One of the oldest forms of what originated as a sweetened bread is cake. In its simplest form, it is flour, sugar, milk, eggs, and butter, but it can be so much more than just that. Cake can evoke so many different emotions and memories in each of us. From the modest, but much-loved birthday cake of our childhood, to the multi-tiered symbol of love, the wedding cake, to the rich, decadent torte we enjoyed during our last extravagant dinner. Or perhaps it was that $5.00 cake at the grocery store which looked so good you couldn’t pass it up. Today a celebratory Cake is a ‘must have’ for most cultures at every occasion … from the baby shower to the anniversary dinner to the retirement party.
I am fascinated by the incredible cakes produced on some of the Food Network shows. Watching episodes of Cake Boss or Ace of Cakes can leave you feeling hopelessly inadequate as a baker. But you must know that lavishly decorated cakes didn’t begin when the Food Network started showcasing these professional bakers and their cake masterpieces. It began during the Victorian era.
When hubby and I have a weekend free, we love to spend a Sunday afternoon strolling around rural town centers, browsing through curiosity and antique shops. Recently I came across a fascinating book entitled “The Victorian Book of Cakes, Recipes, Techniques and Decorations from the Golden Age of Cake Making”. Not the original, this reproduction, written in 1958, is taken from the turn-of-the-century tome which was the standard for professional bakers during the Victorian era. The recipes range from petit fours to pound cakes, slab cakes and shortbread, to gingerbread and marzipan.
The illustrations in this book are remarkable in that they are not photographs but drawn capturing the precise details from each original baked item. The images of wedding cakes are astonishingly beautiful, each having won prizes at the London International Exhibition 100 years ago.
The book has hundreds of recipes, which are quite interesting. Most use the same simple ingredients, but with very minimal direction. The cakes are generally traditional fruit cakes, with nuts, spices, and rum or brandy, such as the wedding cake Prince William and Kate Middleton served for their wedding.
For leavening agents, although they do not call it “baking powder”, a blend of ‘cream of tartar’ and baking soda (two pounds of cream of tartar to one pound of baking soda) is used – which essentially is ‘baking powder’ (invented by Alfred Bird in 1840). Yeast or beaten egg whites were also used to lighten batters, all of which leads me to think that most of these cakes were probably more ‘bread like’ and quite dense.
In a Victorian bakery or pastry shop there would be a variety of cakes and biscuits for sale from scones and shortbread to meringues, marzipan and trifles. This book gives the bakery owner, not only recipes for its ‘best sellers’, but advice on how to display these confections and what to charge … with cakes starting at a shilling. One description for a “SHILLING GATEAU” is described as “very saleable and enhance the general shop display. They should be made from a good Genoese base, either a light egg mixture or a closer-eating butter mixing. The latter seems to be the favorite of the cake-eating public.” How fun! I guess we ‘cake-eating public’ like a ‘closer-eating’ mixture … whatever that may mean.
In addition to the advice and recipes are the original advertisements for all the baking essentials required, from flours and sugars to cake stands and ovens. One advertisement which I found interesting was for a “vegetable butter” made from “cocoanuts, as an excellent substitute for butter, margarine and lard”. Why has it taken us another 100 years to fully incorporate coconut oil into our baking?
Times may have changed and although some of the ingredients have stayed the same, progress seems to be mostly in the preparation, and in the myriad of flavors we have today.
I’m sure you’ve probably realized by now that ‘I like to bake’. Breads, cakes, cookies, it really doesn’t matter. I find baking to be relaxing. It also provides a much-needed creative outlet. Taking an assortment of unrelated ingredients and turning them into, hopefully, a confection that not only tastes good, but is pretty to look at, is quite satisfying. Not all my ‘bakes’ have been successful, of course. In fact, some have been complete disasters, requiring a quick trip to the nearest bakery when it was an occasion for which I was to supply the “cake”. But, for the most part, they’ve been pretty decent.
I’m not sure any of us would enjoy making the seemingly simple, but on closer inspection, overly-complicated recipes in this “The Victorian Book of Cakes” today, but I do feel challenged to try my hand at making one or two – some shortbread perhaps? Not that I would ever do what Julie Powell did with Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But, then again …