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The history of cake dates back to ancient times. The first cakes were very different from what we eat today. They were more bread-like and sweetened with honey. Nuts and dried fruits were often added. According to the food historians, the ancient Egyptians were the first culture to show evidence of advanced baking skills. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the English word cake back to the 13th century. It is a derivation of 'kaka', an Old Norse word. Medieval European bakers often made fruitcakes and gingerbread. These foods could last for many months.
According to the food historians, the precursors of modern cakes (round ones with icing) were first baked in Europe sometime in the mid-17th century. This is due to primarily to advances in technology (more reliable ovens, manufacture/availability of food moulds) and ingredient availability (refined sugar). At that time cake hoops--round moulds for shaping cakes that were placed on flat baking trays--were popular. They could be made of metal, wood or paper. Some were adjustable. Cake pans were sometimes used. The first icing were usually a boiled composition of the finest available sugar, egg whites and [sometimes] flavourings. This icing was poured on the cake. The cake was then returned to the oven for a while. When removed the icing cooled quickly to form a hard, glossy [ice-like] covering. Many cakes made at this time still contained dried fruits (raisins, currants, citrons).
It was not until the middle of the 19th century that cake as we know it today (made with extra refined white flour and baking powder instead of yeast) arrived on the scene. A brief history of baking powder. The Cassell's New Universal Cookery Book [London, 1894] contains a recipe for layer cake, American. Butter-cream frostings (using butter, cream, confectioners [powdered] sugar and flavourings) began replacing traditional boiled icings in first few decades 20th century. In France, Antonin Careme [1784-1833] is considered THE premier historic chef of the modern pastry/cake world. You will find references to him in French culinary history books.
People have consumed cakes of all kinds throughout history and at all sorts of ceremonial occasions. In today's world, people traditionally serve cakes at holidays, birthdays, weddings, funerals, and baptisms--in short, at all significant times in the cycle of life. The tradition of eating cake on ceremonial occasions has its basis in ancient ritual. Cakes, in the ancient world, had ties with the annual cycle, and people used them as offerings to the gods and spirits who exercised their powers at particular times of the year. The Chinese made cakes at harvest time to honour their moon goddess, Heng O. They recognised that the moon played a crucial role in the seasonal cycle, so they made round cakes shaped like the moon to reward the lunar goddess, with an image of the illustrious Heng O stamped on top... The Russians traditionally pay their respects in spring to a deity named Maslenitsa by making blini, thin pancakes they call sun cakes...The pagan Slavs were not the only people to make round cakes to celebrate the spring sun. The ancient Celts, who celebrated Beltane on the first day of spring, baked and ate Beltane cakes as a important part of their celebration...At the Beltane festival, the ancient Celts also rolled the cakes down a hill to imitate solar movement. Rolling the cakes, they hoped, would ensure the continued motion of the sun. This activity also served as a form of divination: If the cake broke when it reached the bottom of the hill, the Celts believed that whoever rolled it would die within a year's time; but if the cake remained intact, they believed that person would reap a year's good fortune...Agricultural peoples around the globe made offerings of cakes prepared from the grains and fruits that arose from the soil. The types of ingredients used to make these cakes contributed to their symbolism...The cake's size and shape were equally symbolic of its ritual purpose...round cakes symbolised the sun or the moon...All of these cakes had definitive links to the myths the people embraced."
— VIA: Nectar and Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food in World Mythology, Tamra Andrews, 2000 (p. 52-54) —
Why are cakes round?
Excellent question! Food historians offer several theories. Each depends upon period, culture and cuisine. Generally, the round cakes we know today descended from ancient bread. Ancient breads and cakes were made by hand. They were typically fashioned into round balls and baked on hearthstones, griddles, or in low, shallow pans. These products naturally relaxed into rounded shapes. By the 17th century, cake hoops (fashioned from metal or wood) were placed on flat pans to effect the shape. As time progressed, baking pans in various shapes and sizes, became readily available to the general public. Moulded cakes (and fancy ices) reached their zenith in Victorian times.
"For the cakes of the seventeenth century onwards tin or iron hoops were increasingly used and are mentioned with great frequency in the cookery books. These hoops were similar to our modern flan rings but much deeper...The hoop was placed on an iron or tin sheet, and a layer or two of paper, floured, was put at the bottom. The sides of the hoop were buttered, These or similar directions offer over and over again in E. Smith's The Compleat Housewife, first published in 1727, which gives recipes for forty cakes, the large ones nearly all being yeast-leavened. In her preface this author says that her book was the fruit of upwards of thirty years' experience, so her recipes and methods must often date well back into the previous century, for quite often the reader is directed to bake the cake in a 'paper hoop'--and paper was a feature of the kitchens of those days. Wooden hoops were also fairly common. Some cooks, the seventeenth-century Sir Kenelm Digby among others, evidently preferred them to tin, perhaps because they didn't rust, and so were easier to store. Probably they would have been rather like the frames of our present-day drum sieves. Writing a century after Digby, Elizabeth Raffald calls them 'garths' and advises her readers that for large cakes they are better than 'pot or tin', in which the cakes, so Mrs. Raffald found, were liable to burn more easily. Alternatively, spice cakes were baked like bread, without moulds."
— VIA: English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Elizabeth David, 1979 (p. 212) —