Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Let Them Eat Cake

Although they say cake is a moment on the lips, forever on the hips, it’s a culinary delight with a long history. Food historian Alan Davidson, author of The Penguin Companion to Food says the word is of Viking origin, from the Old Norse kaka (no snickering) and denotes a baked flour confection. Europe and places such asNorth America where European influence is strong have always been centers of cake baking.

But, the history of cakes, goes way back. Among the remains found in Swiss lake villages were crude cakes make from roughly crushed gains, moistened, compacted and cooked on a hot stone. Such cakes can be regarded as a form of unleavened bread, as the precursor of all modern European baked products. Some modern survivors of these mixtures still go by the name 'cake', for instance oatcakes, although these are now considered to be more closely related to biscuits by virtue of their flat, thin shape and brittle texture.

Moulds, in the form of cake hoops or pans have been used for forming cakes since at least the mid-17th century. Most cakes were eaten accompanied by a glass of sweet wine or tea. At large banquets, elaborately decorated cakes might form part of the display, but would probably not be eaten. By the mid-19th century the French were including a separate "sweet" course at the end of the meal which might include 'gateau.'

The ability to bake a good cake was a prized skill among housewives in the early to mid-20th century, when many households could produce a simple, filling 'cut and come again' cake, implying abundance and hospitality. Although the popularity of home baking and the role of cakes in the diet are changing due to girthosity, some of us continue to be cakevores.

I am one of these creatures so I applaud the judge’s opinion announced at the International Association of Culinary Professionals gathering last month in Portland. They named Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Heavenly Cakes the best cookbook in the “Sweet and Savory” category. The author of The Cake Bible, she has compiled and tested more than 100 new cake recipes and piled them into a clear, concise and beautifully photographed book that is nothing short of divine – I mean really.

I talked with Rose a while back and she is as bubbly and delightful as her recipes are delicious. She tried to convince me she was so Californian she was almost native. After all, she explained, she once flew in to whip up a wedding cake for a San Francisco society nuptial event. Her “grand marnier wedding cake with Steuben glass “In Love” topper" was a show stopper. The recipe is included in her new book, but it’s going to take more than spectacular cakes to be a real Left Coaster. Sorry, Rose.

But, after looking Rose’s new book over some of my friends have suggested pulling a “Julie and Julia” thing and cooking every recipe in Rose’s book as a way to try everything and show off our skills. Skinny jeans and cholesterol readings have pushed this project to the back burner. But, if you want to try a few of the recipes, order Rose’s Heavenly Cakes online or local booksellers. $39.95 Rose also has a popular blog at http://www.realbakingwithrose.com/.

More information on the history of food is available at http://www.foodmuseum.com/index.html

Bon Appetite!