Recently I called a friend to chat just as she was baking a birthday cake for her grandson: a classic white cake with boiled frosting, she said. I had never heard of boiled frosting; but, then, practically my entire experience with frosting is to spoon it from a can!
However, I recalled my mother’s 7-minute frosting with its glossy appearance and swirly peaks – beautiful to behold and yummy to eat, but rather involved in its preparation.
In the process of googling through my computer to figure out if boiled frosting and 7-minute icing are the same, I learned almost too much about cake.
I skimmed historical explanations that cakes branched off from breads, coming into their own through leavening agents other than yeast and serving customs that included celebratory occasions.
Down through the years, 1234 Cake was common in the 18th century when many people could not read. The title became the recipe: 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, 4 eggs. There was Depression Cake, basically a milkless, eggless, butterless, flourless concoction made with shortening, water, spices, baking powder, and boiled raisins or molasses for sweetness.
And surprisingly, layer cakes have been a fairly modern trend that began after World War II. As the troops came home and ladies retired from their wartime jobs, women’s magazines extolled the elegance of layer cakes and the talent required to create them.
Eventually, I decided to somehow organize the mass of information I had collected by categorizing the various cakes mentioned in my readings. Cake “theorists” seem to insist upon two broad classifications: butter cakes and foam/sponge cakes. Their scientific explanations of air bubbles and volume made my eyes glaze over, so I searched for other ways to assuage my need to categorize.
Cake names often indicate an action during preparation: poke cakes, dump cakes, drip cakes, roll cakes. An unusual or unexpected ingredient may provide the name of a cake: pudding cake, coca cola cake, beer cake, and ice cream cake – Baked Alaska, anyone? We all still enjoy the occasional slice of carrot cake, which rose in popularity during a health food craze in the early 70’s, although any nutritional benefits produced by vegetables in the recipe are surely cancelled out by the decadent cream cheese frosting!
Of course, I am amused by misleading cake names such as marble cake and dirt cake. Even more interesting are misnamed cakes; gingerbread belongs in the cake category as does Boston Cream Pie, while it is clearly a stretch to lump pancakes and cheesecake in with the likes of Red Velvet Cake or brownies.
Size counts in cakes, too. Cupcakes have been around for a couple of centuries, first baked in pottery cups – hence the name. The gourmet fad of a few years ago, during which a single cupcake might set a person with a sweet tooth back $3 to $5, has cooled somewhat. But tinier cakes, in the form of cake pops, have achieved new popularity; a tower constructed from cake pops served as the wedding cake at my niece’s recent nuptials.
Form is also important in the world of cakes. There are the basic presentations of sheet cakes and layer cakes, although currently those traditional shapes are often outclassed by elaborate figures resembling cars or animals or musical instruments. During our River Road years, one of my sisters made a charming, albeit rudimentary, Snoopy cake from one rectangular layer, one round layer, and a strategically-applied combination of white and chocolate frosting. And my mother’s nursing school roommate won a prize at the state fair years ago for her three-dimensional typewriter cake, complete with keys fashioned from miniature marshmallows topped with pasta letters meant for alphabet soup – that was back when people still used typewriters.
There is another cake form, which takes its name from the pan used for its baking: bundt cake. Actually, bundt cakes of any flavor were not all that popular until 1966, when a lady from Houston won second prize in the Pillsbury Cook-Off for her Tunnel-of-Fudge Cake, filled with a chocolate-and-nut cream and baked in a bundt pan. Nordic Ware, manufacturer of the ring-shaped pan, had to scramble to supply pans for the 200,000 requests it received after the recipe went “viral” – in a 1960’s kind of way.
That fudge cake convinces me that, as categories go, I should probably add a separate one specifically for chocolate cake. There would be a plethora of mouthwatering entries, including Malted Chocolate Cake, Extreme Chocolate Cake, and the ever-popular Death by Chocolate Cake.
My googling and reading about all-things-cake this past week culminated in a now-you-know-the-rest-of-the-story moment about German Chocolate Cake. The true origins of the multi-layer confection with its coconut-pecan filling/glaze are, surprisingly enough, our own. In 1852 an American named Samuel German developed a new style of baking chocolate for the Baker’s Chocolate Company. A resulting recipe using the product carried the name of German’s Chocolate Cake. In the late 1950’s a Texas housewife revived the recipe; and during its rapid rise in popularity, the apostrophe was lost. So, the resulting German Chocolate Cake is an American invention. I do suggest, however, that readers sometime try the quintessential chocolate cake of Germany: Schwarzwaldkirschtorte, translated as Black Forest Cherry Cake. Lecker!
I have to stop now – I have made myself hungry! By the way, boiled frosting and 7-minute frosting ARE the same thing…