Cakes are one of the most familiar and extraordinary objects of the Western world. There is nothing quite like cake – indeed no wedding or children’s party would be complete without it. Cake can come in many shapes and sizes and indeed there is heated debate over what constitutes a cake, for example is a Jaffa Cakes a cake? How about pancakes or cheesecakes? Or even chocolate covered teacakes? Well the way to tell if a cake is indeed a cake and not a biscuit is that cakes dry as they stale and biscuits soften and this was the defining culinary principle that won McVities their legal battle in 1991 and saw the orange centred delights crowned a cake not a biscuit.
Cakes carry with them tradition and memories and they hold a fascinating history from the Ancient Greeks and Romans, through to the Medieval feasting tables and Victorian parlours to our modern day creations that are as fanciful as our imaginations and ingredients allow. When we talk about cakes today we think of the sweet, soft and spongy creations where lightness is heralded as a virtue, these types of cakes though have the shortest of histories when it comes to the story of cake, because they only really came into existence in the mid-eighteenth century.
The earliest form of cakes would not fit our modern day expectations of cake, indeed were really an ancient version of our modern day oatcake, being flat rounds of crushed, moistened and compacted grains. Indeed we still use the word cake to refer to compacted grains think of rice cakes or even cattle cakes and the compacted cake survived in Britain well into the Medieval period in the form of gingerbread which was again nothing like our modern day equivalent, instead it was made by combining fine breadcrumbs with honey and flavoured with exotic spices such as grains of paradise, ginger and cinnamon. The mixture was often coloured with red wine or liquorice before being pressed into moulds and decorated. It is certain that these ancient compressed cakes served the same purpose of being a treat and centre piece of celebrations, but our modern cakes have two other ancestors porridge, pancakes and bread. The ancient batter of the pancake is not so very different from our raised batter cakes, whilst the enriched fruit pottage of the Middle ages is the precursor to our plum pudding a relative of the Christmas cake.
For a long time the history of bread and cakes is intertwined and cake does not become separated from bread until quite late in history. Today in Britain yeast raised bakes are no longer categorised as cake, but as late as 1861 a yeast raised cake can be found in a copy of Mrs. Beeton’s ‘Book of Household Management’. It is true to say that the most significant progression in the history of cake baking was the removal of yeast as a raising agent and this is the point at which the modern cake emerged but it’s hard to tie this down to an exact date, but in 1700’s recipes for cakes being raised with eggs were emerging and yeast raised cakes were beginning to be designated as plainer and for economy.
The modern cake is finally born when chemical raising agents come into play with the first one being pearl ash a derivative from wood ash which was used in American baking from the 1790’s but sadly it gave a soapy flavour, so it was swiftly replaced with bicarbonate of soda, but we have to wait until 1850 for ‘true’ baking powder to come along. Baking powder is in my opinion the hero of the light and fluffy sponge because it allows for the making of soft and spongy cakes without the need for high proportions of eggs and lengthy beating.
Medieval Ginger Bread
This recipe will produce a gingerbread that bears no resemblance to the modern day name sake, but instead is like the confection that Chaucer’s Sir Thopas in Canterbury Tales brought, here I offer a modern recipe based on period recipes from the 1400’s.
- 1 lb. Runny Honey
- 400g Bread Crumbs – white or brown
- 1 tbsp ground ginger
- 1 tbsp. cinnamon
- ½ tsp white pepper
Spread the bread crumbs out evenly on a baking sheet and bake in a very low oven (110◦C, Gas mark ¼ ) for between 1 – 1 ½ hours.
Once the bread crumbs are baked, remove from the oven and cool.
In a heavy based saucepan bring the honey to the boil and skim off any scum. Keeping the pan over a very low heat, add the spices and then slowly beat in the bread crumbs. Add just enough bread to achieve a thick, stiff, well-blended mass.
Remove from the heat and turn the mixture onto a lightly greased (butter works best) baking sheet. Take a rolling pin & spread the gingerbread evenly out into the tray or if your hands can withstand it you can press it down with your fingertips. Turn the pan over onto wax paper or parchment paper, & tap gently until the gingerbread falls from the pan. Cut into small squares to serve.
Alternatively press the mixture into a well-greased novelty tin or mould as I have done with the Snowman and decorate with icing, crystallised fruit and anything else that takes your fancy.
Victorian Christmas Fruit Cake – as taken and amended from Mrs. Beeton’s Household Management
I have been using this recipe for years, it produces a lighter coloured cake than some recipes that call for brown sugar, but this cake yields a delicious, yet moist cake.
- 1 lb softened butter
- 1 lb castor sugar
- 1 lb sultanas
- ¾ 1lb candied peel
- 2 lb flour
- ½ oz baking powder
- 8 eggs
- Splash of milk
Sieve the baking powder and flour together into a large bowl. Weigh the fruit and candied peel onto the flour.
In a separate large bowl cream the butter and sugar together. Add the eggs one at a time, adding a pinch of flour as you go to prevent curdling. When all the eggs are added slowly add the flour and fruit and stir well to combine all ingredients. Moisten with a splash of milk as required if the mix is too dry. Bake in a well papered and greased tin.
Bake in a preheated oven at 170°c, 325°F for 3-4 hours.
Delicious as it is, but if you like a tipsy cake then you will need to do a little ‘feeding’ of the cake each week before Christmas. This is done by making small holes in the top and bottom of the cake with a darning needle, then spooning over teaspoonful’s of brandy to soak in through the holes and permeate the cake.
A great deal of time has gone into making your cake, you will want to keep it at its best my top tip is that once cooled wrap the cake in a double layer of greaseproof paper and then in double foil. Secure it all with an elastic band, and then keep it in an airtight container until needed.
Wartime Christmas Cake
This eggless fruit cake recipe is adapted from a notebook of a War II housewife. Eggs were strictly rationed and many recipes were adapted without them. This makes a delicious small cake and is the same recipe that I presented on BBC1’s Len Goodman’s Christmas of a Lifetime last year.
- 1 large carrot finely grated
- 2-3 tablespoons of golden syrup
- 3 oz sugar
- 4 oz margarine or butter
- 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
- 1 teaspoon of almond essence
- 6 oz dried fruit
- 12 oz plain flour
- ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
- ½ teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 small teacup of slightly warm tea
- 2 tsp gravy browning
Cook the grated carrot and syrup in a saucepan over a low heat for a few minutes
Cream together the sugar and margarine
Stir the bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar to the syrup mixture and then beat it into the sugar and margarine as if adding an egg, bit by bit.
Add the almond essence and gravy browning
Add the dried mixed fruit
Fold in the sieved flour and cinnamon
Add some of the tea (the batter needs to be thick but moist)
Put the mixture into a prepared tin
Place into the pre-heated oven at 200C for 15 minutes
Reduce temperature to 160C and cook for 45 minutes (cover with parchment if the cake is getting too dark)
If you want to bake cakes in advance and freeze them, then simply wrap cakes in a cloth towel before freezing. The towel extracts the moisture from the baked goods, allowing them to be kept longer in the freezer. The same works with bread!
Whether you are looking to become the next Great British Bake Off contestant, create a series of show-stopping creations or just want to bake a simple cake for immediate eating, cakes have a long and complex history and you may want to reflect on it as you devour the last crumbs of your home-baked delights.