Cakes – A “Sweet” History of a Timeless Tradition

Cakes have satisfied many a sweet-tooth over the ages. Did you know that some cake recipes are centuries old?  There are thousands of cake recipes from all over the world; some are more bread-like while others are decadent, rich and very elaborate. Most cakes include some variation of the same ingredients: flour, shortening, a leavening agent, a sweetening ingredient, milk, eggs, and flavoring. Making cakes is easier than ever; even the most amateur of cooks can turn out a perfect cake in no time.

Archeologists have uncovered some early examples of biscuit-like cakes among the findings in Neolithic villages.  They consisted of crushed grains that were moistened, then compacted and more than likely cooked on stones.

The ancient Greeks made cakes called "plakous"The ancient Greeks made cakes called“plakous“,made from nuts and honey. Another Greek cake was the “satura,” a flat, heavier cake. Athenians enjoyed about 66 kinds of bread and cakes; a variety of breads were made for religious festivals and as offerings. Fine Athenian bakery developed because there were advances in economic conditions, political conditions, cultural influences, technology, trade, and an abundance of ingredients.

Libum, the ancient Roman version of cheesecake Libum, the ancient Roman version of cheesecake consisted of cheese, flour and egg, baked on a stone, then soaked in honey. It was often used as offerings to their gods.

Cake is a term with a long history (the word is of Viking origin, from the Old Norse kaka) and denotes a baked flour confection sweetened with sugar or honey; it has a porous texture from the mixture rising during cooking.

a-sweet-history-4Europe and places such where European influence is strong have always been the center of cakes. No other language has a word that means exactly the same as the English ‘cake.’ The continental European gateau and torte often contain higher baba and the Easter kulich proportions of butter, eggs and enriching ingredients such as chocolate and often lean towards pastry rather than cake. Central and East European items such as baba and the Easter kulich are likewise different.

small sponge cakes called kasutera in JapanThe western tradition of cakes applies little in Asia. In some countries western-style cakes have been adopted on a small scale, for example the small sponge cakes called kasutera in Japan.


Cake Molds and Forms

Cake Molds and FormsMid-17th Century

Molds, in the form of cake hoops or pans have been used for forming cakes since at least the mid-17th century. Most cakes were eaten accompanied by a glass of sweet wine or tea. At large banquets, elaborately decorated cakes might form part of the display, but would probably not be eaten. By the mid-19th century the French were including a separate “sweet” course at the end of the meal which might include ‘gateau.’

Cake Molds and FormsDuring the 19th century, technology made the cake-baker’s life much easier. The chemical raising agent bicarbonate of soda, introduced in the 1840’s, followed by baking powder ( a dry mixture of bicarbonate of soda with a mild acid), replaced yeast, providing a greater leavening power with less effort. Another technology breakthrough was more accurate temperature controlled ovens.

In most of NW Europe and North America a well-developed tradition of home baking survives, with a huge repertoire of cake recipes developed from the basic methods. The ability to bake a good cake was a prized skill among housewives in the early to mid-20th century, when many households could produce a simple robust, filling ‘cut and come again’ cake, implying abundance and hospitality.

Although the popularity of home baking and the role of cakes in the diet have both changed during the 20th century, cakes remain almost ubiquitous in the western world. They have kept their image as ‘treats’ and maintain their ceremonial importance at weddings Cake Molds and Formsand birthdays.

Mid-18th Century

By the middle of the 18th century, yeast had fallen into disuse as a raising agent for cakes in favor of beaten eggs. Once as much air as possible had been beaten in, the mixture would be poured into molds, often very elaborate creations, but sometimes as simple as two tin hoops, set on parchment paper on a cookie sheet. It is from these cake hoops that our modern cake pans developed.

19th Century

By the early 19th century, due to the Industrial Revolution, baking ingredients became more affordable and readily available because of mass production and the railroads. Modern leavening agents, such as baking soda and baking powder were invented.



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