Royal wedding punditry has become its own spectator sport.
For some of us, though, the biggest question goes straight to our hearts — or, rather, our stomachs. What will the wedding cake look and taste like?
Somehow my invitation must have gotten lost in the mail, and I fear I won’t be able to try what sounds like a very promising lemon elderflower creation that will be made by American Claire Ptak. We’ve learned only a few sketchy details about the cake for the May 19 nuptials at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, the royal residence about an hour west of London.
Reached by email, Ptak, proprietor of London’s Violet bakery and a former pastry chef at Chez Panisse, said she wasn’t granting interviews at the moment.
There wasn’t a whole lot to go on, but I figured if I wanted to eat a royal wedding cake, I was just going to have to make one myself. (Alas, flying across the Atlantic to sample the 8 pound (about $11) interpretation that will be sold by the Iceland grocery chain the week that Harry and Meghan tie the knot wasn’t an option either.)
Ptak’s media silence of course also means that she’s not sharing any recipes. So, when coming up with my own riff on a lemon elderflower cake (see the recipe here), I was more or less left to my own devices, save one authentic starting point: “The Violet Bakery Cookbook,” which Ptak published in 2015. I adapted a vanilla sponge cake from a loganberry-flavored dessert and a simple sugar-and-butter icing to which Ptak had added violet syrup.
I wanted multiple iterations of lemon and elderflower throughout my creation. To start, I used lemon zest as a fragrant addition to the batter, which I baked in three thin layers to avoid the hassle of cutting one large cake into even parts. Zest also makes an appearance in the frosting, along with a generous pour of lemon juice. I decided to get even more citrus in by sandwiching the cake layers with lemon curd, but on the advice of the queen of baking — Mary Berry, the former beloved judge of “The Great British Bake Off” (“The Great British Baking Show” to us Yanks) — I mixed it with whipped cream. Only in the course of writing this piece did I come across a line in Ptak’s book recommending the exact same thing. Kismet.
I was slightly more cautious with the elderflower initially, hoping to avoid a cake that smelled and tasted like potpourri. At first I dabbled with St-Germain elderflower liqueur, but I didn’t use enough, and it was too subtle. Next I turned to a lemon-elderflower cordial, which, when brushed several times over the sponge cake tasted — well, tasted what I imagine a warm spring breeze over the garden at Windsor Castle might taste like. I held onto the St-Germain for extra fortification — leave it out if you abstain — in the cake batter and frosting.
Fresh, edible flowers might be the easiest decoration out there. They do all the work for you. Ptak frequently uses flowers, simply but artfully piled around her cakes.
A royal wedding cake might demand something fancier, so I decided to try my hand for the first time at crystallizing flowers. Using the colorful violas, marigolds, pansies and more that I acquired from the District’s Little Wild Things City Farm, I coated individual flowers in egg white and dusted them with superfine sugar. They looked phenomenal, especially when mixed in with fresh ones.
But if a frosted wedding cake seems too daunting to tackle for your watch party, you can certainly dial things back. Berry recommends a classic Victoria sponge, a yellow cake sandwiched with jam, curd, whipped cream or a combination thereof.
The fact that we’re even speculating about a buttercream layer cake is something of a departure from tradition, given that fruitcake is the favored wedding dessert of both British royals and commoners.
“My wedding cake was a fruitcake covered in marzipan with royal icing on top,” Berry recalls.
The wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (a.k.a. Prince Harry’s brother, Prince William, and his wife, nee Kate Middleton) in 2011 featured an eight-tier fruitcake clocking in at 220 pounds and measuring a little over three feet wide and three feet tall. It was made by a team led by pastry chef Fiona Cairns.
That creation is downright modest compared with the cakes of some of the princes’ ancestors. Their great-grandparents, the Duke of York/future King George VI and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later the Queen Mother), had a nine-foot, three-tier, 800-pound cake from McVitie and Price biscuit company in 1923. When the future Queen Elizabeth II and Philip Mountbatten (now Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh), the princes’ grandparents, married in 1947, they, too, had a nine-foot McVitie’s wedding cake, though this one was spread over four tiers. It was the official wedding cake among the 11 the couple received.
Similar to other long-held traditions — wearing a white wedding dress, Christmas trees — the showpiece wedding cake was popularized by a pair of legendary forebears, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, says British food historian Annie Gray. (Many previous royal weddings were small, even private, affairs. See: Henry VIII.) Their 300-pound, nine-foot-wide round cake featured foot-high sugar models of the royal couple . . . wearing togas. Tiers began to evolve with the weddings of Queen Victoria’s children, as did vases of flowers on top. When Prince Harry’s parents, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, were married in 1981, their five-tier cake was topped with roses, lilies of the valley and orchids.
Berry approves of what we know about Ptak’s plans so far. “I think it’s really nice to have a change, and I think the flavors she’s chosen will be delicious,” she says.
“It sounds nice. Nice spring flavors,” Gray agrees. “It feels like California,” where both Markle and Ptak grew up.
Elderflower, Gray explains, has a kind of “winy” flavor to her, not overly floral, with some citrus notes. “It is basically a weed,” she laments. “I spent my whole life trying to eradicate elderflower from the garden.”
“They grow in our hedgerows,” Berry says. “I pick the flowers.” (Now that’s a picture of British charm!) She makes a syrup with a lot of lemon that she uses in a gin and tonic. For non-drinkers, the syrup can be added to sparkling water, or go into ice cream or sorbet, she says.
Berry didn’t have thoughts on what she might be eating or drinking come the big day, but at least one thing is for sure.
“I’ll tune in, and I’ll watch every single thing that happens.”
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