Samui Wining & Dining
Taking The Cake

This favourite treat has been cheering us up for centuries.

 

16Cakes are great! No argument. They taste fantastic, can look brilliant and often signify a celebration or, at the very least, an indulgent treat. They date back to ancient times, and have changed significantly over the years, but undoubtedly for the better. Cakes are made from various combinations of refined flour, some form of shortening, sweetening, eggs, milk, leavening agent, and flavouring. There are literally thousands of cake recipes (some are bread-like and some rich and elaborate) and many are centuries old. Cake making is no longer a complicated procedure. Baking utensils and directions have been so perfected and simplified, that even the amateur cook can easily become a very good baker.

    For sure, the first cakes were very different from what we eat today. They were more bread-like and sweetened with honey. Nuts and dried fruits were often added and, according to food historians, the ancient Egyptians were the first culture to show evidence of advanced baking skills. Most primitive peoples in the world began making cakes shortly after they discovered flour. In medieval England, the cakes that were described in writings were not cakes in the conventional sense. They were described as flour-based sweet foods, as opposed to the description of breads, which were just flour-based foods without sweetening. Bread and cake were somewhat interchangeable words, with the term ‘cake’ being used for smaller breads. Early examples were found among the remains of Neolithic villages, where archaeologists discovered simple cakes made from crushed grains, moistened, compacted and probably cooked on a hot stone. Today’s version of this early cake would be oatcakes, though now we think of them more as biscuits or cookies.

      Greeks called their cakes ‘plakous’, from the word for ‘flat.’ These cakes were usually combinations of nuts and honey. They also had a cake called ‘satura’ which was a flat heavy cake. During the Roman period, the name for cake (derived from the Greek term) became ‘placenta’ though were also called ‘libum’ by the Romans, and were primarily used as an offering to their gods. Placenta was more like a cheesecake, baked on a pastry base, or sometimes inside a pastry case. Cakes were usually baked for special occasions because they were made with the finest and most expensive ingredients available to the cook. Obviously the wealthier you were, the more likely you might consume cake on a more frequent basis.

       But I guess the one cake that we all enjoy (to a degree!), is a birthday cake. Some historians think that the custom of the birthday cake was observed in ancient Greece. Ancient Romans celebrated three different types of birthdays, private celebrations among family and friends, the birthdays of cities and temples, and the birthdays of past and present Emperors or members of the imperial family. And the 50th year was celebrated with a honey cake made of wheat flour, grated cheese, honey, and olive oil.

       Others contend that the birthday cake tradition was started in Germany in the Middle Ages, where sweetened bread dough was made in the shape of the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes, and were used to commemorate his birthday. This type of cake later re-emerged in Germany as a ‘kinderfest’, or a birthday celebration for a young child. In many countries, birthday cakes can be baked with symbolic objects inside. In medieval times, objects such as coins and thimbles were mixed into the batter. People believed that the person who got the coin would be wealthy, while the unlucky finder of the thimble would never marry. Today, small figures, fake coins and small candies are more common.

       Birthday candles originally were placed on cakes to bring birthday wishes up to God. In ancient times, people prayed over the flames of an open fire. They believed that the smoke carried their thoughts up to the gods. Today, we believe, that if you blow out all your candles in one breath, your wish will come true. Though, that said, the older we get the less keen we are on candles. It gives away your age and it can be an enormous embarrassment when you’ve run out of puff and there’s still another 20 candles to go!

      Anyway you look at it, cakes play an important role in our cultural behaviour. It tells us that people care, they are something you can share with family and friends and, above all else, they just taste good. And for many of us that’s just a basic human need that’s easily satisfied. If only all our other needs were met simply by baking a cake!

 

 

Johnny Paterson


 


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