From Bread to Cake – A Simple Story of Evolution

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I could go on for quite a long (and boring) time about how baking evolved, because I think it is pretty fascinating.  But, this is supposed to be a “simple” story, so I will keep it to the bones as much as possible.  This is a look at how bread – specifically leavened breads – turned into the wonderfully addicting party favorites we know today.  Links to my research (and some of my favorite sites) are listed at the bottom, if you would like to delve further into cake ancestry.

Before we dive in, you need to know that it is more difficult than one might think to classify a “cake” from a “bread,” and it depends upon who or where you ask as to which is which. The best example of this is banana bread, which to most of us would be more technically be a cake, and therefore lives in the hoary netherworld known as “sweet bread” (not to be confused with “sweetbread,” which involves certain parts of animals that won’t be mentioned here).

Bread has been around for roughly… 30,000 years.  Of course, back then it was mostly a paste heated until it could be picked up and eaten (unleavened breads).  This is known because of archaeological evidence (the bakers’ version of Indiana Jones).  What isn’t known (or at least I haven’t been able to find it yet) is when the bread started to be leavened.  A good guess is also in prehistory, because yeast spores are so darned commonplace that they may have accidentally gotten into that paste before the heating, causing the equivalent of the spark of life in our primordial ooze.  I can’t help but think of what was going through that person’s mind when their normally flat cooked paste came out all fluffy.  I mean, we know it tastes good, but they didn’t.  Did they just through it down their gullets anyway?  Or did they dare each other until someone closed their eyes and took a teency bite?  The mind reels at the possibilities…

Ancient Egyptians (who made emmer wheat breads) had leavened bread since about 4000 B.C., but it isn’t known how popular this bread actually was.  Ancient Greeks (who preferred barley breads) apparently liked their leavened breads enough to make sourdough starters, which means they knew about the properties of yeast-rising dough to know that they can let it rise, pop some from the top and bake it, leaving the starter (or mother dough) to keep rising.  This can go on for an incredibly long time, and can even be split and given to someone else to make their own mother dough.  When I was younger I was given a recipe for Amish friendship dough, and this would have lasted a long time, had I been a better baker then (aka, more attentive).  If Greeks had bread, you can bet the house that ancient Romans had bread too.  They had no qualms in taking anything they liked from every culture they came across.  And once Rome had leavened bread, it spread throughout the Roman world, which was – as we all know – huge.  Leavened bread has been found in ancient countries all across the globe, from Africa to India to Europe, wherever grains were harvested.

Bored bakers began to experiment with bread.  Where it was formerly baked on a stone in a fire (and therefore covered with ashes), now it was baked within an iron pot over the fire.  Then it was baked in a brick oven, then a tiled oven.  Then it was baked in a clay pot.  Then it was covered by the clay pot.  All these changes made the bread rise more predictably, higher, lighter, less dense.  This bread tasted like… bread.  It wasn’t sweet, it was incredibly basic.  Bread became commonplace enough for anyone (with the time to bake, they didn’t have electric utensils and bread makers yet) to bake, and the ability to get multiple grains allowed for a rise in the variety of bread flavors.  Mixing grains, adding any and all baking spices (the spice depends on the country of course) gave delicious and savory flavors to the normally pretty bland bread.

I can go on forever about this leg of evolution, as stated earlier.  But when did bread become cake?  Well, cakes were written about in Ancient Greece (boy did they love their foods) by Athenaeus in Deipnosophistae, which is an account of banquets – everything from what was served to manners and entertainment – in fifteen books.

By this time, apparently they already had cakes, cookies, and pastries to munch upon.  Keep in mind, though, that cakes in antiquity were not quite the cakes we know today.  They were more like fried breads or cheesecakes than our typical light and fluffy cake.  Greeks adored their olive oil, and would fry leavened bread with spices in it.  Cheesecake was made with goat’s milk, which had sweeteners added to the naturally (slightly) sweet milk, resulting in a tasty dessert that was cake-ish.  It was often baked on a base of unleavened bread, or pastry.  Sometimes it was baked inside the pastry, much like a shepherd’s purse is today.

Vikings had cakes, and brought their recipes to early England (or the place where the druids kicked out the Romans), who made their own styles of cake-bread.  We get the word “cake” from the Viking word “kaka” (no snickering, please).  Their cake was more likely made from buttermilk or leftover yeast from beer making as leavening agents.  And a “cake” could just as likely refer to a loaf of bread as to a sweet bread, usually sweetened with honey.  They used ground birch bark in place of grain, which has a natural sweetness to it.  They also added nuts to their bread, a modern favorite to add to many sweet breads and cakes.  In fact, Vikings added just about everything to their breads, including seeds, cheese, and even fish.  Once baked it was just about the easiest food to stuff in your pockets just before setting sail to someplace warmer… like England.

Going back to early England, their cakes were also more like bread, in that they were barely sweet.  The English baked their cakes round, their breads rectangular, and therein lies their biggest difference.   That, and the cakes were turned over once while baking, making them slightly flatter than their boxy counterparts.

Sponge cakes (like the delectable angel food cake) were created during Renaissance (most likely Spain) by adding heavily beaten eggs to a basic bread recipe and baking it like a cake.  Eggs came to replace wheat in sweet recipes at this time, because of the lightness of the finished product.  Towards the end of the Renaissance, these light cakes were molded into wonderfully strange delicacies, much like the high and awesome hairdos and hats.  But ease of use won out, and eventually the most common shapes for cakes were simple ones: squares and circles.  Stacking and covering with fruits, jellies, creams, and icings were then used to give the most flamboyant bakers something to do.

From hereon, the difference between bread, pastry, sweet bread, and cake becomes more distinct (but not perfectly distinct).  Bread is unsweet, made (mostly) with ground grains, with our without leavening agents, most often yeast or yeast products.  Pastry is unleavened, made with ground grains, and unsweet or very slightly sweet.  Sweet breads are leavened with agents other than yeast such as eggs, baking soda, or baking powder (although strangely yeast products can be used); and they are sweet.  Cakes are leavened with agents other than yeast (mostly) and are sweet. Of course, this is my (sort of) strict classification scheme.  If you ask another baker, their guidelines may be different.

This ends today’s evolutionary class.  Keep watching for more evolutionary diatribes… I mean blogs.  Please comment or criticize below.

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