25 APRIL 1992, Page 40

. . . or let them eat cake

Alice Thomas Ellis

On the back of Wedding Cakes and Cultural History is posed the question 'Why do we have wedding cakes?', followed by `What do they mean in social and cultural terms?' Then comes the statement: 'The wedding cake is one of the most extraordi- nary of the familiar objects of the Western world.' For a moment this gave me the feeling you get when you 'figure out the meaning of the universe in a dream and when you wake up all you can remember is that it's got something to do with a shoe box.

I began to deny the assertion before reading further. No it's not, I said. There are much odder things. The objets d'art they advertise on the backs of the Sunday papers' magazine sections, for instance, the

TV AM building in Camden Town, aero- plane meals, water-beds for pets ... the list is quite long really. But then I turned to The Cake Bible and began to revise my opinion. It is not only the wedding cake which is extraordinary. There is something slightly strange about all cakes — for one thing, you get the impression that you're not supposed to eat them. Some of them are so elaborately gorgeous it feels like vandalism to take a knife to them, and few of them are very good for you. Even before our own health-conscious times, when afternoon tea was an institution in genteel homes, ladies always protested before per- mitting themselves to be pressed to a second slice: 'Oh no, dear, I mustn't — but it's so delicious. Perhaps just a teeny-weeny bit; These days it's amazing that people are allowed to make them at all, let alone write books about them — all that bleached flour, sugar and fat (there are cakes for the conscience-ridden, but they're not usually very nice) — and even more startling to realise but there is a vast move- ment devoted to the making and decorat- ing of cakes.

I know this because I was reading Wedding Cakes and Cultural History on a plane and a lady advanced upon me with greetings and signs of recognition as of one

member of a masonic-type sect to another. She spoke with fervour of sugarcraft and meetings and competitions, and I didn't dare tell her I only knew how to make one sort of cake and I hadn't done that since M & S started producing their own. It seems to be a branch of cookery, an art form, quite separate from any other, with guilds and sisterhoods and goodness knows what, and is very big in Australia and the USA. I know this because I asked Janet if she was aware of the movement and she said, Yes, of course she was.

Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of The Cake Bible, a slender and serene-looking American lady, is clearly a master of the craft. Maida Heather in a foreword says that her 'Wedding cakes, Celebration cakes . . . are splendid, breathtaking, dramatic, exquisite, memorable works of art'.

Crumbs — if you'll pardon the expres- sion. I found her book quite daunting. On page five she gives details of the difficulties encountered by the baker at high altitudes: 'Problems with cake-baking usually begin at over 3,000 feet.' She advises us that because sugar is hydroscopic we would do well not to make royal icing, meringue or dacquoise on humid days, and includes a dissertation by a friend on the beating of egg-whites which made me want to go and lie down. As for the Triple Chocolate Cake and the method of assembling it, well! the photograph of this masterpiece has been enlivened by what look like some spilled baked beans. But I expect I'm just showing my ignorance here. This is serious cake-making, and the book is reminiscent of those Victorian cookery tomes which would insist on telling you all about the albumen content of your leg of mutton and what boiling was likely to do to it. You don't really want to know unless you're going to sit an exam on the subject. However, I do not think The Cake Bible is aimed at the harassed housewife, but at the aspiring artist. It is very thorough.

For light relief I turned back to Wedding Cakes and Cultural History, and found it

most entertaining, full of anecdote and historical asides and not, as I had feared, an unleavened work of anthropological deconstruction or whatever. The author does mention Mary Douglas and her theory about the place of the biscuit in the world order of things, but only politely to dismiss it. After the dizzyingly meticulous instructions of The Cake Bible it was refreshing to read the spice cake recipe of one Markham (1615):

. . then rub it well in the thing you knead it in and worke it thoroughly: if it be not sweete enough, scrape in a little more sugar, and pull it all in peeces, and hurle in a good quantity of currants ...

Mrs Beranbaum would undoubtedly frown on this lighthearted approach, and to be fair, I must admit that I would greatly prefer any of her cakes to Markham's as long as I didn't have to make them myself.