The History of Cake
Most of us have little interest in where the delectable cake came from, but are simply interested in savoring our favorite flavor of delicious cake. Cake, however, comes with a long and colorful history; originally it was a baked flour confection, typically sweetened with honey, and mixed with milk and eggs. The advent of flour allowed cake to become a yummy desert, although the distinction between cake, bread, biscuits and buns, was a little blurry for many years. Certain Roman breads, which were enriched with eggs and butter approached a cakelike consistency, but were not as sweet as our present-day cake. Even so, the term “cake” was often used for small breads which were make from crushed grains and cooked on a hot stone. Today we would call a food of that sort a biscuit or type of cookie with very little sugar.
Cakes from Other Cultures
The Greeks designed a type of flat cake called a “plakous” which combined nuts, fruit and honey-something akin to our Christmas fruitcakes. This cake, as well as their second type of cake, known as “satura,” were both flat, heavy, sweet, and typically served as a special treat for an out of the ordinary occasion. The Romans gave their version of cake the rather unfortunate name of “placenta,” and typically offered these cakes to the gods. Placenta cake was something like a cheesecake, baked on a pastry base, or sometimes inside a pastry case and was also a fairly heavy cake. The Britains had their input as well, and Chaucer mentioned huge cakes made for the most special occasions using flour, butter, cream, eggs, spices, honey and currants or raisins. The mid-19th century saw France offering up a separate sweet course at the end of the meal-dessert-which included a form of cake known as “gateau.”
As the years passed, bread and cake remained fairly interchangeable baked goods, although cakes were smaller and were baked for special occasions using more expensive ingredients–meaning wealthy people were much more likely to eat cake than the less economically blessed. Sometime in the 18th century, yeast was no longer used to make these bread/cake concoctions, and beaten eggs began to be used. Keep in mind that there were no electric mixers during this era, so as much air as possible had to be beaten into the cakes, which were sometimes poured into elaborate molds, but more often poured into two tin hoops set on parchment paper on a cookie sheet-and the cake pan was born!
The cake baker’s life became much easier with the initial advent of soda, then later baking powder-both substances which replaced yeast and required much less effort. The 1840’s brought the temperature controlled oven-what a luxury for bakers! Around this time bakers started decorating cakes, mostly with rolled fondant. Around 1929 Wilton Enterprises began to advertise cake decorating classes, which caught on and were immensely popular. By the 1960’s the Wilton cake decorating method was the gold standard, widely used throughout the United States. Through the years cakes have kept their “treat” image and are most often seen in the western world, where we use them to celebrate pretty much anything, but especially birthdays and weddings.