Cake is a term used to describe a very broad category of food.
A cake can be a large sweet item, or a small unsweetened item that is more used more like a bread. In a very small number of instances, it can even by a lozenge — viz Pomfret Cakes. An “oil cake” is the mound or mass of what’s left over from something after all the oil has been pressed out of it. We even use the word “cake” in English to refer to a “bar of soap.”
The word “cake” used to be used for unrisen things that we now think of as cookies, biscuits or crackers, and this usage still survives in a very few examples, such as oatcakes. There are also fried cakes — viz, pancakes.
Coffeecakes are halfway between a cake and a bread.
The difference between fruit breads and tea cakes is often just one of size.
Eccles cakes are more like what we might now call “pastries.”
In the Western world after 1900s onward, though, it’s safe to start off with the assumption that a cake is a sweet, risen baked good, containing flour, sugar, some kind of fat, flavourings, and generally eggs.
In this modern Western parlance, there are generally three classifications of cakes, based on their fat (solid fat or liquid oil) content:
- Butter Cakes: 30 to 100% fat
- Butter Sponges: 10 to 50% fat
- Sponge Cakes: 0 to 10% fat
Risen cakes used to require a great deal of work, as there were no chemical leaveners. The leavener is usually a chemical one such as baking powder or baking soda, though in a few instances some cakes will use only the eggs as the leavener, such as the classic genoise and sponge cakes (sponge cakes also leave out the additional fat.)
After all the suspense of whether a cake will rise and brown properly, comes a final crucial moment of removing the cake from its baking pan. Generally, to aid this final stage, you grease the sides of a cake tin, but for some cakes, it’s better to leave the sides ungreased. The fat used in greasing might seep into the cake and help deflate the foam you had worked so hard to build up. And, ungreased sides allow the cake to grip the sides of the pan better, aiding it in rising. This can be particularly true with non-stick pans: you may wish to grease only the bottom. Do not grease cake pans for Angel Food, sponge, chiffon or any foam cakes. Do grease pans for butter cakes, genoises, and cake mixes. Cake pans can be greased with butter, margarine, shortening, or a vegetable oil spray.
You can use an implement such as a rubber spatula or a knife to loosen a cake along the sides before removing it from its cake pan.
Some cakes need to be aged before eating (e.g. fruit cakes.)
The typical fats used in cake recipes are butter, shortening, oil (or suet or lard, in older recipes.)
Butter, shortening and oil play the same role of providing a fat in a cake recipe, and so can usually be swapped in for each other in that regard.
The differences, though, are in the additional roles they play. Butter adds extra flavour; oils and shortening do not. This makes oils and shortening good for cakes which are already rich in other flavours, where you don’t need or want the additional taste of butter competing.
Shortening beats up more easily to a light and fluffy batter than do oil or butter-based batters; to compensate, beat them for longer. Still, oil-based batters will end up denser than ones based on shortening or butter.
To avoid crumbs from the cake getting caught up in any icing you might be putting on it, you can “crumb ice” it first. Put a layer of very thin icing over the cake (just icing sugar and lots of water, very runny), and let it dry thoroughly (you may wish to let it dry overnight.) And then ice your cake with your real icing. The first layer traps all the crumbs. It is sometimes also called a “crumb coat.”
Most people just use standard table knifes to ice their cakes with. To get more graceful swirls, use a “Palette Knife” (a long, thin metal spatula.)
One of the words the Romans had for cake was “placenta”, coming from the Greek word “plakous”, which in turn came from the Greek word for “flat.”
Whereas now a flat cake would reduce a cook to tears, back then it was considered completely normal. Only later did the Romans used yeast to leaven some of their cakes.
Some Roman unleavened cakes:
- Libum was a cheesecake sweetened with honey. Small ones were mostly used as an offering to household gods. Larger versions for made for actual consumption;
- Placenta was a cheesecake sweetened with honey and baked either in a pastry shell, or on a pastry base. It could also be used as an offering, though the prime purpose was eating;
- Satura was a flat, heavy cake made with barley, raisins, pine nuts, pomegranate seeds and a sweet wine.
In the mid-1700s, more sophisticated cooks turned away from yeast as a leavener, replacing it with well-beaten eggs.
“The sweet, soft, spongy substance we are all familiar with and best known as ‘cake’ was not born until the mid-1700s. The types of cakes that were popular in the eighteenth century are somewhat removed from the standard chocolate, coffee, vanilla sponge, fruit, toffee or carrot cakes of today. Susan Carter’s ‘The Frugal Housewife’, or ‘Complete Woman Cook’ of 1796 lists the following under ‘all sorts of cakes’: A Spanish Cake, Portugal Cake, Genoa Cake, Shrewsbury Cakes, Marlborough Cakes, Uxbridge Cakes, Queen Cakes, Pound Cakes, Saffron Cakes, Orange Cakes, and so on. What is particularly noticeable here, as in other recipe books of the time, is the number of cakes named after countries or towns — cakes once synonymous with a region, but now largely forgotten.” — Kay, Emma. Vintage Kitchenalia. Gloucestershire, England: Amberley Publishing. 2017. Google Ebook edition.
The Victorian era brought to cakes:
- more accessible white flour which allowed greater rising and finer texture;
- baking powder and baking soda, obviating the need to beat egg for hours;
- ovens, and not only oven, but temperature controlled ovens (for those that could afford it);
- fancy cake moulds.
In fact, it was during the Victorian era that making a good cake became so possible that it became something that was a test of a good everyday housewife or cook.
Up until the advent of thermostats in ovens, getting the oven to the right temperature — and keeping it there — was a completely manual affair. In fact, you needed an oven in the first place, something not many people had.
Literature & Lore
Pat a cake, pat a cake, baker’s man,
Bake me a cake as fast as you can.
Pat it and prick it and mark it with T,
And put it in the oven for Tommy and me.
In the Ozarks there were superstitions around how a cake batter was mixed:
A woman mixing a cake always stirs the batter in one direction — if you stir it first one way and then another you’ll spoil the cake sure. Another thing to remember is that the person who begins the stirring must stay with it and complete the job, because if two persons try to divide the labor they may as well throw the cake away. Mrs. W. D. Mathes of Galena, Missouri, one of the best pastry cooks in the Ozarks, tells me that cakes must be stirred by hand; she has tried several sorts of electric mixers but never had any luck with them. It is said that a good cook never allows anyone else to stir the dough that she is to bake, but what is supposed to result from the violation of this rule I have never been able to learn.”
“Cake” is related to the English word “to cook”, and the German word “kuchen.” It comes from the Norse word, “kaka”, which is still the Swedish word for cake.
The French word “gateau” comes from the old French word for “fine bread”, “guastel.”
Gateau in English is now used as a word for very fancy cakes that require a great deal of work.
“Cakehole” is American slang for “mouth.”