For many of us, the offer of cake brings pleasurable expectations of sweet, tender layers with a complementary filling and swirls of cloudlike, fluffy frosting on top. In addition to tasting heavenly, cakes can do wonders for the soul.
Cake, in one form or another, has been part of the world’s culinary landscape throughout recorded history. The earliest types, probably from Egypt, were modified from round disks of bread, a fundamental food. Cake was viewed as a celebratory food offered in gratitude to the deities during religious ceremonies and at annual events like the harvest festival. The cake’s traditional round shape symbolized continuity, the sun and moon, and the cyclical nature of the seasons and life.
The peoples of ancient Greece and Rome added honey, dried fruits, nuts, and spices to their bread-like cakes. Fig, raisin, and honey cakes are mentioned throughout the Bible. More than 2,000 years ago, the Greeks made a prototype cheesecake called plakous (“flat mass”). Baked in honor of the Olympian goddesses, cheesecake was served at the first Greek Olympics Games in 776 B.C.
The Persians infused cakes with rosewater, adding pistachios, cardamom, and almond paste. The moon cakes of China’s Han Dynasty (202 B.C. - 220 A.D.) were made with red bean paste or lotus paste; today, they are likely to be made from Häagen-Dazs ice cream and chocolate.
When did the boundary between bread and modern cake become fixed? The English word cake comes from the Old Norse word kaka, which is still used in Sweden. Vikings who invaded the British Isles spoke the North Germanic language. Cake was often defined as an enriched, flattened, white bread cooked on both sides.
Many British cakes originated from religious festivals and were of vital importance to the church sacraments like Holy Communion. William Shakespeare wrote, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
Cakes evolved rapidly throughout medieval Europe. Sugar was a luxury beyond the reach of the masses. Few homes had ovens, so honey-sweetened dough was carried to the closest bakehouse. Gingerbread was the iconic cake of the Middle Ages; each country produced its own variation. Skilled craftsmen molded it into elaborate shapes and then covered the surfaces with gold leaf.
Early Britons adopted the Roman custom of breaking wheat and barley cakes over a bride’s head for good luck. This evolved into a towering display of spiced buns. Plum or “plumb” cake, which is fruitcake with currants and double icing, eventually became the prevailing wedding tradition. Marzipan-covered fruitcakes coated with sugar icing remain popular today. In 1840, a special type of sugar coating called “royal icing” was created for Queen Victoria’s wedding cake. It is used to decorate many types of cakes through piping, a French innovation.
Elaborate medieval court cakes were gilded with gold leaf, silver, and gemstones. Elizabethan “great cakes” made with 14 pounds of white flour and copious spices were leavened with barm — the froth of fermenting ale. Covered in an opaque glaze, the enormous cakes were a great luxury for the upper class.
Sugar was an expensive rarity for all but the wealthiest Britons. Necessary for making tender cakes, it was viewed as medicine as much as a sweetener. Eating sugar in excess darkened the teeth from cavities, which was considered a status symbol during that time. German visitors to the royal court of Queen Elizabeth I wrote about her blackened teeth from overconsumption.
Cake’s transformation accelerated through the 16th and 17th centuries. Baking molds for cakes were developed as well as boiled frostings. Spanish sponge cake became popular in Europe; Portuguese traders introduced it to Japan, where it was called kasutera. Tea and sugar emerged as a “power couple” and began to keep company with plum cakes, seed cakes, bun-like spice cakes, and gingerbread made with breadcrumbs.
The colonists baked America’s first cakes: golden pound cake, yeast-raised spice cake, sponge cake, and rich plum cake (fruitcake), which became an annual Christmas tradition. English and German gingerbread evolved into a soft gingerbread cake.
After sugar colonies were established in the New World, sugar slowly became affordable for all classes. In 1796, Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery became the first cookbook published by an American. The title page promised, “… All Kinds of Cakes From the Imperial Plumb to Plain Cake Adapted to This Country …” One appealing “receipt” is a buttery Queen’s Cake perfumed with rosewater. Making cakes was laborious work, and they were denser and less sweet than those to which we are accustomed.
American cakes were leavened with yeast (e.g., Election Day Cake) or by whipping air into cake batters and egg whites — no easy task. Martha Washington’s Great Cake required the whites and yolks of 40 eggs to be whipped separately. They were combined with 8 pounds of butter creamed with sugar and 5 pounds of flour, mixed entirely by hand.
Cakes took on new flavors and ingredients in the New World: pumpkin, cranberries, hickory nuts, molasses, huckleberries, rum, and Indian meal or cornmeal. Coconut arrived later and was used to make Coconut Cakes, Lane Cakes, and German Chocolate Cakes. The elegant Lady Baltimore Cake has close historical ties with Charleston, South Carolina.
Cupcakes appeared in the early 1800s; teacups were used as both measuring cups and baking molds. Within a decade, enterprising homemakers were baking cupcake batter in a single, large pan using the formula: one cup butter, two cups sugar, three cups flour, and four eggs. A spinoff from the pound cake, this butter cake would become the basis for the uniquely American layer cake.
Major cake advancements occurred in the mid 1800s with the hand-cranked eggbeater and development of leavening agents. Pearl ash, or potassium carbonate, worked well in heavily spiced cakes that masked its bitter aftertaste. It was soon replaced by saleratus, a precursor to baking soda. In 1856, baking powder became the most reliable form of chemical leavener. Many of America’s favorite cake recipes appeared in recipe booklets published by baking powder companies at the turn of the century.
In 1933, Pittsburgh’s P. Duff and Sons Company was granted a patent for canned gingerbread cake baking mix. The company planned to use up a surplus of dehydrated molasses. Cake mixes took off in the 1950s after homemakers were inspired to “glorify their cakes with frosting” and add further embellishments. During this time, the art of cooking was in general decline and culinary skills were not being passed down from mothers and grandmothers. Novice bakers often couldn’t discern the difference between a “scratch” cake and one from a mix, which did excel in height, lightness, and convenience. Culinary historian Laura Shapiro writes, “Cake mixes have redefined what home baking really means.” The quality of cake mixes is constantly improving, and new artisan mixes with natural ingredients offer superior flavor. Cake mixes can be a boon for people with busy lifestyles.
The basic lineup of American cakes offers endless variations including Tres Leche Cake, Raspberry Chocolate Icebox Cake, Butter Pecan Pound Cake, Salted-Caramel Chocolate Cake, California Grapefruit Cake, Lemon & Elderflower Sponge, Mango Cheesecake, Olive Oil Cake, Crepe Cake, Boston Cream Pie, and Chiffon Cake — an American original. Luscious cakes are made with figs, carrots, prunes, bananas, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, tomato soup, and peanuts (from South America via Africa).
Cakes may retain bread-like qualities or incorporate the best of other desserts: fruits, custards, whipped cream toppings, ice cream, and meringues. They range from a simple one-bowl cake to the sublime. Consider Julia Child’s Le Kilimanjaro, a flaming mountain of ice cream cake.
Modern cake design is becoming avant-garde. Trends for 2020 include naked cakes, which have minimal frosting; hand-painted cakes with which “the spatula is the new paint brush;” and those incorporating different flours, sweeteners, botanicals, and herbs. Thankfully, the resurgence in popularity for baking-from-scratch and vintage recipes continues with an eye toward fresh and local ingredients and international flavors.
Special cakes for momentous occasions symbolize the circle of life. A favorite, anonymous quote reminds us, “Birthdays are nature’s way of telling us to eat more cake!” A birthday cake with a circle of luminous candles glows with the promise of ritual and celebration.
Chocolate Hazelnut Cupcakes
The term “Cup Cake” first appeared in Seventy Five Receipts, a Philadelphia cookbook by Eliza Leslie in 1828. In The Lady’s Receipt Book (1846), she included a cake recipe with grated chocolate and nutmeg. In the 1870s, chocolate frosting was often a cooked “paste” that was stirred into cake batters. Sarah T. Rorer, principal of the Philadelphia Cooking School, stirred melted chocolate into her cake. The recipe, which appeared in her 1886 cookbook, was the first true chocolate cake in print. Nutella hazelnut spread evolved in Italy from a sweet paste of hazelnuts, sugar, and cocoa. It is especially appealing in the filling and frosting of this recipe, but you could eliminate both and spread pure Nutella directly on top of each cupcake for a luscious treat.
4 tablespoons melted butter
1 cup all-purpose flour, spooned into measuring cup
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened baking cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup hot water
1 jar Nutella
Chocolate Hazelnut Frosting
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a nonstick pan for 12 cupcakes; dust with flour mixed with a little unsweetened cocoa; tap out the excess. Use a paper-lined cupcake tin, if preferred. Melt butter; set aside. Put flour into a large bowl; add sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Use a large, sturdy whisk to blend for 30 seconds. In a medium bowl, mix melted butter, egg, buttermilk, oil, and vanilla; pour into flour mixture. With the whisk or a wooden spoon, mix ingredients together until smooth. Add water; stir just until batter is blended. With an ice cream scoop, fill the cupcake pan. Bake 15 minutes or until cakes are firm and test done. After 10 minutes cooling, carefully remove warm cupcakes from pan; cool completely. With an apple corer or small paring knife, remove the center of each cupcake, cutting down about halfway. With a piping bag and a small, plain tube or with a small spoon, fill centers with Nutella. With a larger swirl tube, pipe frosting on each cupcake or spread with a knife; decorate with roasted hazelnuts or Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Place cakes into paper cases before serving. Batter can be baked in a 9-inch pan. Recipe can be doubled.
Chocolate Hazelnut Frosting
1 stick (4-ounces) unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup Nutella
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 level tablespoon unsweetened baking cocoa
2 1/2 to 3 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar, more if needed
Cream or milk, if needed for thinning
In a mixing bowl, beat the first five ingredients, then slowly add confectioners’ sugar; beat for 3 to 4 minutes or until smooth. Thin with a little cream if necessary.
Variation: Chocolate Berry Cupcakes
Bake cupcake batter but omit adding the filling. Make the Hazelnut Frosting with the following changes. Substitute 3 ounces soft cream cheese for the Nutella and omit the cocoa. Beat in 2 to 3 tablespoons blackberry, blueberry, or raspberry puree made by simmering down 1 cup fresh berries with 1/2 cup water for 6 to 8 minutes. Strain mixture and cool.
Mocha-Toffee Cream Cake with Fresh Berries
Like a European torte, this cake is layered with a luscious filling; in this case, it is a cheesecake-soft mixture with crunchy English toffee. This is a great way to use up extra cake whether sponge or chiffon layers or even sliced pound cake or angel food cake. Skor bars are a crisp butter toffee, similar to Heath Bars.
1/4 cup sugar mixed with 1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons each, brewed espresso and dark rum
1 (8 ounce) softened bar cream cheese
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 8-inch round cake layer, sliced in half (if larger, trim to fit)
3 Heath Milk Chocolate Toffee Bars (or 15 miniatures) or Skor Bars
To make flavored syrup, simmer sugar and water in a small pan until nearly reduced by half; stir in espresso and dark rum. In a mixing bowl, beat cream cheese and confectioners’ sugar until soft and smooth. Slowly pour in cream, beating only until mixture begins to look thickened. Scrape down the pan well and add vanilla; continue beating a few seconds until soft and billowy. The cream thickens very quickly; watch continuously. (If overbeaten, gently stir in extra cream by hand.) Snugly fit 1/2 of the split cake layer over the bottom of an 8-inch springform pan, cut-side up; brush with 1/2 of the syrup. Spread 1/2 of the filling over the top; sprinkle with 1/2 of the candy. Top with the second round of cake; brush with syrup. Top with remaining filling. Cover and chill 8 hours or overnight. Garnish the top with remaining chopped toffee candy.
Options: Scatter berries between the layers. Frost the top with lightly sweetened whipped cream; decorate with berries or chocolate curls.
Chocolate Raspberry Icebox Cake
Icebox cake recipes appeared when electric refrigerators began to replace the icebox during the 1920s. They were easier to make than the popular 19th century molded Charlotte with Bavarian cream and ladyfingers. National Biscuit Company, known as Nabisco, popularized the icebox cake in 1924 when it introduced Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers with a recipe that still appears on the package. Cutting the cake at a 45-degree angle reveals zebra-like stripes of chocolate and cream. Icebox cakes are endlessly adaptive to 21st century ingredients and flavors. In the variation, use three or four Champagne (Ataúlfo) mangoes. They are smaller with a superior flavor and texture; purchase during the spring and summer.
1/4 cup quality raspberry preserves
1 tablespoon orange liqueur or orange juice
3 cups heavy cream, divided
1/2 cup, plus 3 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar, divided
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract, divided
1 (9-ounce) box Famous Chocolate Wafers
Garnish (optional): mixed fresh berries
Combine preserves and liqueur; set aside. Whip 2 cups heavy cream with 1/2 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Separate cookies into four stacks of 10 each. On the first stack, spread about 1 tablespoon whipped cream on one side of the first cookie and about 1/4 teaspoon raspberry mixture on the other side. Continue the process as you stack the 10 frosted cookies. Lay the stack on its edge to chill; prepare the remaining three stacks. Place four stacks on a platter to form the cake, 10 cookies wide and four stacks long. Cover and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight to soften. (Or freeze on a parchment-lined baking pan; transfer to a platter to frost and serve.) Whip remaining cup of cream, sugar, and vanilla, then frost the cake, saving a little to pipe around the top edge. Decorate the top with berries.
Adapted from Susan Slack’s recipe in Ladycom Magazine, Washington, D.C.
Variation: Mango Crème Cake
Line the bottom and sides of a 9-inch square pan with parchment, leaving a 1-inch overhang on each side. Arrange six or seven whole, plain, or cinnamon graham crackers (4-3/4 by 2-1/2) in the pan, breaking, as necessary, to fit. Whip 1 3/4 cups heavy cream to soft peaks, then beat in 3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk or sweetened cream of coconut, 1/4 cup sour cream, and 1 tablespoon dark rum or zest of 1 lemon. Spread 1 cup cream mixture over the crackers; top with about 1 cup diced fresh mangos. Repeat the process two more times, layering crackers, cream filling, and mangoes. Cover and refrigerate overnight or freeze; serve chilled or frozen. Lift frozen cake out of the pan before cutting into squares. Fresh raspberries, toasted coconut, or sliced almonds can also be scattered over the top.
Rose & Almond Cake
This delicate almond cake is reminiscent of the 19th century Lady Cake that was popular with brides and eventually replaced fruitcake as the traditional wedding cake. If rose geranium leaves aren’t available, you can add a few drops of quality rose water (Nielsen-Massey) to the batter or flavor a thin glaze made with confectioners’ sugar for coating the cake’s surface. Rose water is an elegant steam distillate from highly scented rose petals; use sparingly. This is the signature cake in my book Cooking With Grains (HP Books).
1 cup soft-wheat flour (unbleached cake flour or White Lily)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup soft almond paste, crumbled into pieces
1 stick (4-ounces) quality, unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup fine sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream, room temperature
2 small rose geranium leaves, rinsed, dried, minced
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Using shortening, grease well and flour a 2-quart decorative baking pan with a tube or a glass loaf pan. Sift together flour, soda, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In a mixing bowl, beat almond paste with butter until smooth. Gradually beat in sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat 2 minutes more until thick and creamy. Add half each of the sour cream and the flour mixture. Beat on medium-low until flour is incorporated. Add remaining sour cream and flour; beat just until batter is blended. Stir in geranium leaves, if used. Scrape batter into the prepared pan. Bake 30 minutes; reduce heat to 300 degrees F. Bake 20 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool 15 minutes; turn cake out of the pan while slightly warm. Cool completely; dust with confectioners’ sugar or coat with a thin glaze, if desired.
Ed’s Favorite Pound Cake
Pound cake is one of America’s oldest and most treasured cakes. This moist cake is from Ed Wimberly, a local physical therapist whose full-time hobby is baking — he even baked his children’s wedding cakes. Ed learned to cook from his mother, who taught him as soon as he could stand on a stool to reach the stove. Through the years, he has experimented with ingredients to create different flavor profiles for this cake: coconut, banana, flavoring extracts and oils, pumpkin spice, streusel, chocolate chips (“dust with flour; fold in at the end”), and eggnog. Ed says dark brown sugar adds additional moisture and character. Weighing ingredients will give the most accurate results in baking.
4 sticks (2 cups) quality butter
3 1/2 cups unbleached cake flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 pound light brown sugar (2 1/3 packed cups)
5 large eggs, plus 1 large yolk, room temperature
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup whole buttermilk, room temperature
Preheat oven to 320 degrees F. Butter and flour your favorite tube cake pan; set aside. (Wrap the exterior of a two piece angel food pan with foil or place pan on a baking sheet to catch any leaks.) Melt the butter and allow it to cool to a warm liquid. Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Mix the sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer, slowly adding in the butter. Pour in the eggs, little by little, beating until smooth. On low, beat in flour in about three portions, then add vanilla and buttermilk. Blend about 30 seconds more. Pour into the pan and bake up to 1 hour and 20 minutes or until a toothpick placed in the thickest part of the cake comes out clean. (Check cake after 50 minutes; cover top loosely with foil if browning too quickly.) Cool, and then turn cake out of the pan. Serve plain or frost with a frosting of confectioners’ sugar, molasses, and cream.
Note: Ed’s recipe has been slightly adapted for this article. The baking time can vary from 1 hour to 1 hour 20 minutes depending on the material of the pan and the temperature of the oven. The sides of the golden brown cake will just begin to pull away from the pan when done.