As I looked over my calendar of days, I puzzled over today’s special day, National Cake Day. I wondered why this particular day was chosen. Today’s proximity to Thanksgiving is the major stumbling block to choosing a day in late November for such a holiday. If it was up to me to select a food item to lionize, the choice might be salad, or some type of fresh fruit. Certainly, the dish would be light and refreshing. Oh well, if we’re going to pack on the pounds, we might as well go for the maximum amount. Right?
Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a generous slice of cake, now and then. You’ve won me over if it’s a Bavarian chocolate cake, baked according to the authentic, original recipe. Carrot cake is near the top of my list, too. Sponge cakes are quite special as well.
Cake, of some sort, has been with us since pre-history. Just where it originated is up for debate. The name, though, is derived from Scandinavian culture. The early Vikings called the food “kaka”.
The very first cakes were simply another form of bread that was prepared with richer ingredients. Some ancient peoples baked the food into a round shape to remind them of the cyclical nature of life. In other cultures, the disk shape was meant to symbolize the disk of the Sun or the full Moon.
Some legends claim that the families of the pharaohs enjoyed a type of honey cake on special holidays. The builders of the pyramids and temples were paid, in part, with barley cakes. Middle Eastern history is replete with references to cakes.
More elaborate forms of honey cakes evolved in the ancient city-states of ancient Greece. It has been debated whether or not cheesecake is a true cake or a pie. Whichever the case may be, various types of cheesecake were enjoyed by the ancient Greeks. They were baked for special occasions like weddings and holidays. Many prosperous families enjoyed them more often. Their conventional grain flour cakes were similar to our pancakes. The sweetened cakes were served for dessert.
When it comes to cheesecake, the ancient Romans developed it to an artform. Some were baked, others were fried, all of them were extremely rich. The grain flour cakes included the use of eggs and some sort of fruit. Apple cakes were quite popular at the dawning of the Roman Empire. In his book of letters Tristia, Ovid mentions the joy of eating his birthday cake during his and his brother’s exile from Rome. This may be the first instance of birthday cakes mentioned in literature.
A more conventional type of birthday cake was baked in the Germanic lands during medieval times. Decorated cakes were enjoyed during Kinderfests, birthday parties for children. The practice of placing a candle on a cake for birthdays originated in old England, the English also proclaimed a toast to the celebrant along with a happy song.
The medieval British enjoyed large cakes, shared during holidays and other special times. Chaucer mentioned the eating of sweet fruits and cakes during large feasts. Those cakes probably contained some sort of berries and were leavened with mead. People of more humble means in England and on the mainland usually ate some type of oat cake.
During the 1700s, bakers began the practice of using well beaten eggs to replace yeast to leaven and add size to cake. We can credit the French for starting the practice of eating a dessert course at the end of evening meals. Cake was one of the most popular dishes served for dessert.
The types of cake we know, today, had their beginnings at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Mass production of cake pans and tools changed the methods of preparation. The availability of refined sugars and the invention of baking soda and baking powder completely revolutionized the nature of cakes. By the 20th century, the invention of modern kitchen ranges, with temperature controlled heating, allowed the baking of cakes, at home, to be more popular.
The next big advance came in late 1930. As a way of utilizing a molasses surplus, the molasses company, Duff and Sons, created the first cake mix for ginger bread. The powder consisted of wheat flour, molasses, sugar, shortening, baking soda, dehydrated-powdered whole egg, ginger, cinnamon, and salt. The home baker only needed to add water, then pour the batter into a pan, and bake it. In 1947, General Mills introduced their own cake mixes. The first “Betty Crocker” flavors were white, yellow, ginger, and spice. The following year, the Pillsbury company brought out the first chocolate cake mix.
These days, cake baking has become another creative outlet for artistically minded people. There are differently shaped cake pans, recipes for those who bake from scratch, plus a wide variety of boxed cake mixes. Bakers enjoy creating frostings and garnishings to make cakes to fit any personality.
The Blue Jay of Happiness excerpts J.K. Rowling from Harry Potter. “Oh, it can’t be a reference to the fact Harry’s a great Seeker, that’s way too obvious. There must be a secret message from Dumbledore hidden in the icing!”