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  • Writer's pictureSarah Franks

The history of cakes!

I’ve always loved to bake, and have fond memories growing up baking with my grandmothers in their kitchens, getting to grips with recipes from their parish church cookbooks. These recipes were rooted in traditional cake baking, and I still use them today for Betty Jane Bakes. These recipes are timeless, passed down from generation to generation and embody all the things we love about traditional, home-baked cakes!

Traditional cakes as we know them now became popularised in the 19th century, but were once quite different. The first type of cakes were baked by the ancient Egyptians, and were very similar to bread, although the Egyptians would not have called this type of baking ‘cake’.

Cake has a long history, with the word ‘cake’ originating from the Vikings as a derivative of the Old Norse word ‘kaka’. The ancient world were big fans of cake, with the Greeks and Romans sweetening their bread-type cakes with honey, nuts or dried fruit. Wealth was linked to how often you could eat cake, and they were often present at banquets.

The earliest cakes across the world were essentially bread, and would include additions that made them more palatable dependent on where you were in the world. The ancient Greeks would create cheesecakes using goat milk, whilst in middle-ages England, Chaucer wrote of the decadent cakes served for special occasions, baked with up to 13 kilograms of flour! The glorious sponge cake, a much loved and traditional cake in Britain actually originated during the Renaissance in Spain (although this type of sponge cake was rather flatter, due to a lack of baking powder, than the traditional Victoria sponge cake we know and love at birthday parties today!)

Food historians believe that the first cakes baked with icing that we recognise most easily today were baked in Europe during the mid-17th century. This change was due to advances in technology and increased accessibility to new ingredients, like refined sugar and icing flavourings. Icing on cakes during this period were not made of thick buttercream, but were more of an icey looking glaze.

Cakes have always been an important part of rituals across the world, from religious celebrations to symbolising the various cycles of life to paying respects to gods in many cultures. Cakes in different parts of the world represent important ceremonies, and many are decorated or shaped depending on the occasion, such as Easter lambs. Whilst cakes today on occasions are the norm and are appreciated, it was once a real luxury and honour to receive a cake as the ingredients of traditional cakes were particularly expensive.

What we consider traditional cakes has changed dramatically over the years, from the ingredients we use to how we cook them, and a traditional cake means something different in every culture. Despite all the differences traditional cakes have across the world, and throughout time, cakes have a consistent message: of celebration, of joy and of sharing moments with our loved ones!

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