Cake History Month 1: What is cake, and why is it important?

Cake, cake, baby

At its most basic definition, a cake is a sweetened dessert bread that is cooked. It’s more than a bread, which can be simple or complex in its own ways, because of the addition or refinement of ingredients, including sweeteners. Cake is different than some other desserts because of the preparation, which begins with a liquid-and-flour batter and often includes baking in a medium heat oven.

Cake is not congealed, frozen, candied, brittled, or eaten raw. Cake is not a new invention either; it arrived on the culinary scene somewhere close to the discovery of breadmaking, way back in prehistory. And cake is not an American product. It’s not a European invention. It is not a Western dessert. It is, at its heart, a global food, a worldwide celebration of bountiful harvests, or pious devotion, or shared moments of love, and loss.

To talk about cake is to talk about the history of cooking and food production, cornerstones of civilization which hold up all of human society. An exploration of cake reveals the history of us all.

Order a La Brioche (Cake) 1763 by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin

So, that’s “what” cake is, and why it’s important. For me, I think it’s the best way to start the conversation I wish more writers had: how do you look at something as ubiquitous as food and build a world around it? Because you need to, whenever you write, wherever you’re writing about. Food and food production literally make empires, force migration, and start wars. Food made us.

And if we’re going to talk about it, why not start with dessert?

This month, we’re going to look at the earliest known recipe for cake, and what it would have taken to bake them at that time. We’re going to follow the evolution of cake through the centuries, and watch as it travels the globe, becoming the sweet treat we know and love today. Cakes will rise, recipes will change, and dessert will be shaped by war, politics, and pop psychology. By the end of the month, if you’ve read along with these posts, you’ll arrive at the middle of the 20th century, where we’ll delve into how mid-century American housewives became convinced to see cakes–and cake making–in a whole new light.

Cakes, 1963 (© Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

When possible, I’ll share the recipes I tried out in the process of researching and writing about cakes. When we reach the conclusion, I’ll post my reading list and some hopefully-helpful hints that might keep you from making the same mistakes I did. Please feel free to ask questions, and I’ll answer them as best I can.

Thank you for reading! I look forward to sharing cake history with you.

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