Cakes have been a part of celebrations for thousands of years. Usually, those celebrations were weddings, but in Germany during the 1400’s, cake began to be used for birthdays. The occasions were called Kinderfeste, and included a cake with candles – one for each year of the child’s life, plus one extra representing the hope of another full year lived.
The cakes served at these celebrations may have resembled bread more than the cakes we know today. In fact, the words “cake” and “bread” were often used interchangeably, with the term cake being used for smaller breads. The centuries-long evolution of cake from a sweetened bread to the airy confection that we enjoy in abundance today was the result of the increased availability and affordability of refined flour and refined sugar, the invention of baking powder, and the advent of the temperature-controlled oven.
The Rise of Baking Powder
Cakes are made of refined flour, some form of shortening, sweetening, eggs, milk, flavoring, and a leavening agent. Before baking powder was available, there was no standard (and reliable) leavening agent available. Cooks used baker’s yeast, emptins (leavings from brewer’s yeast), and pearlash (made from soaked fireplace ashes). Results varied widely – often the baked goods had a bitter or sour taste. Making a light and airy cake was also more laborious than making bread. A cook might have to beat the ingredients together for as long as an hour.
Enter baking powder, a dry chemical leavening agent composed of carbonate or bicarbonate, along with a weak acid and a buffer such as cornstarch. It works by releasing carbon dioxide gas, causing bubbles to expand and thus leavening the mixture. The first single-acting baking powder, which releases carbon dioxide when added to the cake batter at room temperature, was developed by Alfred Bird in England in 1843. The first double-acting baking powder, which releases carbon dioxide when dampened, and later releases more of the gas when heated, was first developed by Eben Norton Horsford in the US in the 1860s. (Most baking powders sold for home cooking today are double-acting.)
The introduction of baking powder transformed the making of breadstuffs, leading to the creation of new types of cakes, cookies, biscuits, and other baked goods.
The Revolution in Temperature Control
Before the 19th century, most people cooked over open fires or wood-fired brick ovens. The introduction of more compact wood- or coal-burning stoves around the end of the 18th century made cooking and heating more efficient, but there was still no reliable way of measuring or controlling temperature. Cooks used various methods to determine whether the temperature was right for baking. One technique was to toss in some flour into the oven. If the flour browned at the correct speed, it would be ready. This method is still being used with wood-fired ovens.
As the 20th century got underway, more households had gas or electric stoves, which leant themselves to oven thermostats. The thermostat measured the temperature inside the oven and either turned on or turned off the heat to keep the temperature constant. This marked an important moment in baking history. It gave the cook the ability to turn out consistent results, leading to more and better cake baking.
The Magic of Mixes
In the 1950s, cake-baking took another leap forward with the popularity of boxed cake mixes. The handy mixes were easy to use and turned out surprisingly good cakes. It has been estimated that more than 185 million people used cake mixes in 2020.
The first boxed cake mixes were invented during the Depression by John D. Duff, who was looking for a way to use his company’s molasses surplus. He dehydrated the molasses and combined it with flour, sugar, and dried egg. He sold it as a way to make gingerbread by simply adding water.
After World War II, cake mixes became hugely popular. Big flour companies switched from creating dry mixes for the troops and began developing cake mixes for consumers. In 1947, General Mills began selling the mixes under its Betty Crocker brand. The following year, Pillsbury launched the first-ever chocolate cake mix. By 1951, Duncan Hines, Pillsbury, and Betty Crocker were all manufacturing cake mixes.
But by the mid-1950s, sales of boxed cake mix had flattened. Research revealed that women felt guilty for not contributing more to the process. To encourage women to think of using the mix as just one step in the process, General Mills reformulated its cake mixes, removing the powdered egg and requiring the addition of fresh eggs. (This also improved the flavor and extended shelf life.) The company encouraged women to decorate their cakes, allowing the home baker to make something that was uniquely hers.
Cake-decorating proved to be an excellent way to increase cake mix sales, and the inspiration for a new craft industry. New methods for cake decorations were devised, and new companies providing cake decorating courses and equipment were born. Wilton Enterprises developed the Wilton Method for Cake Decorating and supplied courses and equipment so that home cooks could turn out beautiful cakes. The Lambeth Method became another popular cake decorating method.
Cake decorating is flourishing today, with dozens of books, online and in-person classes, and equipment that is easily used by home cooks. Any online search will turn up thousands of beautiful cakes. And for those without the skill or the time to decorate their own cakes, the local bakery or the bakery at the supermarket can produce a birthday cake that would have been unimaginable just a few generations ago.