From the simple chocolate bar or piece of pie to the more elegant creme broule or tiramasu, most of us delight in the flavor, sensation and indulgence that sweets provide. We all have our own personal favorites, but overall, one of our most beloved sweets is cake.
The old adage says, "You can't have your cake and eat it, too," but we seem determined to eat it again and again -- in fact, we're rarely without an occasion to eat cake. In the morning? Coffee cake -- that warm, sugary, cinnamon-covered, raisin-filled confection -- goes oh-so-perfectly with a cup of coffee or tea. Afternoon or evening? Cake makes a yummy midday snack, and a delicious conclusion to the evening meal. It has become so ingrained in our celebrations and holidays that we can hardly imagine a get-together without it. Birthdays. Graduations. Weddings. In February, many bakers take to the kitchen to prepare a sweet treat for their Valentine. At Easter, coconut-covered cakes with clusters of colorful jelly beans are a popular addition to the holiday table. When the strawberry crop comes in, it's time for angel food. And at Christmas, we have fruitcake. It's hard to name an occasion that doesn't have cake associated with it.
But if you like cakes, you know there's nothing like a real cake -- the kind made with a little bit of time, a lot of love, and carefully chosen ingredients. In other words, the kind of cakes that Grandma used to make. You may think there's no such a thing as a "bad cake," but until you've savored a cake made from scratch, you can't really know how good a cake can be, either. (And it takes only a little more effort than making one from a box.)
Cakes are so popular, in fact, that you can find them virtually anywhere. In the grocery store, the baking aisle offers cake mixes and, down a few other aisles, there's a variety of frozen cakes. The store may also have a bakery with a selection of decorated and ready-to-eat cakes. All over town, cakes are sold at bakeries, restaurants, coffee shops, and delis -- you can even find cake in snack-packs at the gas station.
In the beginning . . . there was cake
Ever wonder why a cake is usually round? Some think it has to do with its origins, when cake more closely resembled bread. Grains were crushed, moistened, mixed together, compacted, and formed by hand. The end "cake" was round, the same shape today's homemade breads take while they're in the rising process. It's believed that these simple cakes were then cooked on a hot stone.
These cakes may have been made as early as the last period of the Stone Age, based on evidence that archaeologists have discovered in the remains of Neolithic villages. Later, ancient Egyptians developed ovens, which offered a far more reliable method of baking. The Greeks introduced cakes, called "plakous" (which means "flat") that were generally a combination of nuts and honey.
In the Roman period things really started cooking -- or baking, as it were. The Romans "satura," or flat, heavy cakes, featured ingredients such as barley, raisins, pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, and sweet wine. Another popular cake of the time was "libum," the predecessor to the modern-day cheesecake, which was primarily used as an offering to the gods. (Jupiter evidently wasn't a calorie watcher.) In the latter years of the Roman Empire, yeast was introduced to cake-making, as well as butter, cream, eggs, spices, and sugar.
The evolution of cake continued during the Renaissance period, when Italians introduced "biscuits." Food historians consider these to be the first sponge cakes, although these thin, crisp cakes probably resembled a cookie more than a cake. In the mid-18th century, beaten eggs replaced yeast as the leavening agent of choice, and cakes were poured into molds or shape-setting hoops -- early bakeware which set the stage for today's cake pans.
In the middle of the 19th century, when meals began to be served in courses (rather than having a variety of food dishes brought to the table at once), cake claimed its place as a dessert. Through the years, regular accessibility to ingredients improved. Baking soda and baking powder were introduced as leavening agents. Ovens got better, resulting in more uniform baking. Hand mixers replaced whisks, and then electric mixers replaced hand mixers. Today, we have an even wider range of labor-saving devices at our disposal, ranging from high-tech mixers and food processors to air-cushioned, non-stick bakeware that claims to distribute heat more evenly and prevent burning.
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» Introduction & History of Cake
» The Importance of Ingredients
» Baking Preparation is Key
» Baking Terminology
» Tips for Perfect Baking Results
» Finishing Touches - Frosting & More
» Our Favorite Cake Recipes