It’s hard to imagine any fancy coffee shop, wedding, birthday party, going-away party, without cake. It took quite a lot of history and a lot of cakes, before we got the smorgasbord of cakes we have today.
Let’s start with the earliest recorded cakes in history, courtesy of the ancient Egyptians. These were more like bread, sweetened with honey with nuts and dried fruit.
Next the Ancient Romans brought us the tradition of wedding cake; they finished their weddings by breaking a cake of wheat or barley over the bride’s head as a symbol of good fortune. Then the couple will eat a few crumbs, and the guests will pick up some more crumbs. Never mind that it sounds like a terrible waste of perfectly good cake.
The actual word cake comes from the Norse word kaka, which entered the English language in the 13th century. Medieval European bakers made fruitcakes and gingerbread that was supposed to last for months.
Among these was carrot pudding, an ancestor of the carrot cake we have now. During the Middle Ages, sugar and other sweeteners were expensive or hard to find in the U.K., so they used carrots as a substitute.
Birthday cakes date back to the 1400s in Germany, where bakeries start selling one-layer cakes made with sweetened dough for children.
By the 17th century, you could get birthday cakes with several layers, icing (a boiled mixture of the finest sugar, egg whites, and flavoring) and decorations, but these were expensive so only the wealthy could afford them. Later, the western hemisphere also got currants and treacle from other countries.
We had to wait until the 1800s for bicarbonate of soda and baking powder, which made it easy and quick to bake a cake that was airy instead of dense.
By the mid 1800s, bicarbonate of soda and baking powder made it much easier to bake an airy cake.
Around the same time, the English developed the rich sponge cake called the Madeira, which was served with the fortified wine of the same name. There’s no wine in the cake, and it did not come from the Madeira Islands.
Later in the 1880s, people started making the airy angel food cake. In 1902, we have the first recorded recipe for Devil’s food cake, which was just another name for red velvet cake. The “devil” in the name may come from the red colour.
The last historically significant cake on our list is the Black Forest cake, which was all the rage in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s. There have been cake-like creations with cherries and chocolate from Germany since the Renaissance and 19th century, but what we know as Black Forest cake today, with the layered chocolate cake, kirsch, whipped cream, chocolate curls, and cherries is a 20th century creation.
Other Important Seasonal Cakes
It’s now a German Christmas tradition, but it started in the 14th century as something for fast (from September to Christmas) because there was no butter or milk – just flour, oats, yeast, oil, and water. More contemplative and basic, unlike the marzipan and fruit stuffed bread with rum we eat now.
This rich fruitcake is less popular now as an Easter treat. It’s topped with 11 marzipan balls to represent the apostles of Christ. Judas betrayed Jesus, and traitors do NOT get marzipan balls in their honour.
It’s a Chinese tradition to eat mooncakes with sweet bean paste and egg yolk for mid-Autumn Festival, which is the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. The legend is that the Chinese used mooncakes to smuggle news of a revolution against the Mongol rulers in the Yuan dynasty.
The ring cake is the signature cake of Norway, and it looks something like a pyramid or cone of almond cakes. It’s a tradition for weddings, birthdays, graduations, and holiday banquets.