Schatzi: One of my favorite memories of my tutu dates back to elementary school. I was spending the night at her house, and as usual, she had fallen asleep fairly early in the evening, leaving me to my own devices, most likely reading, playing tea party with her good china, or watching movies. It was very late at night, probably one or two in the morning when she woke up, also as usual. I was perched at the end of her king-size bed, watching some movie (probably Willow), when she awoke, and she asked me if I was hungry. When I told her that I was, she told me about Marie Antoinette saying, “Let them eat cake!” and then we made a chocolate cake and ate it. Even though I now know that story is apocryphal, and isn’t even about cake but brioche (something else my tutu makes), sitting on my tutu’s bed eating cake in the wee hours of the morning is one of my fondest memories.
Early cakes were basically breads, but sweet, and the two remained largely interchangeable until the modern era, after our conversion to a sweet and savory opposition. The modern cake developed in the seventeenth century, with spice and plum cakes similar to our present day fruitcake. In the eighteenth century, cakes began to have air beaten into the eggs for leavening, instead of relying on yeast to rise (as still seen in in the baba, kugelhopf, or kulich). The nineteenth century saw the dawn of the Golden Age of Cake Baking (at least by my reckoning) with the debut of bicarbonate of soda, and then baking powder, which vastly improved the baking process, leavening cakes that had previously required endless beating by hand. Also helping matters were the wider availability of refined sugar and quality white flour, and also increased control over oven temperatures, leading to innovations such as angelfood cake. Even with the difficulties in baking, nineteenth century cookbooks typically devoted more attention to cake recipes than any other foods. By the Twenties, cookbooks listed “spice cakes, angel cakes, devil cakes, sponge cakes, fudge cakes, date cakes, nut cakes, prune cakes, jam cakes, pound cakes, fairy cakes, buttermilk cakes, chocolate cakes, eggless cakes, burnt-sugar cakes, mocha cakes, sunshine cakes, maple cakes, marble cakes, and checkerboard cakes, frosted, filled, and iced with chocolate, coconut, marshmallow, lemon, orange, whipped cream, mocha, caramel, pineapple, maple, maraschino, and brown sugar.”
Leafing through some vintage cookbooks recently and noting the variety and sheer number of cakes mentioned, I realized that we don’t make cakes so much anymore. Cupcakes are so In they’re Out by now, and pie remains a heavy contender—even I am likely to choose it over cake if asked—but unless the occasion is a birthday, wedding, or anniversary, cakes seem to be fading into oblivion, particularly those made from scratch. Not only are cakes relegated to ceremonial events, but they’re also usually store-bought—and not very good at that. Why? Why have we abandoned cakes—for we have abandoned them. Time was when any housewife would have a arsenal of cakes in her baking repertoire. There would be a cake ready for company, should some arrive, as well as cakes of all kinds for snacking and dessert. Though I still know some older women who follow this practice, it is a rare habit these days, one mostly now found when perusing late nineteenth and early twentieth century literature (for example: in addition to the wedding cake and a revered family coconut cake, Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding refers to “the ever-ready cake”, and a caramel layer cake, Lady Baltimore cake and a birthday cake play prominent roles in other works).
So why have we drifted from this plethora of cakes? I’d guess that there is nowadays a perception that cakes are somehow difficult, when they are actually simple enough that children can be accomplished bakers. After all, cakes are mixed together, then left in the oven for a half an hour or longer. Granted, baking cakes requires fairly precise measurements and is often more like chemistry than the slapdash approach that can be taken with other foods, but compare this procedure to baking cookies, which are always in multiple batches and require a great deal of attention. Many don’t even need frosting, or get by with a glaze or dusting of confectioner’s sugar. What is so hard about that? Nothing, that’s what.
In recognition of cake and its ease, I aim to bake at least a cake a week this term. That’s right, I will juggle work, full-time school, and some semblance of a social life, and still have time to bake cakes! When one runs out, I’ll just bake another! And most of the recipes will be entirely new to me! Gauntlet, you have been thrown.