Most of us enjoy a delicious cake, tart or flan as a special treat - but do we ever stop to consider the history of our favourite baked goods? It's worth looking back to find out how cakes came into being!
What are cakes made from?
An insight into the history of cakes is provided by looking at the ingredients involved. Most cakes are made from a combination of flour, a form of butter or shortening, a sweetener - such as honey or sugar, milk, eggs, a rising agent and a certain flavouring. There are many thousands of cake recipes from across the world which use variations of these ingredients and many are very ancient and associated with traditions and holidays - such as Christmas cake in England and America and stollen in Germany. Even modern recipes such as mince pies (not strictly a cake, but treated as one under the category of 'delicious baked treats'!) were preceded by ancient medieval recipes which combined meat mince and spices in a pastry crust and cobnut ties.
In fact, for a long period, cake and bread were used as interchangeable descriptors, with cake primarily being used to describe smaller sized breads. Remains of these foods have been found dating back as far as Neolithic times, where simple 'cakes' were created from crushed, moistened and compacted grains which probably would have been cooked on a hot stone. Today's equivalent would be the oatcake!
The Greeks and Romans
The Greeks called cakes 'plakous', which derives from the word denoting something flat. Their creations tended to feature honey and nuts and where naturally heavy and filling.
Romans called their cakes 'placenta', deriving from the ancient Greek and also 'libum'. These ceremonial recipes were generally used as offerings to the gods. Placenta cakes were akin to today's cheesecakes and baked into a pastry case or base.
Into later periods, cake recipes evolved with more fruits and sweeteners, along with spices as these become more widely available. They tended to be used for special occasions, due to the expense of the ingredients. For this reason, cakes were a status symbol for the rich, who liked to be able to show how frequently they could afford to eat them. By the mid eighteenth century, yeast had been replaced with eggs as a raising agent and cake hoops were being used to shape the creations - linked with our modern cake moulds and pans.
In America and Europe, cakes became a sign of wellbeing and many regional varieties were developed. By the nineteenth century, the ingredients were becoming readily available and more affordable, with baking soda coming onto the market. Cakes started to become hugely elaborate and a sign of creative cookery, with rich icings, colours, shapes and ingredients that really embraced the experimental.
Today, after an interim period of industrialised and processed cakes in the eighties and nineties, people are returning in droves to their kitchens to embrace this most traditional, homely and enjoyable pastimes again - baking their own favourite cakes and devising their own new family recipes! If you've yet to enjoy the pleasure of cake-baking, gather up some quality CS Catering Equipment, ask your granny for a traditional recipe, or visit an online forum for discussions and tips. You may well never buy a commercial shop-bought cake again!