Christina here. A friend of mine has her birthday today – happy birthday! – so naturally my thoughts turned to cake! Well, the two usually go together, don’t they? Birthdays are a great excuse for baking (and eating) cake and it wouldn’t be a special day without such a culinary treat, at least not to me. Cake can also cheer us up in these uncertain times, so why not indulge ourselves a litte? It made me wonder though – who first hit on the idea of making cake? Time to dive down a research rabbit hole …
I don’t think anyone really knows where cake baking originated, but the first ones were probably more like bread sweetened with honey. Rather than putting the honey on top of the bread, someone decided to put it inside before baking and liked the result. I’m all for that as I confess I don’t like the taste of honey on its own. Nuts and fruit could have been added to make it sweeter (sugar came much later) as that was all they had. We know the Egyptians made special cakes for various feasts, religious ceremonies or for people to take with them to the afterlife. And then the Romans started adding eggs and butter to their bread dough, as well as honey, which gave them a cake like result. They must have brought these recipes to England when they were in control here, but then they left and the Dark Ages came … well, without cake they must have been dark indeed!
Cake isn’t exactly nutritious or necessary for our survival, but it is undoubtedly good for our souls (in my opinion anyway). In the past, the ingredients would have been expensive so it was an honour and a real treat to receive a cake, hence their use only for special occasions. Nowadays cakes don’t cost that much but the symbolic meaning is still there – if someone gives you a cake you feel honoured.
I was inordinately pleased to notice that the word ‘cake’ seems to have derived from the Old Norse word ‘kaka’ – good old Vikings! Funnily enough it’s still called that in Sweden today so at least if I ended up time travelling back to the Viking age I’d know how to ask for something nice to eat. The Latin word for cake though is ‘placenta’ (deriving from the Greek word ‘plakos’ which means ‘flat’) … um, maybe not so nice.
The earliest English cakes were more or less bread, just a different shape (usually round). Something resembling modern cakes was first baked in the mid-17th century when refined sugar became more widely available. Then icing was invented – boiled sugar, egg whites and possibly some kind of flavouring – and moulds/molds (different spelling here in the UK) were used to make little cakes. Many of them contained dried fruits as this would have been the only thing available for most of the year. Our ancestors must have really looked forward to summer time and all the fresh fruit!
Readers of Regency romance may have heard of Antonin (Marie Antoine) Carème, a Frenchman who was the first so called celebrity chef. He invented lots of dishes including modern pastries and types of cake (like Mille Feuille) and, as you probably know, worked for the Prince Regent for a while – no wonder his waist measurement increased! – as well as other famous people.
In the mid-19th century the kind of thing we call cake finally emerged when fine white flour became more commonly available and baking powder was invented. At the beginning of the 20th century butter cream frosting – made with butter, cream, powdered sugar and various flavourings – started to replace the old-fashioned hard glazed kind, and the scene was set for things like cupcakes to be developed. Excellent! If truth be told, I could actually sit and eat just frosting, I love it so much, no cake necessary …
Most people have their own ideas as to what constitutes a good cake. To me it’s something like sponge cake and definitely not the heavy English fruit cake types. Having grown up in Sweden I had never come across these before moving to England and I was absolutely horrified to find my aunt making a Christmas cake in October! I had visions of eating something quite rotten by the time December came around. Although that didn’t prove to be the case, I’m afraid I still didn’t like the result.
I have a very sweet tooth and could happily live on a combination of chocolate, cake and buns. This may be in my genes, as both my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side were master bakers. They owned a bakery in the little Swedish town where I grew up and I used to love visiting as I was allowed to go behind the scenes and help myself to tasty morsels. (This photo was taken around 1915 and the pretzel shape is a type of Swedish cookie known as 'kringla' – sort of like shortbread with sugar on top). Once a year, just before Christmas, my grandmother, mother and two aunts were also given permission to use the bakery to make their annual gingerbread cookies. This was production on a grand scale, using the bakery’s massive oven.
As my grandmother had grown up there, she handled that with confidence whereas it terrified me. (I may have read the story of Hansel and Gretel a bit too often and trust me, that oven was big enough to fit at least six small children!). My cousins and I came along to “help” with cutting out the gingerbread shapes, although in reality we spent most of our time either eating the dough or running riot. It was an Aladdin’s cave with big sacks of sugar, large vats of dough and floors covered in flour that were perfect for sliding on. Quite frankly, I’m surprised our mothers bothered to bring us as we must have been a right nuisance!
I love baking of any kind and often helped my mother and grandmother, who lived in the apartment below ours. In Sweden it was tradition for well-to-do families to have ‘sju sorters kakor’ (seven types of cookie) to offer guests when inviting someone for formal occasions, although we usually considered three enough.
Sweden is also famous for its cinnamon buns, something my mother refused to learn how to make. (It’s a bit fiddly and takes time as you have to wait for the dough to rise twice). I quickly cottoned on to the fact that my best friend’s mother frequently made them and I always made sure I was at her house on cinnamon bun days. Not just so that I could share in the result, but because I loved eating the dough! (Probably not very good for my stomach as it contains a lot of yeast). Now I make them myself and I still eat the dough … I started keeping a diary at the age of 8 and one of the first things I wrote was that when I was a mother myself, I’d give my children buns every day! (Note – of course I didn’t!).
What is your earliest memory of baking? For me it’s those fun pre-Christmas days at the old bakery, or perhaps standing on a stool next to Grandma, watching her make Strassburgare (a type of cookie that’s also bit like shortbread but more delicate – see photo). And yes, you’ve guessed it – eating the dough. And what is your favourite type of cake? Mine is either chocolate or plain vanilla sponge – no dried fruits or alcohol to ruin the taste please!