Sweetened and Condensed: A Brief History of Cake
"Let them eat cake!". Marie Antoinette said the words, and generations of cake enthusiasts before and since have embraced the concept in a big way. Our love affair with cake is enduring and passionate, our creativity with it seemingly endless.
The history of cake is somewhat convoluted, culminating in a product that is today a far cry from its ancestors. Many believe that the word "cake" is a derivative of the Old Norse word "kaka". This baked confection was made of ground flour, eggs and milk and sweetened with honey. Enjoyed by the Vikings and other Scandinavian cultures, this early cake was almost indistinguishable from what we think of as a biscuit or bun. Which makes sense considering the fact that cakes are, in actuality, sweetened breads
In the area currently occupied by Switzerland, the ancient remains of crude cakes made from roughly crushed grains were found, apparently cooked on hot stones. These unleavened cakes were the precursors to modern-day oatcakes--a transition product between breads and cakes. As bread techniques developed, so, too, did the variations that eventually led to the creation of cakes as an entirely separate category of baking.
In early Roman times, the addition of butter and eggs to baked flour products achieved the finer consistency characteristic of cakes. The Romans were, in fact, the first to create fruitcakes and special occasion cakes containing cream, eggs, spices and currants. Ancient Egyptians sweetened their breads with honey, and the early Greeks even had a form of cheesecake!
Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, bakers started experimenting with higher proportions of butter, eggs and sugar, resulting in the first pound cakes and pastries. In Poland and Germany, favorites such as kulich, rugelach and babka became staples at Easter and Christmas celebrations. These bread-cakes are some of the first to borrow from the Romans the addition of nuts, fruits and sweeteners, making them different from traditional breads and closer to what we now know as cakes.
In the mid-17th century, European bakers started using round molds to shape cakes, and began to create the first stacked cakes for special events. At this time, most cakes were accompanied by sweet wine or tea, but as the concept of the "dessert course" to a meal was still a century away, many cakes were used for display and decoration only!
By the end of the 19th century the French were including cake as a sweet finish to their meals, "Gateau", a rich cake containing layers of cream or fruit, was a common item on the menu.
Cakes took a big leap forward in the 1840's, when French chemist Nicholas LeBlanc invented baking soda, the first chemical leavening agent able to be used in baking. This replaced yeast to give bakers better rise with less effort. Accurate temperature-controlled ovens soon followed, which greatly improved the consistency of cake products, and the control bakers could have over results.
By the time Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, confectioners were making a simple boiled egg white icing to decorate special occasion cakes. Victoria was the first to use this glaze-like coating on her wedding cake, thus earning it the name "royal icing"--a name we still use today!
At the beginning of the 20th century, buttercream frostings using butter, cream, confectioner's sugar and flavorings began replacing traditional boiled icings. Cakes became more decorative and ingredients more refined. Demand for light, fluffy cakes led to the development of cake flour, milled from soft, lower-protein white flour and pre-sifted to create a tender crumb.
Today, cakes come in many shapes, sizes and flavors. But they all share in common one thing--they are sweet, delicious and totally addictive. So enjoy your cake, knowing that each bite is the result of centuries of development by peoples and cultures just as much in love with cake as you are!