Welcome to “Food of Yore,” in which we’ll take trips down culinary memory lane to explore the history of recipes. Food history is as rich as our favorite flourless chocolate cake, so check back every Tuesday as we reveal the stories behind your favorite dishes.
Tall, frosted layer cakes grace our tables on special occasions: They’re there for birthday celebrations, holiday dessert spreads, weddings, and many other celebrations. But did you know that this sweet treat, seemingly the epitome of homemade, was pretty difficult to make at home before the late 19th century?
Baking a cake used to require “scrubbing” butter (meaning you had to work it until it was firm, and then drain it of its water content), breaking up and crushing a solid chunk of sugar, sifting flour through muslin, and finally whipping egg whites for two hours. All by hand, of course. But in a roughly 60-year period spanning the late 1800s to early 1900s, manufacturers figured out how to make refined white sugar and soft white flour, perfected confectioners’ sugar (which made frosting far easier to make), and began to produce reliable baking soda and baking powder. Butter also hit the mainstream production cycle during this time; previously, butter had a season, and when the cows weren’t producing milk it was either rancid or encrusted with salt preservatives.
But the technological advances didn’t stop at actual food products. Factories began making better and more efficient beaters and mixers, as well as gas and electric stoves, that let home bakers control oven temperatures. In the young, rapidly industrializing nation, the cost of ingredients and kitchen equipment dropped. All of these advancements made cake baking, which was once a laborious, time-consuming, and expensive undertaking, a whole lot easier. Makes you feel pretty lucky that these days that we can make our cake and eat it, too, doesn’t it?
MAKE IT NOW: Our recipe for Italian Cream Cake is free until April 16, 2013.