Cake and Pancake (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
CAKE AND PANCAKE. The cake, as we now understand it in Anglo-American cookery, is the product of western European culture, with few parallels in non-European cookeries. It is commonly expressed in French by the word gâteau, a term without specific meaning (gâteau de pomme is both an apple cake and a molded apple jelly) and whose origin remains undetermined. Nevertheless, since the nineteenth century, the culture of the cake has spread to many parts of the world as the result of colonialism and the internationalization of French, English, and more recently of American cookery.
In Latin America, for example, American-type layer cakes are called queques, but the more traditional Spanish term pastel is often employed for birthday cakes of similar shape and structural arrangement. The use of conflicting terminologies for cakes, and the multitudes of types of foods defined as cakes, make it difficult to create a standard logic and a simple definition. No scholarly undertaking has thus far tackled the cake to create a unifying thesis about its diverse evolutionary forms. This would require a detailed analysis of the huge vocabularies for cake and cakelike pastries that exist in many European languages both ancient and modern. The discussion here will focus on the cake in relation to American cookery.
The concept itself is quite basic: cake is bread, if bread is defined as something baked from flour or meal, as in Welsh oatcake. However, this basic idea has evolved in English to cover a number of preparations also generally categorized as sweet and normally considered dessert or special occasion foods. While nearly all types of modern cakes are thought to have evolved out of some form of enriched bread, that course of evolution is highly varied from culture to culture and encompasses a great many regionalized forms and colloquial names. Both the word cake and the preparations associated with it have experienced sometimes separate and convoluted histories.
The word is generally assumed to have entered English via Old Norse kaka, although this line of derivation is doubtful, since the Norse word itself was assimilated from Vulgar Latin, for a similar root may be observed in such terms as the Dutch coeke and koek. Koekje, the diminutive of koek, was corrupted in colonial American English as cookie (literally a "little cake"), yet it preserves the essential concept that the cake is flat and baked, regardless of sizen important point. Since a similar term kuoche appears in medieval German, also for a type of enriched bread flat in shape, it is quite probable that cake entered modern English as a Latin loan word via ancient British or Anglo-Saxon rather than Old Norse, although literary documentation does not surface until the 1300s. Neither Billy (1993) nor Lambert (1997) has ascertained Celtic roots for the term; thus a Latin origin must be presumed.
Whatever the route of assimilation, the root meaning of cake is quite clear, for it is expressed in the Latin verb coquere, to cook or prepare food in the limited sense of baking or exposing it to heat it in some way. German and the other languages that assimilated this verb-concept also extended it to mean something baked that is both flat and made with or covered with ingredients that differentiate it from common flat bread, hence terms like Kuchen, Fladen, Wähe, and Zelten in German-speaking Europe. Torte, a word derived from Latin tortum, moved into German and other northern European languages (such as Polish) via French or Italian during the Renaissance and entered English as tart. The fruit tart of Renaissance England evolved into the colloquial fruit pie of colonial America and there departed from its ancient flat cake ancestry, which may be said to linger on only in the shape of the bottom crust.
However, very primitive types of cake do survive in the form of the Alsatian quiche (derived from German Kuchen)here the rim of the cake dough is turned up to allow for a deeper covering or filling (common cheesecake also belongs to this category). Another type is like the so-called galette bretonnaise (Breton flat cake), which is round, flat, sweet in taste, and enriched with butter. It is baked on a griddle or bake stone and thus shares a common lineage with the bannock and scon of the insular Celts. A Mediterranean counterpart would be the karydopita nistisimi (Lenten walnut cake) of Greece eaten with syrup. The sweet johnnycake of colonial America is a New World extension of this primitive flat cake concept. The hoecake (a flat bread baked on a shovel) and the ash-cake (a flat bread baked under hot coals) are both variants of this basic type.It is also clearly evident from surviving written evidence that medieval cakes were not necessarily sweet, for they could include such ingredients as cheese and herbs, a batter of cheese and eggs, a few slices of sausage,
The Galette or Short Bread
The galette or short bread is the type described above in connection with galette bretonnaise and American sweet johnnycake. The unifying features include an enriched, stiff unleavened doughhich may be molded or flattened by hand or with a rolling implement round shape, and a brittle texture once baked. The cake may be further ornamented by impressing images or patterns into the surface. These cakes rely for their tenderness or soft texture on a combination of fat (usually butter) and specially selected flours, such as soft wheat flour or a mixture of barley flour and wheat, or even to some extent on breaking the dough by beating it. They are now commonly categorized as pastries, especially since this type of dough is now employed to make cookies, but historically, such short doughs were treated as cakes as long as they conformed to a flattened shape. When the short breads are stacked and interfilled with rich ingredients, they are almost always referred to as tortes or gâteaux. An example of the former would be the linzer torte of Austria, while the French gâteau mille-feuille would be an
Bread Cakes or Loaf Cakes
These may be further divided into sweet and savory types. An example of the latter would be the common Italian foccacia covered with herbs, cheese, and sliced tomatoes. An example of the sweet type would be the early American Moravian sugar cake, which is essentially a sweetened yeast-raised dough into which is inserted a mixture of brown sugar, cinnamon, and butter. This is accomplished by making holes in the surface of the dough and pressing the mixture in with the index finger. The common thread is that these cakes are yeast-raised and therefore most like bread in texture. Furthermore, they were meant to be eaten out of hand like a piece of bread. Many sweetened festive breads of the Mediterranean preserve this old form, especially in the elaborate preparations of Greek Vasilopita (St. Basil's cake) for the New Year and the numerous traditional Cypriot breadlike cakes ornamented with dried fruit, almonds, and brightly colored comfits.
The yeast-raised Gugelhopf or Napfkuchen of southern Germany and Austria are further extensions of this basic idea, with the additional refinement that the bread is baked in a form so that it acquires an impressive ornamental shape. Rather than sticking fruit into the surface, it is chopped and worked into the dough itself. The Worcester loaf cake of New England, which was similarly baked in a shaped cake pan, provided early Americans with an equivalent example. Its vernacular name, however, indicates that originally (in the 1600s) it was baked round to resemble a loaf of bread, and like bread, it was not made too sweet since it was served with jam or preserves on ceremonial occasions such as funerals. This type of yeast-raised cake achieved its most monumental and most vertical expression during the Renaissance and Baroque periods in such phallic shaped cakes as the Russian Easter cake and the Polish baba.
Baked Pottages or Plum Pudding Cakes
Plum pudding cake was once found in many parts of medieval Europe, but quickly disappeared during the Renaissance in favor of lighter and sweeter preparations. Since the plum cake was associated with traditional fall butchering and Christmas feasting in England (and may be traced to pagan times), it has lingered on in British cookery to this day. It was also brought to colonial North America, where it continues as a feature of Christmas fare under the name of fruitcake. Fruitcake is especially popular in the American South.
In order to understand the origin of this cake, we must start with something similar to mincemeat thickened with meal, cracked wheat, or flour, to which is added a variety of rich ingredients. These would include blood from butchering (hence the term black cake), suet, butter, dried fruits, honey, and a variety of spices. This could be served freshly made as a festive pottage, or baked thick in a pan or shallow crock and later turned out like a wheel of cheese. The use of pottery for such purposes is attested to by Michael Hero, who illustrated something similar called Scherbenbrodt (crock bread) in his Schachtaffeln der Gesuntheyt (Strasbourg, 1533).
At this point, the baked mass becomes a cake due to its round, flattened shape and solid texture, and black cake it is indeed. Furthermore, it can be sliced and eaten with the fingers; thus it migrates from the medieval pottage course to an entremet for the final course, when various sweets and delicate foods are served. From here, the cake undergoes rapid metamorphosis, with increasingly more eggs, sugar, spices, candied fruits, and other ingredients associated with luxury, leaving the homey pottage altogether to evolve along a separate line into plum pudding. One unifying feature, however, is the dark color that came initially from blood, but which is later derived from molasses or brown sugar. Both plum pudding and fruit-cake retain this visual allusion to their ancient association with butchering. And to some extent, both have retained their medieval role as visual centerpieces during the course of the meal.
The festive nature of this type of cake, which eventually comes to rely on beaten eggs for its lightness, is preserved in names like rich bride cake, Twelfth Night cake, and Christmas plum cake. More refined (less dark) versions developed into tea cakes, such as Dundee cake and Cumberland fruit cake. The latter preparation has many counterparts in Victorian cookery books. Both the bride and Twelfth Night cakes were similarly ornamented with elaborate icings, but the bride or wedding cake has since evolved into something quite different, having crossed over the line into the next category of cake discussed below.
The traditional bride cake made with fruit as described here probably fell out of fashion due to its dense weight, since it could not be stacked to a great height without crushing the layers underneath. Furthermore, there is considerable work involved in icing it, since it must be coated with a hard layer of marzipan to keep moisture from seeping out into the highly ornamented royal icing encasing the whole creation. Such seepage would stain the work or dissolve it altogether. This telling detail is evident in the fact that most commercial American fruitcakes are no longer sold iced, since this requires a level of competence now dispensed with in large-batch operations.
Pancakes and Batter Cakes Baked in Pans
This takes us into a realm of research that on one level is refreshingly simple, yet on another, perplexing and ambiguous. Let us deal with the ambiguities first. Most of the cakes in the category of pancakes and batter cakes cooked in pans are referred to in French as gâteaux, since they are now of a large and impressive sort. Unfortunately, the origins of the word gâteau are obscure, although the Viandier of Taillevent (1380s) mentions something called a gaitellet, which has been glossed as a little cake. This would imply that there were cakes larger than a gaitellet and known by another closely related name (gaitelle). If this has a Gaulish root (which is possible), it may derive from a cognate of the Latin catinus, a deep dish or bowl, or more specifically from catillus, the diminutive for a dish or plate (here again the inference
We are on firmer ground with the 1398 observation of John of Trevisia who saw in England a cake "tornyd and wende" at the fire. He even said that it was called a cake and his comment is in fact considered one of the earliest documented uses of the word. What he observed was the preparation of the once popular spit cake (Spiesskuchen) much depicted in the paintings of Bruegel and other north German artists. This is created by dripping well-beaten batter onto a hot spit as it turns before the fire, thus spinning out a series of flat irregular cakes in accordion fashion. This was served set on end as a type of wedding cake, one of the few ways in which medieval cooks could raise a batter cake to great heights. Verticality is a feature of many cakes of a highly festive nature, and this cake is still made today by professional bakeries in France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany.
The spit cake is an anomaly in its unusual method of baking. Most batter cakes were created in a much more straightforward manner: down hearth in a bake kettle (Dutch oven). However, this takes us into yet another region of ambiguity concerning the origin of the cake, since we must now confront the pan and the ways in which it dictated the evolution of all cakes composed of batter. It would seem logical to presume that the pan- in "pancake" refers to Vulgar Latin panna, which is normally glossed as a shallow pan or vessel. But all things did not flow from Rome. Thus we might also look to words such as the Belgic and Treverian Gaulish panna (a likely source for the Vulgar Latin in any case) for a more basic explanation and a richer understanding of the batter cake.
The meaning of panna is well attested to by its survival in Westphalian German under the name Pannas, a festive pot pudding made during the butchering season that is solidified in a pan, then sliced and fried in little cakes. One of the original Belgic meanings of panna was a cauldron or kettle (in which the pudding was boiled), but more abstractly a cooking implement or ceramic form of varying depth. These alternative meanings survive in German as Pfannkuchen or Pfannzelten (south German), cakes that are hearth-baked in a kettle concept that survives in the form of the Dutch oven and colonial American spider corn cake.
The thinnest sorts of batter cakes are those most like the pancakes and crepes made from milk, flour, and egg and served today as breakfast foods. They evolved out of omelets to which flour, fat, and other ingredients were added in ever-increasing amounts. The next immediate stage would be cakes resembling the Italian fritatta, then soufflés (cakes that deflate), and finally batters that actually contain enough structural material to bake firm and retain their shape. Such pan-baked delicacies were known even in the early Middle Ages, for in his De honesta voluptate et valetudine (1465) Platina published a recipe for a Byzantine artolaganos (pan or layer cake) prepared with eggs, sugar, cheese, and finely ground millet. His recipe came from Milanese chef Martino di Rossi under the name migliaccio (millet cake), proof that delicate, batterbased cakes were already a feature of Italian court cookery by that time.
At this point, the pancake moves further along two separate lines of evolution. Since thickness and lightness were increasingly sought after, the pan itself became taller and taller to contain the new heights being achieved. More closely controlled results could be expected in an oven, so batter cake cookery was soon transferred to the bake oven. It is important to remember that Rossi's migliaccio was baked in a kettle down hearth, as most peasant variants of this type of cake continued to be baked well into the nineteenth century. However, cakes with heavy ingredients, like the migliaccio, soon evolved into delicate pound cakes once freed of the smoky, drafty atmosphere of the hearth, while batters with reduced fat and more beaten egg whites followed the fritatta to its ultimate conclusion in Savoy and sponge cakes. Denser batters were baked in panst first round, like hearth implements, then square; finally, during the late Renaissance we witness the cake evolving into the multitudes of shapes depicted in many French cookery books of the period.
The replacement of flour with highly refined commercial starches and the replacement of eggs with chemical leavenings allowed the development of lighter and lighter cakes during the nineteenth century. The angel food cake invented in the 1870s by Linus Dexter of Vineland, New Jersey, was the product of just such a technological shift. Likewise, American cooks began to stack one cake upon the other to create the thick layer cake, a response no doubt to a similar evolution in the wedding cake, which soared to great heights once freed of its old fruit cake foundation. The opposite may be said for chocolate cakes, which now vie for density and richness. They may have replaced the sinfully greasy baked pottages of the Middle Ages (although still dark in color), and they may be relegated to dessert carts in the scheme of many modern restaurants, yet fine cakes still command a place of high esteem by virtue of their sheer voluptuousness. They have become the alter ego of a society obsessed with the ills of overabundance.
See also Bread; Pastry; Wedding Cakes.
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William Woys Weaver