The surprising history of cake
How far back would you guess the history of cake goes? Well, the English word "cake" comes from the Old Norse word "kaka", but the concept of cake? That's even more ancient. Come explore the surprising history of cake with us, and learn to make cakes both savory and sweet!
The ancient Greeks made cakes called plakous (from the word for "flat") that might have reminded you a little bit of today's baklava. Plakous were flat and made from eggs, milk, nuts and honey. The Romans made a similar cake named placenta (pronounced Pla-KEN-ta)—and to the Romans, placenta was a cake fit for the gods! Made of flour, honey and cheese (a bit like Romanian plācintā), placenta cakes were offered to the gods as a sacrifice. We know that placenta cakes were also eaten at Roman birthday parties thanks to the Roman poet Ovid's account of his brother's birthday (and his angry account in his Tristia of the worst birthday ever with no cake.) You can try a recreated recipe for placenta here or try your hand at this recreation of a rosemary-infused Roman honey cake recipe from Pompeii.
Can you imagine a cake that could start a revolution? In China, there are folk tales detailing how moon cakes were used to overthrow the Mongols during the 12th century! To encourage the Han people to revolt against the Mongols, a clever revolutionary named Chu Yuan-chang spread a rumour that a terrible plague was coming—and that the only cure was to eat his specially-made moon cakes. This provoked a run on moon cakes—but inside each sweet was a concealed message, telling Han villagers what date the revolution would begin. It was easy to destroy the evidence afterwards...by eating up the moon cakes! Moon cakes are usually eaten for Autumn Moon Festival celebrations, but you can make them any time of year—check out this post from our archives for some kid-friendly variations to try.
If your kids enjoy learning about knights and castles, they might be interested to try mixing up some European medieval cakes—like the Greek and Roman cakes, Medieval Europeans in countries like Germany and France used nuts, seeds, honey and dried fruit as sweeteners. These cakes were less sweet and soft than modern cakes—in fact, they were more like unleavened bread. Cakes with icing were first baked in the 16th century in Europe (originally the cake was returned with icing to the oven, and baked until hard and glossy!). By 1615, cakes were beginning to have more air beaten into them, which made them taste more like modern cakes. To get a sense of what these hybrid cakes were like, try this recreated recipe for "biscuit bread" with your kids. It wasn’t until the 19th century and the invention of baking powder that what we think of as conventional cakes—with layers and icing—were first detailed in recipes.
Modern North American cakes are based on electric ovens and easy access to ingredients like butter and vanilla extract, but many of these crucial changes took place within living memory. Try taking a look at these historical cake recipes from Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book (from 1918) and see what a difference just 100 years makes to a cake recipe. Can your kids spot anything different between these recipes and a modern one? (Ask them to pay attention to the descriptions of the ovens!) Check out the Cheap Sponge Cake and ask your children what makes it cheap—they might be surprised to find the answer is that it’s butter-less.
Access to ingredients made a big difference to family bakers in the 1930s and 1940s as well—check out our post on cooking with tomatoes to find out more about how tomatoes were used to stretch ingredients during war-time rationing and try making your own tomato cake. One of our favourite food history sites, The Food Timeline, can help your kids look up the individual history of their favourite cakes, as well as some modern cakes that might sound more unusual to them, like mayonnaise cakes, earthquake cakes or election cakes.
If we’ve got you feeling the urge to break out an after-school cake-baking project, we’ve got all sorts of suggestions on how to throw a simple cupcake decorating party here, along with hassle-free (we promise) cake decorating ideas. For more food history posts, check out our time travelling posts on BC’s local food history as well as on food history around the world. And for wonderful cake recipes, check out our recipe archives! Don't forget to follow us on Facebook and Instagram if you're interested in more kid-friendly project and recipe ideas.