What do you think that is?” she asked me, again pointing with her stick; “that, where those cobwebs are?”“I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.”“It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!”
-Chapter 11, Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
*First published 2013. Updated March 2021.
Since first making this several years ago, I’ve since followed the breadcrumbs to find the original Bride cake recipe that laid the groundwork for all English bride cakes from 1769.
The bride cake (today known as the wedding cake) has a long history, first coming about in the 17th century, after it transitioned from bride pie, an ornate meat pie, eaten as the wedding dinner rather than as dessert.
English tradition meant the cake was a single layer fruitcake covered in almond paste and hard white icing, first seen in The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffald in 1769.
While it seems simple, making a bride cake was expensive and in depth. Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy provides a recipe that included 6 pounds of dried fruit and 32 eggs. The icing is made with double refined sugar, musk (obtained from a gland of the male musk deer), ambergrease (from the digestive system of the sperm whale) as well as orange-flower water. Beaten for 2 hours, when dried, the baker was to watch constantly to make sure the icing wouldn’t color. During the Victorian era, the white icing of the cake symbolised many things, including social status and purity.
The royal nuptials of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840 were a turning point in wedding cakes as the English knew them. Queen Victoria’s cake was a sugary sculptural and architectural work of art that symbolised the social status of being a royal. Described as a ‘great beast of a plum cake, some ten feet in circumference’, it “weighed 300 pounds, was three yards in circumference, and fourteen inches in depth”. The cake included sculptures of Britannia, the royal pair in Roman costume, and one of Victoria’s canine companions.
While the wedding cakes of their children would be monumental in comparison- 6 to 7 feet high and again shifting the wedding cake trend to multitiered- the Queen’s cake changed the tradition of wedding cakes.
Being from the upper class, it’s likely Miss Havisham would have attempted to have her own bride cake inspired by the royal cake during her wedding. Great Expectations was published in 1860, but it’s suggested Miss Havisham is “scarcely forty”, according to Dicken’s annotations. It’s possible, then, that Miss Havisham would have aspired for a wedding cake usually seen only in royal weddings to show her status.
Of course, when Pip first sees Miss Havisham’s bride cake, it has been sitting there for many years.
“The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstances of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.”
- Allen, Emily. Culinary Exhibition: Victorian Wedding Cakes and Royal Spectacle. Victorian Studies. Vol. 45, No. 3 (Spring, 2003), pp. 457-484
- Blakemore, Erin. England’s Obsession with Queen Victoria’s Wedding Cake. May 6, 2018. https://daily.jstor.org/englands-obsession-with-queen-victorias-wedding-cake/
- Charsley, S.R. Wedding cakes and cultural history. Routledge, 1992
- Doyle, Richard. A Journal Kept by Richard Doyle in the Year 1840, London, Smith, Elder, & Co., 1885.https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=yale.39002005249884
- Hindley,C. The Life and Times of James Catnach, Ballad Monger. 1878
- Rutigliano, Olivia. I regret to inform you that Miss Havisham, Dickens’ embittered crone, is actually only . . . 40. Feb 19 2020. https://lithub.com/__trashed-27/
- Wilson, Carol. “Wedding cake: A slice of history.” Gastronomica 5.2 (2005): 69-72.
Great Expectations; Miss Havisham’s Bride Cake
- 0.90kg / 2lb / 7 cups of fine flour
- 550g /1.2lb butter
- 350g / 0.77 lb / 1.5 cups white sugar
- 200g / 0.44 lb almond meal
- 100g / 0.22lb candied citron
- 100g / 0.22lb candied orange and lemon peel
- 900g / 2lb currants
- 2 tsp nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp mace
- 1/4 tsp cloves
- 6 eggs, separated (yolks and whites will be used)
- 1 ounce / 30ml wine
- 1 ounce / 30ml brandy
- 1 lb white sugar
- 1 lb almond meal
- 4 egg whites
- splash of rose water
- 1 lb icing sugar
- 4 egg whites
- 30ml/ 1 oz cornstarch/ cornflour
- Start by creaming the butter, before stirring in the white sugar.
- Whisk egg whites until frothy and mix them in.
- In another bowl, beat the egg yolks for several minutes (they say 10) and add in the flour, nutmeg, mace, and cloves.
- Combine them together and mix them together for half an hour ( this is where the arm strength comes in). I just used my mixer for about 10 minutes.
- Stir in the currants, almonds, candied peel, wine and brandy (I was taught to soak the nuts and fruit in the brandy beforehand, so that’s what I did out of habit).
- Butter a cake pan, or line it well with baking paper (best option), fill with cake batter and place in a medium heat oven.
- They say a quick oven, but I found it best to keep it at about 150oC/ 300F as it’ll be in there for a few hours.
- Once a knife is speared into the middle and comes out clean, it’s done.
- Set it aside to cool while you make the almond icing and white icing.
- Start by mushing together almond meal and rose water to make a bit of a paste. Whisk together the egg whites until frothy, then stir in the almond meal, sugar and beat it well.
- Once the cake is cool, spread the almond icing on. I found the best way was by wetting my hands and smoothing it on that way. That way you’ll get it thin and perfectly smooth, which it needs to be before the white icing goes on. Once the top icing layer goes on, any flaws will show, so use the almond icing to fix them up now.
- Once the almond icing is completely covering the cake, place it in the oven to dry (I turned mine to ‘keep warm’ or 100C/ 210F) Keep the oven on 100C/ 210F.
- This now has to be my favourite icing recipe ever. Goes on smooth, you just spread it, but dries hard. Start by beating the eggs until frothy, and gradually add in the icing sugar and cornstarch/ cornflour.
- Once the mixture is smooth of lumps, use a cake spatula to smear and smooth the icing evenly over the cake and almond icing.
- Turn the oven to keep warm or off, and place the cake into dry. Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t turn any golden colour.
- To finish it off, make a bit more white icing and pipe floral or delicate edging. Why do we do this? To hide flaws of course!
all three recipes converted/modernised from The Book of Household Management, published in 1861