The Evolution Of Cake

Where Puddings evolved from the boiling of ingredients in a skin or wrapping, Breads and Cakes evolved from the application of dry heat or baking

Cakes began life in ancient Egypt as round, flat, unleavened breads that were cooked on a hot stone. Their development from crude cakes to what we enjoy today was possible, over many centuries, only through the introduction of new ingredients and technologies.

The Egyptian’s discovery and subsequent skill at using natural yeast helped leaven those once flat cakes. The Romans were great gourmets and cooks and built on that knowledge creating many dishes that are still around in some form today. When butter and eggs made their way into cake dough, their consistency became the precursor for today’s cakes.

Cake making continued to improve, especially with the new ingredients such as chocolate, vanilla and eventually sugar that gradually came to Europe with the discovery of the The Far East, The Indies and The New World.

By the 18th century cakes were beginning to be made without yeast. Some yeast risen cakes survived, such as the Alsatian Kugelhopf and the Bavarian Stollen. The new cakes got their lightness from beaten eggs. But not only did some recipes call for an astounding number of eggs (upwards of 30) they also required long hours of beating.

Unfortunately, this went on until technology caught up with the invention of baking soda in the 1840’s, followed closely by baking powder in the 1860’s. The quality of baked goods would continue to improve over time as ingredients became more refined and of a consistent quality.

Many centuries would pass from the baking of a bread/cake on a hot stone to baking in a hot electric/gas oven. One step along the way to the modern oven was the placement of an oven (a fire-proof box) inside the fireplace that sometimes had a door. Obviously it was quite an art to control the temperature and items were placed in the oven according to their baking times.

Even the early replicas of modern ovens we have today did not have temperature controls. Some women as late as the early 1900’s were still measuring an oven’s temperature by sticking a piece of paper into it and waiting to see how long it took to brown. Or worse yet, they stuck their hand in the hot oven judging the temperature by how long they could leave their hand in the oven.

The lines between a bread and a cake were once almost indistinguishable. The main difference was their shape and the fact that cakes had an added sweetener, usually honey. But over time their differences grew to the point where bread remains a staple food and cakes are now considered as sweets.

The two main types of cakes are foam and butter and the different techniques used to make them. Cake making usually begins by trying a recipe that catches your interest. Whether it is a sponge cake, butter cake, chiffon cake, or genoise doesn’t matter at first.

But as experience increases, definite taste preferences develop. Frustration often results when a recipe doesn’t work or fails to meet expectations. This is when you need to learn techniques and cake types that you can become better at; choosing recipes that match your preferences, avoiding mistakes, and even changing a recipe to suit your own taste.

There are two types of raised cakes:

Foam Cakes

These have a high proportion of eggs to flour. They are leavened solely by the air beaten into whole eggs or egg whites. They contain very little, if any, fat and have a spongy texture.

The three categories of foam cakes are:

1) Those that contain no fat : Angel Food Cakes, Meringues and Dacquoises.

2) Those where the only fat is from egg yolks : Sponge Cakes, some Biscuits and Roulades.

3) Those that contain fat (either butter or shortening) plus egg yolks : Genoises and Chiffons

Butter or Shortened Cakes

These contain fat (butter, margarine, lard, shortening) and rely on a chemical leavener (baking powder, baking soda) for their rise. They are flavourful, and have a good texture and volume.

The Butter cake evolved from the Old English pound cake recipe of 1 lb of flour, 1 lb of sugar, 1 lb of butter, and 1 lb of eggs. The French called the pound cake “quatre-quarts” which translates to four-quarters, meaning ¼ of the recipe is flour, ¼ sugar, ¼ butter and ¼ eggs. The first pound cakes had no artificial leavener and volume was obtained through the beating (aeration) of the batter.

Other examples of butter cakes are the white and yellow cake, coffee cakes, teacakes, and fruitcakes. Some butter cakes are rich and flavourful enough to stand alone (fruitcakes, teacakes) or with a sifting of confectioners sugar or drizzled with a glaze. Others, layer or sheet butter cakes, taste even better with a layer of frosting, lemon curd, jam and preserves, nuts, or even ice cream.

Most butter cakes are prepared using one of three methods.

The most popular of the three is the creaming method. This is the easiest and produces the lightest cake with the best volume.

The one bowl, quick, or blending method is the quickest and easiest cake to make and produces a melt-in-your-mouth texture but it is denser with less volume than a cake made with creaming method.

The combination method is similar to the creaming method but involves whipping the egg whites separately from the yolks and then adding them to the batter.


These have a filling made from cream cheese, cottage cheese or ricotta cheese mixed with cream, sugar, and other flavorings and set with gelatine. The base is generally made from digestive biscuit, ginger biscuit crumbs, finely ground nuts or puff pastry. The texture is generally soft and creamy.

Cheesecake can also be baked. While the base remains constant, eggs need to be added to replace the gelatine. They are best made in a springform tin or shallow tray. The texture can vary from light and airy to heavy and rich, depending on personal preference. Cracks on the surface of a baked cheesecake are a common problem, caused when too much moisture is lost during baking. This is from overbaking which is easy to do as it is difficult to determine when a cheesecake is done. This is because the center (a 2-3 inch circle) of the cheesecake will still be wobbly when done and there is a tendency to want to bake it a little longer. However, even though the center does not look baked, once cool it will firm up and achieve the correct consistency.

Cheesecakes that have no starch in them need to be baked in a water bath at a low temperature. This results in a wonderfully smooth and creamy cheesecake. Some recipes that are not baked in a water bath benefit from placing a shallow pan of hot water on the bottom shelf of the oven to increase the oven’s  humidity.

Greasing the cheesecake tin will also help to prevent the cheesecake from cracking. As the cheesecake cools it will shrink and, if greased, the cheesecake will not stick to the sides, causing cracking.

Recipes to follow . . .

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