The British are renowned for their collective sweet tooth and there are cake shops and confectioners in every town, plus online stores selling delectable goodies … not to mention food blogs like United Cakedom.
So when did the great British tradition of cake baking begin?
As with many things, baking is something that has evolved with technology as well as the availability of ingredients. Back in the Middle Ages, sugar was largely unknown, and food was sweetened using honey and maybe even fruit juices. Ovens weren't available in the home unless it was a very affluent family, and bakers made both bread and cakes. Wheat bread was for the rich; the poor ate black bread and rye. Cake was either pudding, or resembled bread.
As merchants travelled further afield, spices and dried fruit appeared in Britain, along with the wonder ingredient - sugar. However, all of this was expensive until it became more abundant in the 17th century, so saffron, raisins and sweet doughs were still only available to those who could afford them. Even gingerbread was made with breadcrumbs, which gives us a clue to the name. Many cakes were still called ‘bread’, even if they were technically biscuits, and were leavened with yeast, ale, or even more bizarrely, smelling salts. Some similar ‘cakebreads’ that might hark back to those times include teabread and even shortbread.
The emerging middle class during the 17th century meant that ordinary people could afford to imitate the rich. Mince pies, Cornish pasties – especially those with fruit in one end and meat in the other – and seed cakes became popular, especially as they were also filling and full of good flavours.
The 18th century brought the industrial revolution, and with that the introduction of the semi-closed oven, which improved cake making beyond the heavy puddings and breads. Working class people may still have been eating basic stuff most of the time, but on special occasions, they too got to sample delights such as Christmas cake, Simnel cake, and biscuits.
It was only well into the 19th century that yeast-based cakes declined and were replaced by those that were raised with eggs and baking powder. Cakes became seriously less dense, and decidedly less stodgy. The refined cakes that we know now, such as carrot cake, Victoria sponge, cheese cake and tray-bakes developed from this time onwards, brought, in some cases, from across Europe, and refined still further.
Because the emergence of modern cakes has been relatively recent, so is that of the cake stand. Back in the Victorian era, high tea became popular, and that meant the need for cake stands to ensure that the soft confections stood high and proud above the rest of the food.
The fashion of the day has always gone into the design of cake stands, so during the Victorian age, you might have seen frilly, decorative wire stands or crystal glass ones; during the 20s, Art Deco was at the fore, so geometric-shaped stands in octagons and squares were more popular.
For me, there’s nothing like seeing your beautiful cake standing aloft on the table, held up by an equally gorgeous cake stand. And those tiered stands you can buy? You know, those Victorian-style ones with a hoop over the top? Fill them up with cupcakes or cookies and watch the food disappear!