Cake: a global history

Nicola Humble

Is it a biscuit? Is it a cake? The age-old Jaffa Cake debate finally settled through the courts (it’s cake) provides an intriguing hook for this exploration of cake throught the ages. From Sacher tortes to Marks & Spencer teacakes, debates have raged over what constitutes the essence of a cake. Traditionally bread or biscuit-based, it is not until the 17th Century that cake as we know it arrived, with the removal of yeast, replaced by whisked egg whites and then raising agents.

This account of cake’s evolution is dotted with curios, from the Egyptian Greek Athenaeus recounting mulloi a sesame and honey cake shaped like women’s genitals, carried in processions to the Puritans banning cake and Hitler’s (now unfashionable) Swastika cake.

Humble is in her element, trawling the history books, but falls flat in modern history. The past 60 years is summed up via the recent obsession with the "postmodern" cupcake, which she puts down to childhood yearning and goes only a small way to explaining the phenomenal rise in cake’s fashion status.