To misquote Monty Python what have the Ancient Egyptians ever done for us?
Well, they’ve given us cake for a start! Roman and Greek history records cake-making but according to food historians it’s the early Egyptians who were the first skilled bakers.
We’ve come a long way from there; what the Egyptians – and even mediaeval Europeans – called cake wouldn’t be recognisable to us as such today.
Although the Egyptians wouldn’t even have called it cake; that’s a word that has been used in Britain since the thirteenth century, and is a derivation of the old Norse word, kaka.
First CakesThe first cakes bore a strong similarity to bread. The Romans sometimes added egg or butter, and sweetened the dough with honey, sometimes including nuts or dried fruit.
The richer you were, it seems, the more often you could eat cake, and they frequently formed part of banquets. In 14th century Britain, Chaucer writes of immense cakes made for special occasions. He records one that was made with 13 kilograms of flour and contained butter, cream, eggs, spices, currants and honey.
A prime feature of a cake was its shape: round and flat. Shaped by hand into a ball, the dough naturally relaxed out to a circular shape. By the seventeenth century, cake hoops were being used to cook the cake. Made of wood or tin, these ensured the cake kept a neat round shape.
Cake in RitualAround the world, cakes have played a central role in people’s worship and rituals, with the circular shape symbolising the cyclical nature of the seasons and life. The Chinese offered up round cakes at harvest time to honour their moon goddess, Heng O; Russians traditionally made blini, thin round cakes, to pay their respects to a god; and the ancient Celts, on the first day of Spring, rolled cakes down a hill hoping to persuade the sun to keep on rotating.
Even today, at any special event, there is likely to be a cake of some sort involved in the Celebration, but now let’s get back to how the flat bread-like cake evolved into today’s Victoria Sponge.
Giving Cake a RiseWhile yeast was the prime raising agent at first, it was in the middle of the nineteenth century that a discovery was made that changed how cakes were made, how they looked and how they tasted.
Alfred Bird, a British chemist, introduced an improved type of baking powder, a mixture of bicarbonate of soda and an acid, as a raising agent in the place of yeast. This allowed for greater leavening with less effort, and this, combined with an improvement in temperature accuracy and constancy in ovens, meant that cake baking really took off – even if it was in slightly different directions depending on country!
Around The WorldIn Britain, cakes have a wholesomeness about them; they’re satisfying. Simple ingredients are taken and combined to make something yummy and, usually, quite substantial. On the other hand, the French word, gateau, suggests a much lighter cake, often filled with cream (or more likely crème patisserie) and fruit, very beautifully decorated and presented. Other European cakes tend to be along similar lines or richer, like Sachertorte, or more Pastry-based. While ‘home-made’ is a prized label in Britain, our European counterparts are more likely to sing the praises of the local patisserie.
Further into Eastern Europe the cakes are darker, spicier and fruitier, while the Far East has very little tradition of cake-baking.
America took cake baking to its heart and has a fine tradition that blends home-made (like brownies) with fancy (like frosted devil’s food cake).
Changing TrendsThe ability to make the lightest of sponges or the most delicious Fruit Cake was one of the prized virtues of a housewife for the first half of the twentieth century. Then the Sixties’ brought women’s lib, ushering in a different era, where women left the home to go out to work leaving little time or inclination for home baking.
But things, as we said earlier, tend to be cyclical. Eating healthily – and knowing what’s in what we’re eating – is valued more than ever today. And, as anyone who has ever come home to a warm kitchen and the smell of a cake baking will tell you, ‘Nothing beats a home-made cake!’.