The icing on the cake

Tot's wedding cake ready to serve at Meroogal. Photo © Scott Hill for Sydney Living Museums

With love in the air for Valentine’s Day and the flurry of ‘yes’ responses to marriage throughout the community, Sydney Living Museums’ Unlocked magazine (circulated to SLM Members) has a strong focus on romantic unions. Unsurprisingly, our interest in weddings turns to celebratory breakfasts and cake.

Tot Thorburn’s wedding cake

Known as ‘Tottie’, Kennina Thorburn, who lived at Meroogal from 1893 to 1945, was renowned for the wedding cakes she made for close friends and family members (recipe below). A copy of her recipe written in Tot’s hand survives in the June Wallace papers in the Caroline Simpson Library and Research collection. June was Tottie’s great niece, and Tot had made June’s wedding cake in 1944. The recipe is headed ‘Winsome’s W. Cake’ and the envelope it is kept in is annotated in what looks like Tot’s niece Helen Macregor’s (1881-1973, of the third generation to live at Meroogal) hand,

Aunty Tots recipe for your wedding cake – it was a beautiful cake (as June’s W. cake was too, the last one Aunty Tot made) – she had made so many for friends and relatives.

The annotation was obviously written after June’s wedding in 1944, however Winsome Barnet (1907-1988), another of Tot’s great-nieces, was married in 1936, to Donald Johnson. So we can deduce that it was being given to another party. Winsome’s wedding cake recipe is the same as the one recorded in one of the ledger books of manuscript recipes in the Meroogal collection which were compiled by Helen Macgregor, dating to around 1910 (below).

Tot’s wedding cake ready to serve at Meroogal. Photo © Scott Hill for Sydney Living Museums

Added embellishment

Recreating the wedding cake for photography was more of a challenge than expected. It is indeed ‘a beautiful cake’ in flavour, and while the one I made is a bit dark around the edges (my modern electric oven bakes a bit quicker than those from earlier times – Tottie would have been using a gas oven, or perhaps even the 1890’s iron range) makes a handsome cake. There is no mention, however, of the cake being iced, which was the style of the day.

Wedding cake. Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery c1892.

A gastronomer’s conundrum

There is no instruction to ice the cake in Tot’s recipe, or in the one transcribed by Helen Macgregor – not even a suggestion of it. Was it simply assumed that a wedding cake would be iced? When given the task of making the cake for photography I didn’t feel it was my place to make that decision, and, apart from not having the skill to make a traditional fondant icing, let alone ornament it appropriately if indeed it was ornamented at all. It is a fanciful hope, but perhaps a photograph might appear from a family member’s archive that will show the cutting of a cake that Tottie made at a wedding, but that is a very romantic notion!

Bride cake. Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery c1892.

Bride cake, or White Icing

If you’re feeling ambitious though, Cassell’s Household Cookery (1909)  does give a recipe for the icing:

ecipe for white icing for a wedding cake, FromCassells Household Cookery 1909_Photo (c) Scott Hill

A useful tip

While researching wedding cakes in published texts, I came across one very helpful tip in an 1890’s edition of Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery, about fruit cake making:

‘[The cake] will improve with keeping – indeed, confectioners do not use their cakes until they have been made some months; and if a cake is cut into soon after it is made it will crumble.’

Once the cake had been photographed, there seemed no reason not to sample it, and sure enough the cake was difficult to cut, and very crumbly. I blamed my cooking skills, but perhaps if we’d left it for a few weeks it would have held together a bit better. This is a good lesson for Christmas cake making, and may be the reason why cakes were made earlier in the year and ‘fed’ with brandy or sherry, adding richness but also to assist with their keeping quality. Interestingly people talk about making Christmas puddings early too (one very old Australian family we know has a tradition of making their Christmas puddings on Christmas eve – for the following year! When the new is hung the old is cut down ready for use), however this is not supported in 19th century cookbooks. But I digress….

Tot Thorburn, 1905. Photographer unknown. Caroline Simpson Library and Research Collection; June Wallace Papers © Sydney Living Museums

A love lost?

Like four of her six sisters, Tottie did not marry. There is  intriguing and ambiguous reference to a Mr Mason (he is not awarded a first name) in Tottie’s diary which implies that he may have proposed marriage but was rejected: ‘I treated him badly I think & felt sorry afterwards’ (27 November, 1892). You can read more about Tottie’s life by clicking on this link to her diaries, or see the article ‘A home of their own’ by Nicole Ison in the current edition of Unlocked.

Tot’s wedding cake recipe (p.2) transcribed by Helen Macgregor, c1910. Meroogal collection © Sydney Living Museums