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The History of Cake & Facts You Didn't Know

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by S Lynn (subscribe)
A freelance writer and bargain hunter with wanderlust, recently moved to Perth from Brisbane.
Published January 20th 2013
Origin and symbolism of cakes
We all enjoy a bit of cake during celebratory events like birthdays and weddings or even at home when we feel like a bit of sweet, decadent indulgence but has anyone wondered how this came to be? The history of cake is rich with rituals and symbolisms from different cultures and countries, all coming together to shape the cakes we know today.

birthday cake
Pic from Twice25

According to food historians, the first culture to show evidence of baking skills and interest were the ancient Egyptians. They were probably fed up with game meat and wanted to try something new. However, they were more bread-like and instead of sugar, they were sweetened in honey. The word cake is of viking origin, from the norse word "kaka".

Cakes symbolise the importance of the person you bought it for, since in the old days, ingredients like refined sugar, nuts and dried food were expensive. Although they are not as expensive today, the message still holds through. It is a way to show someone you care.

Cakes are a part of ancient rituals

Cakes have their part to play in ancient beliefs and superstitions, some which still carries on to modern times. In olden times, people used cakes as offerings to their gods and spirits around the world. The Chinese celebrate Harvest Moon festival and have moon cakes to honour their moon goddess. This tradition continues up to today. Russians have sun cakes called blini which are thin pancakes to pay their respect to a deity called Maslenitsa. Ancient Celts rolled cakes down a hill during the Beltane festival held on the first day of spring to imitate solar movement. With such a rich history and connection of humans with cake, it is no wonder that they remain such an important part of our lives.

Pic by Claus Ableiter

Why are cakes round?

Although these days we have a variety of shapes from heart-shaped to cartoon characters, animals, castles and even R-rated shapes if you are so inclined, cakes are traditionally round. This symbolises the cyclical nature of life, the sun and the moon, which is probably the reason why we have cakes during important events; highlighting that we are embarking on a new journey in our life-span.

Ancient breads were also round, typically fashioned into round balls and baked in shallow pans. In the 17th century, cake hoops made from metal or wood were increasingly used.

When did cakes become easier to make?

The invention of baking soda and baking powder during the Industrial Revolution increased the popularity of baking cakes due to the ease provided to the masses. Ovens were beginning to have more temperature controlled settings which meant people could leave their cakes to bake without labouring and watching over them constantly. Railroads also made ingredients readily available and cheaper.

Angels Versus Demons

Angel food cake was named as such due to its white colour and light and fluffy exterior. The airy texture came from the use of egg whites and were supposed to represent angels. However, with angels came demons. Devil cakes started becoming popular in the 20th century. They were named so because the chocolate taste was so rich and delicious, they were somehow sinful. To this day, some people still think of chocolate as a little bit sinful due to the effects to their waist line.

So there you have it; a few interesting facts about the cakes we take so much for granted. Like everything else evolving with time, cakes have their moments in history too. Next time you enjoy your cake, think of all the human inventions needed over time, necessary to allow you this little luxury.
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