I read with interest the news that guests at Prince Louis’ recent christening were served slices of cake from Wills and Kate’s wedding seven years ago. Granted, their cake was a fruitcake, which has alcohol in it so that it keeps better than a standard American wedding cake. But it started me down a wormhole in which I discovered that some people bid on old slices of cake from royal weddings, as in this auction last month that featured slices from the nuptials of Charles and Diana, Andrew and Fergie, and Charles and Camilla, all going for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. The auction house’s CEO stressed, though: “They’re not edible.”
Few of us have attended actual royal weddings (my wedding dress was $50 off the rack at Nordstrom), but many people partake in their own version of this royal ritual: saving the top layer of the wedding cake to pull out a year later for the first anniversary (if the couple makes it that far… fingers crossed!). I did this for my first wedding (yes, I’m divorced, shocking I know; the really sad part is that both of my husbands had/have the same first name, but that’s a whole other story). I remember that the top layer basically dissolved into dust when Brian No. 1 and I tried to eat it. I was really looking forward to it, too (it had a raspberry filling, as I recall), but no dice.
So what did I do wrong? As I am wont to do, I asked a few chefs about the best methodology here. I’m thinking that I probably didn’t wrap the cake layer in plastic tightly enough. Pastry chef Barbara Turner of Butchertown Grocery in Louisville, Kentucky says an air-tight layer is key: “Don’t be afraid to use a lot of wrap. Moisture is the enemy causing ice crystals and freezer burn. When you are ready to eat it that year later, thaw in the refrigerator overnight, then bring to room temp on the counter before serving.” With this method, according to pastry chef Romain Cornu of Spago Las Vegas (who probably sees a lot of weddings), if the cake is “wrapped very tight and frozen, after a year your wedding top layer cake will taste the same as the year before.”
Simon Bregardis, executive chef-bakery at The Venetian Las Vegas (ditto) gets even more specific. He suggests freezing the cake overnight, then wrapping it with plastic wrap as tight against the cake as possible. Then, place it back in the cake box in a freezer and it will stay frozen for a year. When you’re ready to eat it, open the box, remove the plastic wrap, and thaw it overnight in a cooler. “By following this process you can avoid the development of ice that might happened if done not properly.”
Okay, so now we know that we can save the top layer of the wedding cake for a year or longer. But should we? There are a lot of variables here, like how much fruit or buttercream (a perishable substance) is in the cake, and how long it sits out before you freeze it. According to my go-to bacteria expert Erica Smith, former research faculty at Northwestern with 20 years of biomedical research experience, and a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology: “Once the cake is frozen, the bacteria cannot proliferate. The important thing to consider is the time it is sitting out at room temperature. Wedding cakes tend to have lots of fruit, cream, and sugar… so that’s a potentially rich environment for germs to grow. There’s not a high risk of contamination though, unless you have a lot of kids at your wedding sticking their fingers in the cake.”
Well, there’s always that possibility. Not that this will be top of mind for you in the middle of your big day, but you may want to have your caterer or a trusted friend or relative remove the top layer of your wedding cake right after you cut it. Then, says Smith, “I advise freezing the cake as soon as possible (in an air-tight container to avoid freezer burn) and enjoy on your first wedding anniversary.”
I also asked a friend who’s a public health authority, who agrees: “If it wasn’t handled properly before you froze it, then all bets are off… Bottom line: If it was stored when it was already bad, then it will still be bad.” As a public health professional, she pointed me to this list of food storage times, in which very few foods are meant to even be frozen up to a year. Still, she admits that “other people anecdotally told me they do this every time they get married (exact words) and they haven’t died yet.” And the practice still appears to very common, so as long as you take the proper precautions, you should be able to defrost that cake and enjoy on your anniversary with a bottle of Prosecco and a flip through the old wedding photo album.
If the cake lasts that long, though. As my public health friend wisely points out: “This question made me laugh because my first thought was that cake would never make it a year in my freezer—or even a week.”