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The History of Cakes

The history of cake by Graham's The Family Dairy

If you’re a regular peruser of our social channels then you’ll know that we’re big fans of baking and – we have to admit – particularly of the sumptuous cake creations of our friends like Flora Shedden and Three Sisters Bake. However, as we were sitting contemplating life over a slice of cake and a cup of tea (with added Graham’s milk, of course), we started to wonder about the history of the noble cake.

Was there really a time before cake? It’s a terrifying thought. Thankfully, growing up on a farm doesn’t lend itself to being big fearties, so we’ve rolled up our sleeves and got stuck into some serious research.

When were the earliest cakes baked?

The earliest cakes were more like sweetened bread than cake as we know it today. The ancient Greek and Romans would add nuts and honey to bread recipes to create sweetened versions of them. While it may not have been what we’d now recognise as a birthday cake, the Roman poet Ovid wrote around 2000 years ago about having a cake for his brother’s birthday!

What are the origins of the word ‘cake’?

While we may associate the Vikings more with flagons of ale than with a nice slice of Victoria Sponge, it turns out that we owe the origins of the word ‘cake’ to them. It comes from the old Norse word kaka, which is still used for cake in Icelandic and Swedish.

When did cakes as we know them emerge?

The step between the sweet breads of classical times and the modern sponge cake were individual-sized treats such as ladyfingers (yes, like you’d find in this Tiramisu recipe). That particular delicacy seems to have started life in the court of Catherine de Medici. Much of the internet puts this as happening in the 15th century… but Catherine wasn’t born until the 16th century (no flies on us), so we’ll date it to that century.

From there, it was only a short, delightful leap to the creation of the sponge cake. The earliest English language recipe for a sponge cake, as we’d recognise it, comes from a 1615 book by an English poet called Gervase Markham. Though we’re not sure how much of a page-turner the book was, given its title of, ‘The English Huswife (sic), Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to Be in a Complete Woman’.

What’s the world’s most popular cake?

These days different types of cake are enjoyed in every corner of the globe, making it extremely difficult to pin down one specific type of cake that could be classed as the world’s most popular.

Some regional specialities include:

  • Pandan Cake (Malaysia & Singapore)
  • Sacher Torte (Austria)
  • Babovka / Bundt Cake (across Central and Eastern Europe)

Global classics would include Black Forest Gateau or the simple, indulgent pleasures of chocolate cake. That’s without even mentioning carrot cake or Red Velvet cake.

In short, it’s difficult to identify the world’s most popular cake when we’ve yet to come across one that’s unpopular!