What Makes A Great Cake

Some might say that the right ingredients make a perfect cake; others may say it’s the way you mix the dough while grandmothers will tell you it’s their love that makes a great cake. Everyone has their own personal touches with many producing great cakes themselves.

However, we’re going to take a look at all that goes into making the perfect cake from a baker’s viewpoint. Baking a cake isn’t simply throwing all of the ingredients into a bowl and throwing it in the oven. For a baker, baking a cake is dedication, acquired skill, craftsmanship and loyalty.

Cake has been around for so long that it’s just a part of our daily lives. It’s always there to help us throw the best birthday parties, weddings, get-well-soon mementos, baby showers, holidays and desserts to illustrate celebration and emotion.

It’s such a common addition to jazz up events that many people have never even considered the history or details that goes into what it is that actually makes a great cake! Learning what’s behind baking cakes as well as how it’s come to be helps develop a better appreciation for cakes. Perhaps the next time you go to the bakery to pick up a birthday cake, you’ll stop to thank your baker or chat with him or her about their masterpiece – maybe you’ll get to hear some fantastic stories to bring back to your guests!

The History Of Cake

Going back a few centuries – all the way back to the 17th century, to be exact – the word cake was derived from the Greek originated word, plakous (meaning flat). According to archaeologists, the earliest examples were found among the remains of Neolithic villages where simple, round cakes were made from crushed grains, moistened and compacted then baked on hot stone.[i] While the date is generally discussed that these findings were being discovered around the 1600’s, there are other reports that suggest even earlier.[ii]

During this time, cakes made in Ancient Egypt were of a different substance by using more flour with honey being its main sweetener and adding nuts or fruits to decorate it or spice it up. In North Africa and the Mediterranean, these cakes had a closer resemblance to what is now known to all as cheesecakes and pastries.

The basic ingredients consisting of flour, milk, eggs, leavening agents, flavoring and sweetening have always been consistent over the centuries but like anything that happens over time, ovens and molds have been improved, regulated and updated to make baking cakes now, easy to do.

As with most things artistic, the French were the first people to serve cake separately as a dessert rather than part of the meal. This allowed for baked cakes and pastries to take on a whole new status and become quite the commodity, in turn, allowing chefs to begin rocketing to fame, riches and artistry making a name for themselves.

In the 1800’s, temperature controlled ovens were invented allowing cakes to become less bread-like and much more similar in texture to what we’re now used to in the 21st century.[iii] Instead of using round molds, people began getting creative with baking pans to change the shape of the typical, round flat-looking cake. People have gotten so innovative in fact; we now have cake-in-a-box for non-professional bakers!

Knowing the history behind cake adds more flavor to the mix but what is a cake without the decoration?

Decorating a cake is just as important as the cake itself (unless it’s a type of cake that doesn’t call for it, i.e., pound cakes) because it appeals to the eye, enticing you to take a bite. Can you imagine going to a wedding reception and seeing a 3-tiered red velvet wedding cake, without the icing and the frilly decorations that go with it? That’s just crazy!

The Icing On The Cake

The history of decorating cakes goes just about as far back as baking them but didn’t start to become fashionable until the mid-19th century – again, when the French began offering cakes as a separate entrée to their meals. Since then, it’s turned into a hobby for some but more importantly, is a culinary art and profession for chefs that’s taught and admired all over the world.

For a professional baker, decorating a cake is not just layering frosting on the top of the cake, it involves using decorative sugars, candies, icing with and without colors, glazes and other creative edible items. The decoration is what sells the cake, hence the popular phrase: Well, isn’t that just the icing on the cake!

While there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong method of decorating a baked cake, there are three traditionally used methods that serve as the basis for all forms:

The Lambeth Method

In 1937, Joseph Lambeth released a book on decorating by using his own method to create ornate scrollwork, flowers, vines and specialty figurines. Connect Joseph’s last name with the word, ‘method’ and voila! You now have the Lambeth Method! Although you may have not realized it, this is the method most commonly recognized on wedding cakes since it involves complicated piping, decorative lacework, and pearls and is also the most commonly used method in America.

The Australian Method

This style of decorating originated in – take a wild guess – Australia (were you surprised?) where the English colonists had settled, bringing with them the Lambeth Method while beginning their own take on it. While the Australian Method has similar qualities to the Lambeth Method by using overpiping, it uses much more detailed scrollwork and more curtaining. It takes an extremely skilled artist to intricately place the beads, pearls and curtain effects producing a beautiful sculpture that looks as though it’s straight out of a fairytale.

The Wilton Method

This method is the godfather of all cake decorating methods. In 1929, Wilton Enterprises began holding cake decorating classes and advertised them to caterers and chefs becoming extremely successful over time, thus evolving into the Wilton Method by the 1960’s.[iv] While the Australian Method and Lambeth Method use royal icing, the Wilton Method uses buttercream frosting and special pans to change the shape of typical round or square shaped cakes.

The Technical Side Of Cakes

Baking a fantastic cake isn’t only based on knowing the history and methods used behind-the-scenes, there are also the technical parts of correctly baking a cake that have to be properly incorporated.

While many people enjoy baking at home, certain factors differentiate home baked cakes from professionally baked cakes. Something as simple as oven temperature can make a huge difference – everyone has oven settings but many standard settings vary from one to the other. This can sometimes result in undercooked or overcooked cakes. The best way to solve this problem is by purchasing an oven thermometer so that your standard oven temperature because the norm rather than the branded norm.

The same method of reasoning is used for ingredients and technique. While home bakers exchange recipes and talk about them with their friends and family, professional bakers think in the sense of formulas much like chemists do. Bakeries are a baker’s laboratory and because they must produce the same, exact result for each, different recipe, it becomes a mathematical skill to ensure 100% accuracy.

A surprising little fact that might help understand exactly how detailed professional bakers bake is that when mixing their ingredients, it’s done according to the balance of the ingredients![v] Most people are familiar with folding dough, light stirring or fast paced mixing but to have a different style of mixing for every product a baker sells? It’s extremely fascinating!

Another interesting detail, along the same line, is that whereas people generally tend to think of ingredients as adding flavor to make a cake look pretty, bakers use the ingredients to designate jobs designed specifically for each ingredient.

This is not to say that people who aren’t professional bakers aren’t great cooks, it’s to give you an idea about how much dedication and skill is required to pull of a perfect cake every, single time you order from the bakery.

Without a great cake, parties would be boring! Much like the original, round cakes made in the 17th century, it’s sufficed to say that cakes really do make the world go round!

References:


[i] http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/CakeHistory.htm

[ii] http://www.cakebaker.co.uk/TheHistoryOfCakeBaking.html

[iii] http://recipes.lovetoknow.com/wiki/Information_About_Colonial_Baking

[iv] http://www.mommiesmagazine.com/history-of-cake-decorating/745/

[v] http://www.nfsmi.org/documentlibraryfiles/PDF/20100210093138.pdf