Hurrah for my favorite food of all time! My first cake of course was a birthday cake, similar to this chocolate confection. I LOVE good cake. The word ‘cake’ comes from the Norse word kaka. I know – that means a whole different thing in Spanish. But it is related to the Germanic word for cook. Of course cake is called by different names in different languages. The English has borrowed foreign terms to refer to cake such as gateau (French) and torte (German). Although they can be interchangeable, cake is a more general term that covers a broad range of baked goods. Gateaux is usually a highly perishable cake that is often light with fresh decorations, such as fresh fruit and whipped cream. In France, gateaux could also be made with pastry . The English borrowed the term and used it for elaborate sponge cakes layered with cream. The torte is a multilayered and fancifully decorated cake similar to a gateau but generally lasts longer. A torte can also have little or no flour and uses ground nuts or breadcrumbs in its place.
Cake seems to be one item that is always present during a celebratory event such as birthdays, weddings, retirements, even divorce parties! Cakes have always fascinated me and I have a modest collection of cookbooks that I enjoy looking at even if I know I will never get to make all of them. Cakes are works of art and expressions of love and appreciation. It is the climactic element of parties. I have to admit I am not a very good cake baker but I managed to make my husband’s favorite childhood cake which is a sponge cake topped with baked custard with a caramel sauce. I’m actually better at baking bread. But I do have a cousin who is a pastry chef and a childhood friend who is a cake decorator, both in Australia. Ooh, I’m green with envy at their skills! But who cares, the best part is eating cake anyway.
Where did our ubiquitous dessert come from? According to food historians, what we recognize as cake today, began in Europe around the mid-17th century. Prior to that, what was considered cake was more bread-like and studded with fruits and nuts (think Italian panettone or German stollen). Because of advances in kitchen technology such as better ovens, refined sugar and cake molds, the modern cake was born. However, bakers still added aforementioned dried fruits (citron, raisins, currants) and nuts but they also started using frosting that was made of boiled sugar, egg whites, and flavorings. This frosting was more of a glaze that was poured over the cake, then returned to the oven. It created a hard, glossy shell of sugar. I can imagine the crack of the sugar coating. Cutting into those cakes must be really exciting. By the mid-19th century, instead of yeast, bakers were using baking powder and extra refined white flour. Other types of frosting were also developed around this time like buttercream frosting (using confectioners sugar) and boiled icing went out of fashion. The French led the way in the development of elaborate cake creations, headed by Antonin Careme, who is considered the premier historic chef of the modern cake world. (It’s always been my dream to go to France and see a real French patisserie.)
Prior to the 19th century, the practice of eating cake was restricted to the middle and upper classes because of the cost of ingredients. But people still made birthday cakes with what they can afford albeit less rich, fluffy, and fancy. The industrial age made it possible to mass produced ingredients and this made them readily available for average people Because America is influenced greatly by the English culture, feasting with cake became part of our tradition. America has abundant fuel to fire up home ovens and because of the lack of professional bakers, American women became avid home bakers.
I was curious as to what America’s favorite cakes were and I was surprised that there is no top 10 list out there. But according to Martha Stewart, these are the classic American cakes (in no particular order):
- Red Velvet Cake
- Devil’s Food Cake
- Sponge Cake
- Angel Food Cake
- Lemon Cake
- Carrot Cake
- Chocolate Bundt Cake
- Coconut Cake
- Yellow Butter Cake with Chocolate Frosting
- Classic Pound Cake
- Chocolate Vanilla Marble Cakes
- Hummingbird Cake
I don’t know – she seems to have missed quite a few favorites, if you ask me. How about German Chocolate Cake? Or Pineapple Upside Down Cake? Or Strawberry Shortcake? PBS’s The History Kitchen has an interesting list of American cakes throughout history. It includes Washington Cake (a fruit cake), cider cake, kolache, Boston cream pie, monkey bread (?), Kentucky bourbon cake, King cake (for Mardi Gras), sour cream coffee cake, Lane cake, Black Forest cake, molten chocolate cake, among others in Martha’s list. But I still find it lacking. How about Lady Baltimore cake? Lousiana Crunch cake? Texas sheet cake? Food52 also has its own list of 12 recipes that include Election Cake, Indian pound cake, Gold cake with boiled icing, tomato soup cake, and American flag cake. I think Anne Byrn, the Cake Mix Doctor author has the best selection in her book called “American Cake” It has stories and recipes of more than 125 of our best-loved cakes. The book also has a page on Presidential favorite cakes. And I just nabbed a Kindle edition for 99 cents!
Whew! I feel oddly exhausted from listing all those cakes. Did I miss any of your favorites? Please add them to the Comments below. I have to go soon – my husband wants to have some cheesecake and coffee before we head out to church. Yes, I made the pumpkin cheesecake for Thanksgiving and it is fabulous! There’s still time to go and have some cake in honor of National Cake Day. Have a blast! We only live once.
Ayto, J. (2002). An A to Z of Food and Drink, Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.
Byrn, A. (2016). American Cake: From Colonial Gingerbread to Classic Layer, the Stories and Recipes Behind More than 125 of Our Best Loved Cakes, Rodale Books: Emmaus, PA, USA.
Charsley, S. R. (1992). Wedding Cakes and Cultural History, Routledge: London, UK.
Davidson, A. (1999). Oxford Companion to Food, Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.
Robuchon, J. & Montagne, P. (2001). Larousse Gastronomique, Rev. ed., Clarkson Potter: New York, NY.
Smith, A.F. ed. (2004). Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink, Oxford University Press: New York, NY.