2000s Archive

The Great American Cake

Originally Published February 2000
It’s been our national passion for more than 200 years. Here are seven classics worth reviving.

It’s 1800, and you’ve decided to make a cake. First you build a fire. You do this in either a brick enclosure adjacent to the hearth or a separate structure outside. Then you assemble and prepare the ingredients. You sift the “white” flour (similar to what we call unbleached pastry flour, though somewhat moister) for stray debris and tiny critters, then put it in pans near the hearth to dry. You scrape some sugar from a large cone, or loaf, with a special set of shears and sift that as well. Then you check your eggs—the primary leavening agent for cakes at this time—for freshness by holding them over a candle flame or putting them in a glass of water. You wash the butter to remove the salt—a preservative—and soften it by hand to a creamy consistency. Now you gather and prepare the necessary flavorings: dried fruits, nuts, spices. Several hours after you’ve built your fire, the oven will be the right temperature. You ready the oven by cleaning out the ashes, then proceed with the cake by beating together the butter and sugar by hand to ensure lightness (this will take nearly an hour) and separating the eggs and beating the whites until stiff. It only remains to combine everything, put the batter in the appropriate tins, and place the tins into the oven. No wonder baking is limited to one day a week.

By the early 19th century, the word cake had gone through several permutations. The earliest English definition, which appeared in the 14th century, referred to a type of round, flat bread. (To this day the word connotes the basic shape of totally unrelated foods: crab cakes, potato cakes, pancakes.) That original meaning was still true in the late 1700s: When Marie Antoinette allegedly pronounced “let them eat cake,” she meant, of course, a kind of small, sweetened bread.

Recipes popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries (Shrewsbury cakes, cream cakes, rock cakes, and bread cakes) could be anything from sweet biscuits and muffins to various types of cookies. What we think of as cake—light, layered, and usually frosted—is more appropriately called a “fancy cake,” a term that didn’t come into vogue until after the Civil War. The evolution of this type of cake closely follows and reflects the technological, scientific, social, and economic changes that have occurred in America since the end of the 18th century. Over the course of the next century, the development of commercial baking powder and baking soda, combined with the more widespread use of cast-iron stoves (fueled at first by wood, then coal and gas), made cake baking a surer endeavor.

The period from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the 20th century could rightly be called the era of the fancy cake. Granulated white sugar became widely available—consumption doubled between 1890 and 1920. And by 1900 the great wheat mills of the Midwest had introduced the highly refined flour indispensable in baking to this day.

The immigration of professional French and German chefs and bakers, as well as a lively competition for novelty (often in the pursuit of status), led to increasingly complex cake designs. Books written by and for pastry chefs at the time give recipes for extraordinary creations that were far too complicated for the home baker, but influential nonetheless. (No one succeeded at excess like the Victorians.) Concoctions of two, three, and even more layers with rich fillings and frostings appeared in ever-increasing numbers in handwritten recipe collections and cookbooks aimed at the general public. The whimsically named Lady Baltimore cake, Robert E. Lee cake, angel cake (later known as angel food cake), and devil’s food cake all come from this period.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the cake maintained its hold on our imagination. With the introduction of—and our ultimate reliance on—electricity and refrigeration in the American kitchen, as well as the increased use of canned and packaged goods, the home cook had more freedom than ever. (Icebox cake, Coca-Cola cake, tutti-frutti cake, Campbell’s Soup mystery cake, and red velvet cake all made use of these sometimes dubious advancements.) With relative ease, one was able to adapt older, more complex recipes. Elaborate multilayered fancy cakes evolved into seemingly simpler manifestations—two layers, all gussied up. As the late Richard Sax so aptly put it in his Classic Home Desserts, “These cakes are honest, homespun and brash, often concocted with more enthusiasm than finesse—quintessentially American.” The ability to make a great cake— whether as the finale to a meal, a dish to serve at a ladies’ luncheon or bridge party, or an attempt to impress friends at the local bake sale—was still seen as a true test of one’s culinary skills.

Until after World War II, that is. In 1949 commercial cake mixes were introduced. In a way, the timing seems perfect. Women no longer felt the need, nor often had the skills, to continue the traditions with which they had grown up. The newfound fascination with “gourmet” foods and foreign cuisines made the old-fashioned layer cake for dessert passé, both at home and in restaurants.

Cakemaking from scratch became a dying art, kept alive here and there but generally reserved for special occasions. Indeed, the only time my mother made scratch cakes was for birthdays. This was a big deal because we were allowed to pick whatever cake we wanted, and each of us had our favorite. My sister’s was angel food, and still is. Mine varied, much to my mother’s consternation. One year it had to be yellow cake with chocolate frosting; another year, white cake with seven-minute frosting. (And once in a while I asked for blueberry pie.)

But the old-fashioned is looking good again. With the turn of the century and its inevitable accompanying wave of nostalgia, there has been a revival of sorts—especially of the comfort foods we grew up with. This includes the American cake: always revered and sorely missed.

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