Cake is a form of sweet dessert that's typically baked. In its oldest forms, cakes were modifications of breads but now cover a wide range of preparations that can be simple or elaborate and share features with additional desserts such as pastries, meringues, custards and pies.
Typical cake ingredients are flour, sugar, eggs, butter or oil, a liquid, and leavening agents, such as baking soda and/or baking powder. Common additional ingredients and flavourings include dried, candied or fresh fruit, nuts, cocoa, and extracts such as vanilla, with numerous substitutions for the primary ingredients. Cakes can additionally be filled with fruit preserves or dessert sauces (like pastry cream), iced with buttercream or additional icings, and decorated with marzipan, piped borders, or candied fruit.
Cake is often served as a celebratory dish on ceremonial occasions, for example weddings, anniversaries, and birthdays. There are countless cake recipes; a few are bread-like, a few rich and elaborate, and a large number of are centuries old. Cake making is no longer a complicated procedure; while at one time considerable labour went into cake making (particularly the whisking of egg foams), baking equipment and directions have been simplified so that even the most amateur cook might bake a cake.
The term "cake" has a long history. The word itself is of Viking origin, from the Old Norse word "kaka".
Although clear examples of the difference between cake and bread are easy to find, the precise classification has always been elusive. For example, banana bread might be properly considered either a quick bread or a cake.
The Greeks invented beer as a leavener, frying fritters in olive oil, and cheesecakes using goat's milk. In ancient Rome, basic bread dough was at times enriched with butter, eggs, and honey, which produced a sweet and cake-like baked good. Latin poet Ovid refers to the birthday of him and his brother with party and cake in his first book of exile, Tristia.
Early cakes in England were additionally essentially bread: the most obvious differences between a "cake" and "bread" were the round, flat shape of the cakes, and the cooking method, which turned cakes over once while cooking, while bread was left upright throughout the baking process.
Sponge cakes, leavened with beaten eggs, originated throughout the Renaissance, possibly in Spain.
During the Great Depression, there was a surplus of molasses and the need to provide easily made food to millions of economically depressed people in the United States. One company patented a cake-bread mix in order to deal with this economic situation, and thereby established the first line of cake in a box. In so doing, cake as it is known today became a mass-produced good rather than a home- or bakery-made specialty.
Later, throughout the post-war boom, additional American companies (notably General Mills) developed this idea further, marketing cake mix on the principle of convenience, especially to housewives. When sales dropped heavily in the 1950s, marketers discovered that the cake in a box rendered the cake-making function of housewives relatively dispiriting. This was a time when women, retired from the war-time labour force, and in a critical ideological period in American history, were confined to the domestic sphere and oriented towards the freshly blossoming consumerism in the US. In order to compensate for this situation, the marketing psychologist Ernest Dichter ushered in the solution to the cake mix problem: frosting. Deprived of the creativity involved in making their own cake, within consumerist culture, housewives and additional in-home cake makers could compensate by cake decoration inspired by, among additional things, photographs in magazines of elaborately decorated cakes.
Ever since, cake in a box has become a staple of supermarkets, and is complemented with frosting in a can.
Cakes are broadly divided into several categories, based primarily on ingredients and mixing techniques.
- Butter cakes are made from creamed butter, sugar, eggs, and flour. They rely on the combination of butter and sugar beaten for an extended time to incorporate air into the batter. A classic pound cake is made with a pound each of butter, sugar, eggs, and flour. Baking powder is in a large number of butter cakes, such as Victoria sponge. The ingredients are at times mixed without creaming the butter, using recipes for simple and quick cakes.
- Sponge cakes (or foam cakes) are made from whipped eggs, sugar, and flour. They rely primarily on trapped air in a protein matrix (generally of beaten eggs) to provide leavening, at times with a bit of baking powder or additional chemical leaven added as insurance. Sponge cakes are thought to be the oldest cakes made without yeast. An angel food cake is a white sponge cake that uses only the whites of the eggs and is traditionally baked in a tube pan. The French Génoise is a sponge cake that includes clarified butter. Highly decorated sponge cakes with lavish toppings are at times called gateau; the French word for cake.
- Chiffon cakes are sponge cakes with vegetable oil, which adds moistness.
- Chocolate cakes are butter cakes, sponge cakes, or additional cakes flavoured with melted chocolate or cocoa powder. German chocolate cake is a variety of chocolate cake. Fudge cakes are chocolate cakes that contains fudge.
- Coffee cake is generally thought of as a cake to serve with coffee or tea at breakfast or at a coffee break. Some types use yeast as a leavening agent while others use baking soda and/or baking powder. These cakes often have a crumb topping called streusel and/or a light glaze drizzle.
- Baked flourless cakes include baked cheesecakes and flourless chocolate cakes. Cheesecakes, notwithstanding their name, aren't really cakes at all. Cheesecakes are in fact custard pies, with a filling made mostly of a few form of cheese (often cream cheese, mascarpone, ricotta, or the like), and have quite little flour added, although a flour-based or graham biscuit crust might be used. Cheesecakes are additionally quite old, with evidence of honey-sweetened cakes dating back to ancient Greece.
- Butter or oil layer cakes include most of the traditional cakes used as birthday cakes, etc., and those sold as packaged cakes. Baking powder or bicarbonate of soda are used to provide both lift and a moist texture. Many flavourings and ingredients might be added; examples include devil's food cake, carrot cake, and banana bread.
- Yeast cakes are the oldest and are quite similar to yeast breads. Such cakes are often quite traditional in form, and include such pastries as babka and stollen.
Some varieties of cake are widely available in the form of cake mixes, wherein a few of the ingredients (usually flour, sugar, flavoring, baking powder, and at times a few form of fat) are premixed, and the cook needs add only a few additional ingredients, usually eggs, water, and at times vegetable oil or butter. While the diversity of represented styles is limited, cake mixes do provide an easy and readily available homemade option for cooks who aren't accomplished bakers.
Cakes might be classified according to the occasion for which they're intended. For example, wedding cakes, birthday cakes, cakes for first communion, Christmas cakes, Halloween cakes, and Passover plava (a type of sponge cake at times made with matzo meal) are all identified primarily according to the celebration they're intended to accompany. The cutting of a wedding cake constitutes a social ceremony in a few cultures. The Ancient Roman marriage ritual of confarreatio originated in the sharing of a cake.
Particular types of cake might be associated with particular festivals, such as stollen or chocolate log (at Christmas), babka and simnel cake (at Easter), or mooncake. There has been a long tradition of decorating an iced cake at Christmas time; additional cakes associated with Christmas include chocolate log and mince pies.
A Lancashire Courting Cake is a fruit-filled cake baked by a fiancée for her betrothed. The cake has been described as "somewhere between a firm sponge - with a greater proportion of flour to fat and eggs than a Victoria sponge cake - and a shortbread base and was proof of the bride-to-be’s baking skills." Traditionally it is a two-layer cake filled and topped with strawberries or raspberries and whipped cream.
Cakes are frequently described according to their physical form. Cakes might be small and intended for individual consumption. Larger cakes might be made with the intention of being sliced and served as part of a meal or social function. Common shapes include:
- Bundt cakes
- Cake balls
- Conical, such as the Kransekake
- Cupcakes and madeleines, which are both sized for a single person
- Layer cakes, frequently baked in a springform pan and decorated
- Sheet cakes, simple, flat, rectangular cakes baked in sheet pans
- Swiss rolls
Special cake flour with a high starch-to-gluten ratio is made from fine-textured, soft, low-protein wheat. It is strongly bleached, and compared to all-purpose flour, cake flour tends to result in cakes with a lighter, less dense texture. Therefore, it is frequently specified or preferred in cakes meant to be soft, light, and/or bright white, such as angel food cake. Notwithstanding if cake flour is called for, a substitute can be made by replacing a small percentage of all-purpose flour with cornflour or removing two tablespoons from each cup of all-purpose flour. Some recipes explicitly specify or permit all-purpose flour, notably where a firmer or denser cake texture is desired.
A cake can fall, whereby parts of it sink or flatten, when baked at a temperature that's too low or too hot, when it has been underbaked and when placed in an oven that's too hot at the beginning of the baking process. The use of excessive amounts of sugar, flour, fat or leavening can additionally cause a cake to fall. A cake can additionally fall when subjected to cool air that enters an oven when the oven door is opened throughout the cooking process.
A finished cake is often enhanced by covering it with icing, or frosting, and toppings such as sprinkles, which are additionally known as "jimmies" in certain parts of the United States and "hundreds and thousands" in the United Kingdom. Frosting is usually made from powdered (icing) sugar, at times a fat of a few sort, milk or cream, and often flavourings such as vanilla extract or cocoa powder. Some decorators use a rolled fondant icing. Commercial bakeries tend to use lard for the fat, and often whip the lard to introduce air bubbles. This makes the icing light and spreadable. Home bakers either use lard, butter, margarine, or a few combination thereof. Sprinkles are small firm pieces of sugar and oils that are coloured with food coloring. In the late twentieth century, new cake decorating products became available to the public. These include several specialised sprinkles and even methods to print pictures and transfer the image onto a cake.
Special tools are needed for more complex cake decorating, such as piping bags and various piping tips, syringes and embossing mats. To use a piping bag or syringe, a piping tip is attached to the bag or syringe using a coupler. The bag or syringe is partially filled with icing which is at times colored. Using different piping tips and various techniques, a cake decorator can make a large number of different designs. Basic decorating tips include open star, closed star, basketweave, round, drop flower, leaf, multi, petal, and specialty tips. An embossing mat is used to create embossed effects. A cake turntable that cakes are spun upon might be used in cake decoration.
Royal icing, marzipan (or a less sweet version, known as almond paste), fondant icing (also known as sugarpaste), and buttercream are used as covering icings and to create decorations. Floral sugarcraft or wired sugar flowers are an important part of cake decoration. Cakes for special occasions, such as wedding cakes, are traditionally rich fruit cakes or occasionally Madeira cakes, that are covered with marzipan and iced using royal icing or sugar-paste. They are finished with piped borders (made with royal icing) and adorned with a piped message, wired sugar flowers, hand-formed fondant flowers, marzipan fruit, piped flowers, or crystallised fruits or flowers such as grapes or violets.