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.

Free Short Story: “Tomorrow Can Be A Better Day”

I admit right now that this is not “flash” fiction. At 1727 words, it’s definitely a short story. Clarissa Ryan asked for one that included a lot of cute and happiness-inducing things, and when I’d finished drafting it, there was nothing I wanted to cut out. So, a short story it is, and I hope you enjoy it.

Tomorrow Can Be A Better Day

Jana stroked the kitten’s soft, calico fur as the elevator rose slowly. She left it cling to her shirt, held tight to her chest, as its tiny claws extended and retracted happily. The elevator stopped at the 7th floor, and Jana carefully reached down for her bags with her free hand.

“Time for you to go to your new home, honey,” Jana said to the kitten as she searched the recipient’s apartment. Spotting the right number on the door, she stopped, and set her bags down to one side. She pulled out square pink box large enough to hold the kitten, gently unhooked its little paws from her shirt, and placed it inside. “Now, shh,” she whispered. “You’re a surprise.” She grabbed a shiny bow from the bag, set it atop the box (careful not to cover up any of the air holes) and knocked on the door.

Just as Jana was about to knock again, the door finally opened a crack. An older woman, her graying hair up in a loose bun, clutched her bathrobe tightly with wrinkled pink hands. Her sandy blue eyes were red and her eyelids were puffy.

“Mrs. Margorie Hanta? Happiness Delivery Service,” Jana said in her bubbliest voice.

“I don’t want whatever it is,” Mrs. Hanta said softly. “Thanks anyway.” She started to close the door.

“Oh, but wait,” Jana said. “You’re the only one who can take this.” She held the box up.

The other woman sighed, but let the door stay open.

The kitten in the box mewed softly.

“No,” Mrs. Hanta said to the box, shaking her head. “I am not ready.” Continue reading

Free Flash Fiction: “The Scent of Food is Memory and Love”

The Scent of Food is Memory and Love

Azedah took the leaves off of the last small, round eggplant, then cut through the dark purple flesh until she had turned it into a pile of thick slices. She added them to the others already simmering in olive oil in her largest frying pan, so wide it covered most of the cooktop on that side of the stove. When both sides were golden brown, she lifted the eggplant pieces out of the pan and put then aside to drain. Quickly, her fingers moving with long experience, she chopped a large yellow onion; the fine slices sizzled when they hit the hot oil left in the pan.

“Azedah,” the house said. “The visitors have arrived.”

“Ah, they are early! Is Yasmin out of the shower?”

“Yes. Yasmin is in the study,” the house replied.

Azedah stirred the onions with a worn wooden spatula, and the smell of their cooking spread across the large kitchen. “Ask Yasmine to greet our guests,” she said. Behind her, the pressure cooker beeped, its cycle finished. She tapped the “natural release” icon, and turned back to the stove.

She reached to her left – but her hand closed on empty air. Continue reading

Ube Waffles! (with pictures and recipe)

The other week, Michi was talking about waffles on Twitter. Specifically, she mentioned having (and now, missing) ube-flavored waffles at a Filipino food festival, and though I’d never had ube in a waffle before, I immediately craved them too.

Ube is a purple yam popular in Filipino desserts. It has a subtle spice flavor, like a potato grown in cinnamon dirt. I’ve had it in cake, ice cream, and of course, in halo-halo, the best of all summer treats. But, I’d never thought to put it into a waffle. Worse, I rarely see it in my little college town at all, even though I go to the local Asian market often enough that the owner teases me – every time – about how I need to try cooking Chinese food instead of Filipino. I hadn’t seen ube extract, which is what most people cook with in the US. I thought, well, I could get it on Amazon…

Just in case, I went over to the market and surprise! I walk in and she immediately tells me they got a little batch of fresh ube that morning. We were go for waffles!

DSC_0070.JPG

Ube uncooked: sliced open (top left) and peeled (bottom right)

Continue reading

Mini Review: “The Search for General Tso” (2014)

search-general-tso

If you live in America, you probably know about General’s Chicken, that breaded and fried chicken dish, coated in a spicy-sweet sauce, available at almost every Chinese food restaurant. Ian Cheney directed this search for the truth behind the ubiquitous meal, which starts out with a few theories before examining the history leading up to the proliferation of the dish, and how it has changed over the years.

Along the way, Cheney explores the advent of Chinese food for sale in the United States. General’s Chicken, which is known by several similar names all over the world, is a hugely popular dish, and the documentary looks at its importance as a “way in” for Asian-Americans, interviewing restaurant owners and chefs, who talk about the racism they found in the new communities they moved into, and the acceptance that food brought to the table.

In the end, they do discover the original dish, and its creator, but like other appropriations – anyone familiar with McDonald’s chicken nuggets in sweet & sour sauce will recognize the similarities, discussed in the movie – that first version was “borrowed” and revised, too. In the end, I was a little sad, a lot more informed, and (if I’m being honest), hungry.

4/5*

Available on Netflix and Amazon.

On a related note, has anyone read Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food? If not, I recommend it!