Let Them Eat Cake!

Andrea here, still digesting a very large and very yummy slice of birthday cake from yesterday. Which got me to thinking about when the tradition of birthday cakes came into being. So, history nerd that I am, I decided to do a little research . . .

There are actually a number of online sites that discuss this! Not surprising, one of them is the Sugar Association (a substance dear and dear to my heart!) I confess, I wouldn’t have guessed that ancient Egypt earns credit for the origins of such sweet celebrations. Apparently, pharaohs were “reborn” into a god on their coronation, and so the “birthday” celebration was festive food, including a sweetened pastry called a khak, which was made with flour butter, sugar, nutmeg, vanilla, cinnamon and milk. (it’s still popular today in Egypt.)
Ancient Greece had a tradition of offering a cake on the sixth day of the lunar year to Artemis, goddess of the Moon. It features candles (the first birthday candles!) whose flames represented the glow of the moon. It’s interesting to note that many ancient cultures involved candles in celebrating special occasions. The flames were thought to keep away dark spirits and the smoke was thought to carry requests to the gods.

According to Food & Wine’s website, the Romans baked the first birthday cakes made of flour, nuts, yeast and honey to celebrate the special day—but they didn’t celebrate the birthdays of women until the 12th century! (No wonder the Empire fell!)

During the 1400s, birthday celebrations for children spread throughout the German-speaking parts of Europe. Called kinderfests, they featured cakes called geburtstagorte. And by the 1700s, the cakes began to take shape as elaborate creations decorated with spun sugar and candles—always with one more candle than the child’s age as a symbol of a healthy, happy year to come. (Interesting fact: the first recorded custom of blowing out the candles happened in Switzerland sometime in 1881.)

The most popular style of birthday cake today seems to be a variation of the traditional style of layering cake with gooey frosting that also covers the top and sides—as well as the humble cupcake. But of course, imagination can also wild! I’m sure we’ve all seen some very over-the-top cake designs.

Birthdays in my family were a little outside the norm. My older brother was not amused when my younger brother arrived as a birthday present when he was eight. Sharing a special day with a sibling didn’t sit well. My mother quickly learned that  it was considered unacceptable to bake just one cake and top it with candles that added up to their combined age.  They came to guard their cakes very carefully—I had to specifically ask permission from which cake to cut a slice.

The other oddity was that we never had a traditional layer cake with frosting. My mother stayed with the Swiss tradition of her family in making a mandeltorte, a wonderful moist cake made of ground almond or walnuts, butter, sugar, flour and a splash of kirschwasser. It was baked in two square cake pans and then the two stacked layers had a thick filling of raspberry jam spread between them instead of frosting.  It’s absolutely scrumptious, and signals “birthday” to me!

Another fun family tradition created by my mother, who was a fabulous artist, was that we always made birthday cards rather than purchased them. We have scrapbooks filled with examples from over the years, and they are delightful!

On a last note, I’ll end with another fun historical fact. The song “Happy Birthday” was first published in 1942, and was set to the tune of an early ditty called “Good Morning to All.”

So what about you? Did you have a special type of birthday cake growing up?  Any fun or quirky birthday traditions?

20 thoughts on “Let Them Eat Cake!”

  1. Wonderful, interesting post Andrea! It’s fascinating the things we take for granted without ever thinking about how they came to be. My mother was always baking but funnily I don’t ever remember her making birthday cakes and if she did I don’t remember them.
    I always made a cake for my own children’s birthdays. Nothing too fancy, I wasn’t able to do that, but something that had a quirk just to make the day different.

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    • So glad you enjoyed the post, Teresa. Isn’t it funny how we don’t often think about “iconic” things in life like birthday cakes. I was surprised at some of the facts, but love knowing little arcane details like these.

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  2. I am surprised that the birthday cake has such a long history. That’s what so great about this site. You all supply us with wonderful facts and stories. Thank you.
    In our family we could each choose what type of cake we wanted. Mine was a yellow cake with lemon curd-like filling and a simple chocolate glaze type icing. And we did have the extra candle “to grow on”.
    What I would dearly love is the recipe for your ‘mandeltorte’. When I look it up I find several different versions, none quite like you describe.
    And Happy Birthday. May your year “to grown on” be filled with joy.

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    • Alison, thanks so much for the “extra” candle and birthday wishes.

      I was really surprised by the Egyptian connection. Also, I hadn’t heard of the extra candle tradition, but really like it. How cool that you did that in your family. (Your chosen cake sounds delicious!)

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  3. The first birthday cake I ever received was a cake in the shape of a butterfly when I was in the 8th grade. It had been baked by the mother of a girl who was in my class. I had only been in that school for less than 6 months. It was a wonderful surprise for me. I have always held quite a soft spot in my heart for that girl, her mother and all the other girls who helped me celebrate.

    One of the funniest birthday cake events…..it was a party for my oldest daughter …..she was 4 and there were several small children ready to have cake and ice cream. I had baked a 3 layer cake and that was a terrible idea. When I brought out the cake, the top two layers slid off the bottom layer and landed on the table. Eventually, I scraped it up, and put chunks in bowls with ice cream and not one child complained.

    Thanks for the lovely post. I like the idea of celebrating with a cake for a goddess….just think…..all the word wenches would have a cake in their honor every year.

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    • What a lovely birthday cake memory, Annette! That mother sounds like a very special person.

      And how funny about the three layer cake and its demise. The good news is 4 year olds probably like it more that it was all mashed up. All they care about is the sweet taste!

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  4. I love birthday cake & most things sweet for that matter! It was fun to learn the history. My favorite birthday cake came on my 11th birthday – my birthday is 11/11. I don’t even remember what kind it was but my parents topped it with a Paul McCartney Beatles doll. I was so afraid the candles were going to burn his hair. Of course I still have him – a prized possession!

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    • So glad you enjoyed the history, Jeanne!

      I love your Paul McCartney cake. What a special treat! 11-11-11 was a very cool confluence of dates/age! And your parent were very clever to think of such fun decoration.

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  5. I’m not a huge fan of the traditional layer cake with frosting. Our family is Austrian/German, and my mother and aunts used to made Nusstorte; a flourless nut cake made with walnuts, hazelnuts or almonds. They either put raspberry jam filling between the layers, or you could use a mocha flavored whipped cream as both a filling and a frosting. So good!

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    • Karin, we share very similar birthday cake traditions. I do love frosted cakes , but to me the nut-based cake with raspberry jam is even more fabulous.

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    • Thanks, Anne! One needs very little encouragement to eat cake! The research also made me think about the connection of candles to human celebration, which is a whole other blog in itself.

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  6. First question, Andrea: it’s a day later and you still have the same slice of cake? Shall we credit that to all your time doing research? Thanks very much for such dedication! 😉

    My sister and I got to choose what kind of birthday cake we wanted each year. However, the one I remember most was NOT a success! The year I turned 18, I requested angel food cake with strawberries and whipped cream (still a favorite). My sister decided that the cake should be the colors of the college to which I had just been accepted, so she colored half of the whipped cream blue – very, very bright blue! It was truly dreadful – of course, that was many years ago, long before there were blue M&Ms and blue Jello. She thought it was gorgeous and has never quite forgiven me for scraping off all the blue whipped cream!

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    • Ha, ha, Constance. I had a WHOLE cake, so Monday’s slice was the last remaining sliver!

      That’s a hilarious story about your sister coloring the whipped cream on your birthday cake. It may have looked ghastly back then, but she gets an A+ for thoughtfulness! (We definitely have become more used to crazy colors in food, but I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of all those dyes.)

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  7. A belated happy birthday to you, Andrea! (I’m assuming the birthday cake was in your honor.) And thank you for your post which now has me drooling.
    That collection of homemade birthday cards sounds wonderful.

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    • Thank,s so much Kareni! Yes it was my birthday, so that what sparked the thought of birthday cakes ( yum, yum) and their history.

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  8. Please, please, please share the recipe for a mandletorte as I would love to try it for my birthday this Fall.

    As a history nut I really enjoy reading things like this. It’s so nice to be able to continue learning things even though I’m in my mid 70’s.

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