a pristine white cake was prohibitively expensive, Victoria’s cake helped to create what some Brits dubbed a “nation of spectators.” Much of British society read detailed accounts of the cake in newspapers, poring over elaborate illustrations. This practice of vicarious royal wedding cake consumption continues today. However, for most of us attending weddings in the states, actual fruitcake consumption remains at an all time low.
Oversized tiers of dense fruitcake were precarious to stack and unwieldy to slice. It is doubtful that any royal newlyweds registered for a sterling silver cake knife, instead turning to the family sword for the ceremonial cake ‘sabering.’ In 1947, Princess Elizabeth II and Prince Philip sliced into a 9- foot wedding cake, using the Prince’s ‘Mountbatten’ sword to cut tidy slices for the guests. I imagine a team of butlers standing by with sterling trays of monogrammed napkins, Band-aids and gauze strips.
At the time of Elizabeth and Philip’s wedding, post-war rationing restricted the availability of certain ingredients. This included white refined sugar, which was prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, the royal bakers were able to round out their mise en place with critical ingredients provided by the Australian Girl Guides Association. The newlyweds expressed their gratitude by shipping one tier of the completed cake back to Australia. The entire process gives a whole new meaning to borrowing a cup of sugar from your neighbor.
Royal pastry chefs continued to embrace white sugar with abandon, taking inspiration from popular architectural styles. Cakes were overly ornate, weighted down with elaborate filigrees, monograms, family crests, dogs, doves, and cupids. Perhaps history’s wedding cake overkill prompted the next generation of royals to rethink the dessert course.
Charles and Diana opted for five tiers of fruitcake but chose cream cheese frosting when they married in 1981. They also offered a simple dessert of English strawberries and clotted cream in case anyone needed a cholesterol boost. Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew celebrated their wedding in 1986 with a 5½-foot-tall marzipan and rum-soaked wedding cake. Sadly for Fergie and Andrew, marzipan and rum would prove to be the least of their unraveling.
At the 2011 wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, a multi-tiered fruitcake was served in addition to a Groom’s cake composed of chocolate, nuts, and rich tea biscuits. Inching further away from tradition, Prince Harry and Meghan’s cake captured the essence of spring, embracing elderflowers and Amalfi lemons, leaving the fruitcake at the alter.
Unlike most bakers, Pastry chef Ptak had easy access to the elusive elderflower. The Queen’s Sandringham property boasts a number of elderflower trees, helping to facilitate the ten bottles of cordial needed to douse the cake layers. After a generous drizzle of Elderflower, Ptak layered the lemon sponge cake with tart lemon curd. The cake was then covered in casual swirls of Swiss meringue buttercream before being garnished with three kinds of fresh peonies and roses.
Ptak’s finished product was equal part cake plus art installation; the tiers dramatically displayed on gilt gold stands lent to Ms. Ptak by the royal family. The deconstructed four-tier cake capably fed the intimate crowd of 600 guests at the lunchtime reception held in Windsor Castle’s St. George’s Hall. For those of us whose invitation was lost in the mail, or anyone who didn’t get a slice of wedding cake, the pairing of elderflower and lemon is running rampant through bakeries and wedding receptions on both sides of the pond. If you don’t have access to your own elderflower trees, the least you can do is snag a few Amalfi lemons and practice your royal wave.
This week, Mum’s the word, or if you live on this side of the pond, Mom. Or Mother, Mommy, Mom, Ma, or the ever endearing MAAAA!!! Sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, in-laws and out-laws, we all recognize the fact that mothers are acknowledged and celebrated on the second Sunday in May. Thanks for the onslaught of commercials, Pajama-gram, but we really don’t need any reminders. One of the first things we learn from our mothers is the significance of holidays.
Long before doughnuts commanded their very own glaze and sprinkle celebration, mothers managed family calendars. My mother didn’t need to keep her fingers on the pulse of every pop culture holiday that came bunny hopping through town, because few of them existed. What was important to my mother were the occasions that swirled around her family and friends. In my eyes, her ability to keep track of so many people and so many dates bordered on possessing a super power. This was an enviable skill, and says an awful lot about the fact that my mother genuinely cared about so many people.
Critical to keeping my mother’s life in order was her ‘day book,’ the yearly calendar published by the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. I know these books well because I turned to their fresh pages year after year, recording the minutiae of my life, until just recently when production of the books was cancelled due to declining sales. I took this as a sad sign that the number of Sisterhood ladies who chose to keep paper calendars over online calendars, was dwindling.
The calendars rolled out yearly in late August, starting with the month of September, concluding the following August. Aligning itself with the Jewish New Year, it was convenient for anyone ringing in a new school year, and in my mother’s case, critical for keeping track of four children. Not only were Federal holidays clearly marked, the Jewish holidays were noted in excruciating detail. Dates tethered to the celebration of Jewish Book Month, lighting the Hanukkah candles, or ushering in the first box of Passover matzohs, sprawled across pages in easy to read font. From my perspective, I enjoyed counting how many school holidays lay in wait.
Every year, my mother transferred the essential family birthdays and anniversaries into her book. As the year unfurled, she added novelty dates, such as music recitals, graduations, even immunizations. My mother could tell how many years she had lived in a certain house because the moving day was jotted down in her book. It was less of a diary, more of an all-news-all-the-time compilation. When one of her children started graduate school in the Pacific Northwest, it was noted in the day book. Ditto for when said child relocated to Canada, decades later.
There were smaller notes indicating routine bouts of influenza, the rare invasion of scarlet fever, tonsillectomies, sinus surgery, sprained ankles, a broken leg. When we were younger and my mother was busy shuttling us back and forth to after school appointments, she kept concise notes. This eliminated any mix-ups regarding who was scheduled for the orthodontist, the pediatrician, or if you were a German short-haired pointer, a seasonal visit to the vet. Every detail was written in my mother’s ruler-edged penmanship, a style of handwriting that shares elements of both cursive and calligraphy, and for the life of me, I cannot replicate.
Recently, I had some time on my hands with nothing to do but fill the hours with naps, salt water gargling, and a constant staccato of coughing. It was the perfect opportunity for a small organization project, a chance to chip away at chronic disorder.
I suffer from an inability to keep my dresser and desktop clear of extraneous papers. Recalling a similar mountain of papers perched on my mother’s desk and dresser assures me this is an inherited gene, not a rogue tendency I picked up on my own.
My mother always suggested filing away the important papers and pitching the rest. I tried the “file/pitch” approach with marginal success. Files couldn’t accommodate the stacks of pertinent papers dotting my dresser top. Recipes plucked from out-of-print glossy food magazines, highly coveted travel articles from the Sunday paper, Jane Brody’s sage advice on living a long, clutter-free, healthy, life. I tried a 3-drawer filing system in the kitchen, ultimately moving it out to the sunporch as a catch-all for cookbooks and correspondence.
The top of my dresser smirked, laughed, practically guffawed at my feeble attempt to clear wayward papers into a sensible stack. Case in point, a 4” x 6¾” 2010 National Federation of Temple Sisterhood calendar. It was opened to a page with a furiously scribbled headline in my handwriting, “The recipe for macaroons.” Clearly, this was the one I had been searching for.
My spiral bound day books did more than provide ample space for recording birthdays and anniversaries. It chronicled my days, my nights, and my weekends. It reminded me of appointments, of commitments. It nudged me towards dreams and allowed my self-obsorbed self to consider the couldas/shouldas/wouldas.
Within the fine lines of the September through August calendar, I jotted down copious details of favorite meals, notable travels, bouts of flu. There were names of salons and stylists responsible for haircuts good, bad, and occasionally ugly. In the margins of the weeks, I wrote down how many miles I had run.
Spilling out of the confines of the ‘additional engagements’ pages were too many notes-to-self, many of them food related. Jessie’s matzoh stuffing for a big crowd, Jessie’s pie crust for the 10” pie plate, the right amount of tapioca for blueberry pie filling. The Lemon Meringue Pie. Tossing years of personal history into the recycling bin seemed sacrilegious. If revisiting this still brings joy, do I just throw it all away?
Fortified by a Halls honey lemon drop followed by a Riccola chaser, I decided to broach the subject with the woman responsible for introducing me to the Temple Sisterhood yearly calendar, my mother.
Absurdly, my mother was orchestrating her own symphonic pneumonia, attired in a blue, breezy, hospital gown, tethered to an iv and a relentless johnny-one-note beeping monitor. Her cough traveled the phone lines, echoing long after she’d caught her breath and brought me up to date on Jeopardy.
“I saved every calendar, squirreling them away in shoeboxes in the back of my closet. Every now and again I would retrieve a box, looking for a specific year, a scribbled note about childhood diseases, who had what, when, and who didn’t. That’s when you all had the chicken pox.” She paused to laugh, cough, then continued. “I taped up the shoeboxes full of books and moved them from Woodland Terrace to Cassin Hill and finally where they are now. And then I threw a lot away, because I realized I needed the space more than I needed the date books. But every now and then, I’m sorry I tossed them because I wonder about a certain year and I know it’s in those books...”
I had also pitched quite a few calendar books into the recycle bin when we moved almost seven years ago. I didn’t think I would revisit them. But every once in a while, a pair of shoes that are wedged on a shelf where they don’t belong, comes in contact with a few spiral bound day books, and one takes a nose dive. Eventually it ends up on my dresser where I allow it to linger, sucking me into its bittersweet nostalgia.
On Saturday, Pajama-grams will frantically make their way across the country, to many unsuspecting moms who probably don’t need another pair of pajamas. I’ll be in the throes of the retail Mother’s Day pie frenzy and counting down the hours until Sunday afternoon, when I can finally turn off the oven. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be with my mother.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm