Edible History: The story of cake
Although cakes have evolved from earlier bread-like creations to the sumptuous buttercream-covered cakes we know today, they have nevertheless always been special.
Cakes have not always looked the way they do today; they were originally more like bread, and were sweetened with honey. Nuts and dried fruits were added, depending on whether the baker had them (they were rather precious ingredients and were not always easily available). Although the word cake is derived from the old Norse word ‘kaka’, the first culture that showed evidence of advanced baking skills were Egyptians.
According to food historians, the precursors to what we now know as cake (round cakes with icing) were first baked in Europe in the mid-17th century. Having access to more reliable ovens and ingredients such as refined sugar spearheaded the evolution of cake. Early icing on cakes was likely a combination of fine sugar, egg whites, and flavourings, all boiled into an icing blend that was poured on the cake. The cake was then returned to the oven and when it was removed the icing would set ‘like ice’. In the 20th century, particularly in the first few decades, buttercream frosting (butter, cream, confectioners sugar, and flavourings) became more common, and eventually more or less edged out the old-fashioned boiled icing.
Cakes and breads were used widely in ancient religious ceremonies; they were baked and offered to the gods. Symbolism was, therefore, important. Round cakes symbolised the cyclical nature of life, the sun and the moon, or were often symbols of fertility. Cakes were sometimes baked in moulds that celebrated a particular occasion — animals to celebrate spring, lambs to indicate Easter, and crowns or castles for coronations.
Early cakes, however, were almost always round. This was because they were shaped into round shapes when they were more bread-like, and they were baked on hearthstones, griddles, or shallow pans. As they baked they relaxed into a circular shape. Before the onset of moulds, however, cake hoops were made from metal or wood, and they were placed on flat metal sheets. The sides of the hoops were buttered and then the cake mixture was carefully poured into the hoops; the sheets were then placed into ovens in their entirety so that the cakes could bake.
Cakes have always been served on special occasions because they have always been special. Ingredients for cakes have not always been commonplace; at various points throughout history they have been dear or hard to get. Therefore cakes represent our best culinary offering to people we love. Although ingredients for cakes are easy to come by now the underlying message behind cake remains the same — that a person is special and much loved.