Have you ever looked at a cake and wondered what could be the secret behind the myriad shapes of cakes? Do they taste better in one shape than the other? Is there a definite story (read: science) to the varied styles or is it all a pastry chef’s ingenuity? The answer to this baked quandary is a mix of both.
Cakes were traditionally round in shape thanks to the early Egyptian, Romans and even Indus bakers who shaped their cake using their hand and confined the ingredients to one place with a hoopla before baking it like bread without the yeast. And for a generous period of time, cakes were round.
Cakes, however, were the prerogative of the affluent. The scenario of cake baking in fact changed only with trading and when ingredients for baking could be afforded by the poor who made their own version using coarse grain, seeds and fruits — things that didn’t need even the wooden peel around to keep it in shape. It was only when civilisation began moving towards the medieval times that cake making began changing and attaining its own space in culinary books. The idea of throwing flour with fruits, eggs, honey or molasses for a treat that tasted better than the bread played the catalyst for different styles of rustic cakes being made across the world.
The earlier versions of cake tins were like the biscuit trays we use today, albeit with holes. This allowed bakers to bake quite a few things at the same time by using iron hooplas and wooden peels. For a good part of the early medieval period, cake baking was rustic and often marked by a definite event in the history like victories, coronations, royal weddings, and of course prosperity. Incidentally, these phases not only determined the different versions of cake, from the poor man’s treat made with lowly sorghum and applesauce to Queen Elizabeth’s favourite Dundee Cake, the lavish wedding cake and the baby (doll)-hiding King Cake, to the Crazy Cake that came to celebrate the end of the World War. The difference in ingredients and the need to stand out by bakers saw the origin of many formats, including one that would come to define the art of cakes — it was the Bar Cake.
A close cousin of the loaf, this feudal era innovation, was a benchmark of both functionality and style and soon became a hot favourite with not only the masses but the affluent as well. Pastry chefs — both royal and neighbourhood — found that the new size not only catered to a wide variety of batter, but it could make more cakes and was thus economical too. The new size facilitated easy packaging and storage and also ensured a more experimental approach to cakes leading to the creation of many common favourites today like the Banana loaf, Raspberry Pistachio, the Golden Apricot and Almond Cake, Peanut Butter and Vanilla Marble (which eventually had a chocolate variation too), the Blueberry and Cherry Crumble, and the most iconic of all the Italian Plum Cake, which unlike its British brethren, was always baked in the shape of a bar and is softer thanks to the use of yoghurt and lemon. During the Victorian era, bar cakes were a hot favourite as they were easy to layer and even coat on the top. This resulted in the invention of many iconic cakes like the Marble Cake, the Ricotta and Pear cake, Swiss Roll and of course our very own Walnut Cake to name a few. By the 19th century, Bar Cakes were a teatime standard across the board. For bakers, bar cakes made more entrepreneurial sense as they could alternate the tins to create interesting loaves and bread as well. The blockbuster movement of the Bar Cake however came with the biggest human-made tragedy of World Wars and the Great Depression.
While the former turned fruit cakes and war cakes shaped as a bar into an integral part of the soldiers’ ration, for the latter, the Bar Cake became the saviour as milk-less, eggless, butterless cakes made their appearance to feed people. Popular bakers encouraged people to use ingredient omission technique to create budget-friendly cakes. The Bar Cake came to the rescue. The early 20th century finally set the tone of Bar Cakes, which is even today preferred for its functionality, style and variety.
(The author is a seasoned pastry chef.)