I’ve been afraid of this whole cake topic since I started this blog, since cake, like pie, is a rather difficult item to classify. But a grown man shouldn’t tremble before a pastry. It’s unseemly.
We can start, as so many food writers do, with the word itself. Perhaps there are clues there, yes? The term cake, you might be surprised to learn, is a Viking word. It comes from the Old Norse, kaka (back row, what have I repeatedly told you about snickering?), their word for enriched or sweetened bread. And in fact for most of recorded history “cake” actually was bread, though often of a lighter variety, sometimes enriched with various special ingredients.
Yet it’s the shape of cake that has truly distinguished it from bread over the centuries. From the ancient Mediterraneam down to contemporary Cape Cod, one thing that has always identified a baked good as a “cake” has been its round, flat form. Think not only of a cake layer, but of a pancake, an oat cake, a corn cake, bean cake, even a crab cake. Whether baked, pan fried, griddled or deep fried, they are all known as “cakes”. Seen in that light it seems fair to say that “cake” has historically been as much a method as a thing. Again, very reminiscent of pie, yes?
Here it’s interesting to note that no other language contains a precise equivalent for the English word “cake”. Though having worked with many Latin Americans in the course of my baking career, I know that various Spanish-speaking cultures have co-opted the word, pronouncing it various ways. I’ve heard kay-kay a lot from Mexican speakers, also cock-ay a time or two (alright mister, you’ve just earned yourself a detention…see me after class). Other words, like “gateau” or “pastel” actually stand for very different things…but more on that later.