Cake? Cake!

Sweet exploration of its history and meaning around the world

What is cake? Do we call something cake because it is round? Or because it is covered in cream and all sorts of goodies? And what is the difference between cakes and other pastries?

A good definition for cake is difficult. In Dutch for instance, various definitions can be given to describe it. The origin of the word ‘cake’ is not clear. Some say that it derived from the Viking word ‘kaka’  which describes the  bread-like cakes of our ancestors. 2000 years ago the Greeks and Romans ate tortas at parties and these were also particularly bread-like cakes. Torta led to the French ‘tarte’, the German ‘torte’ and the Dutch ‘taart’. Certainly, for a long time, cake differed little from bread.

Only during the 18th century did the first cake recipes appear with a similar resemblance to today’s recipes and, even then, only from the mid-19th century, can we truly speak of ‘modern cake'. Yeast was replaced by baking powder and baking soda to make cake lighter and,  as a result, the difference between bread and cake became more distinct.

Picture of Baker Muylle, Original Source: Bakkerijmuseum Veurne
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Postcard with advertisement for patisserie, Original Source: Bakkerijmuseum Veurne
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Additionally, technical improvements in regulation, such as  oven temperature, made it easier to bake a cake that was different from bread. Many products became more affordable, such as refined sugar, chocolate and (exotic) fruit.

The best definition: a cake is mostly round, with a flat bottom and topped or filled with mmmm ... goodies!.... goodies!


Until the end of the nineteenth century, sweet ingredients, such as sugar, chocolates and indigenous and exotic fruits, were expensive and so cake baking was considered a luxury. Only the nobility and the upper middle class could afford cakes for special occasions or celebrations. Sometimes the ‘cake’ was simply used as a decoration statement. The French pastry chef Antonin Carême (1784-1833) made the most wonderful pièces montées. These were created with sugar and nougat and show similar resemblances to a contemporary wedding cake. According to Carême, pastry was the most important fine art and should be considered above painting, sculpture, music, architecture and poetry. His works of art could be shaped like a Chinese pavilion or a Roman temple and served to impress the guests of his client. Tasting, however, was not permitted.

Etching of a pièce montée by Antonin Carême, Original Source: Bakkerijmuseum Veurne
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At the end of the nineteenth century cakes gradually began to sometimes appear on the tables of ordinary people. It still was not common, however, as sugar was only slightly more affordable and remained too expensive for many people. By the 1920s, this social frontier dividing rich and poor through the luxury of sweet ingredients began to fade.

Picture of Baker Desmedt, Original Source: Bakkerijmuseum Veurne
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Picture of Baker Desmedt's shop, Original Source: Bakkerijmuseum Veurne
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As prices dropped further, no feast or special occasion would take place without a cake: a birthday, a baptism, a Holy Communion, a wedding, a funeral, New Year, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Easter, Christmas, a carnival, a fair, a saint’s day. Many national and local communities and families established their own traditions for such celebrations.

Picture of women eating cake, 1984, Original Source: Amsab
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Cake is not limited to only big parties. It makes a feast of every occasion: cake on Sunday with grandmother or a cake to surprise someone or to cheer them up. Cake has a connecting function as it brings people together. It’s a delicacy that is always shared. A beautiful example of a simple cake for a small celebration is the Maltese Pudina tal-Hobz. This is a bread pudding, made of stale bread. Rather than wasting old bread, leftovers can be transformed into a cake by mixing it with raisins, currants, grated rinds of lemon and orange and chocolate.

The candy eater, J. Gordinne, 1894/1959, Original Source: Rijksmuseum
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Picture of a family gathering, Original Source: Huis van Alijn
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By the end of the nineteenth century, long before cake was within everyone's reach, cake influenced social factors: girls were taught how to bake cakes in domestic science schools. The cake play a significant role during the family gatherings on Sunday; it could be homemade, or picked up at the bakery. Nowadays, the baker has cake ready every single day!

Picture of a bakery shopping window, Original Source: Bakkerijmuseum Veurne
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Cake is not only eaten, but it can be thrown. Particularly if it has lots of cream! This is done for comedic effect. This ‘cake fight’ even has an official name: 'taarten' in Dutch, 'entarter' in French and 'pieing' in English. In 1909, the protagonist in the silent film ‘Mr. Flip’ was the first to have a cake thrown in his face and this joke soon was copied elsewhere. In the Laurel & Hardy comedy ‘The Battle of the Century’ from 1927, 3,000 cakes were thrown.

The record was set in ‘The Great Race’ (1965), when 4000 cakes were thrown. It was around this time that cake throwing  earned another, less laughable meaning. From the end of the sixties, ‘pieing’ was done to emphasise a political, generally progressive, statement. Noël Godin, a rebellious Belgian writer and filmmaker, is the world’s godfather of political pieing. In 1969 he hit the French writer Marguerite Duras when she presented her film Détruire, dit-elle. Alone, or with ‘gang members’, he subsequently made 28 more victims such as Microsoft CEO, Bill Gates, who was pelted in 1998. Godin’s targets were, according to him, all conservatives. His example continues to globally inspire certain people today.

Postcard with advertisement for patisserie, Original Source: Bakkerijmuseum Veurne
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Pieing is punishable under different national penal codes. Those that do not want to run risk of punishment can find certain charity events where pieing is an unpolitical activity and is instead done simply for fun. In such events, the person that donates the  most to charity can throw his pie at a prepared guest of honour.


In Cyprus and Greece, people celebrate New Year with cake called the Vasilopita. The exact translation of this in English is ‘Saint Basil’s pie’. It is associated with Basil the Great, the holy father of the Orthodox Church and the archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. According to tradition, after the emperor had levied a heavy tax upon the people of Caesarea, Saint Basil made him repent and withdraw the tax. Thousands of gathered coins and pieces of jewelry that had already been paid were baked into a huge pie (pita). Saint Basil blessed and cut the pita, offering a slice to each person. Miraculously, in each slice, everyone rightfully received their own valuable belongings. In remembrance of that miracle, Orthodox Christians traditionally bake and share the vasilopita on January 1st, the day Basil died in 379. Even today, people still bake vasilopita in accordance to the tradition and hide a coin wrapped in foil inside the dough.

Picture of a Cypriotic Vasilopita, Chrystalleni Lazarou, 2011, Original Source: Cyprus Food Museum
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On January 1st, immediately after the entering the New Year at midnight, the cake is cut and consumed in each household following a certain ritual. Using a knife, the father or grandfather symbolically makes the sign of the cross over the cake and repeats this action three times before slicing the cake into pieces. Each piece is dedicated to a specific person, named during cutting. The first one belongs to Christ, the second to the Virgin Mary, the third to St. Basil, the fourth slice goes to the host and thereafter pieces are distributed to all people present, from the oldest to the youngest. The last piece belongs to the house. Whoever finds the coin in his/her slice is considered to be the lucky person of the year. If the coin is in one of the first three slices then it is kept to be used in the following year’s cake.


On January 6, twelve days after Christmas, Epiphany is celebrated. According to Christian tradition, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, three kings (or the ‘wise men’) from the East, visited Jesus on this day. But the origins of the feast date back further. The first days of January have been celebrated by both Germans and Romans to mark the New Year and beginning of spring. In the course of their celebrations, the Romans also elected a king for a day. They did this by hiding a bean in pastry. This bean stood for a new and sprouting life. Whoever had the bean in his cake, could ‘reign’ for a day.

Picture of 'faives', Original Source: Bakkerijmuseum Veurne
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The tradition of choosing a king through this method  was quietly adopted into the Christian version of the feast. From the late Middle Ages onwards, Epiphany was an important family celebration in many European countries. Epiphany cakes – with or without a bean – can be found in Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, Bulgaria and Switzerland. In Spain and Portugal, the cakes are O-shaped: referring to the ring of the kings (Roscón de Reyes in Spanish, Bolo rei in Portugese). In Belgium and France they make a round cake with almond dough. But in all cases the custom follows the tradition of hiding a present within the cake. There should always be one piece left:  the God’s share. Resemblance with the vasilopita tradition is clear. From the sixteenth century onwards the Belgian, Spanish and French kings-for-a-day received a gilded or silver cardboard crown. The symbolism of the crown still remains a part of the tradition surrounding epiphany cakes that you find in bakeries today.

Epiphany  goes with a lot of traditions everywhere. The most well-known is the star singing for money and sweets. In some of today's Epiphany songs, references to the God’s share are still made.

Feast of the Epiphany, anonymous, 1600/1649, Original Source: Rijksmuseum
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Just as a bean stands for fertility, so do cherries. Cherry pie is used in several places to announce a pregnancy. The red cherry is associated with the colour and shape of the uterus. This tradition is rather new. Certainly until the 1950s,  a taboo surrounded the topic of pregnancies. Whilst the Church emphasised the idea that marriage was to produce children and deemed the ‘blessed state’ of the pregnant wife, it simultaneously contradicted itself by considering pregnant women as impure.

Around this time,  a comparable atmosphere surrounded birth. A birth was also considered unclean. As a result, the baptism of a child rather than the birth was celebrated. Until the Second World War, children were baptized as soon as possible to  protect them against purgatory. In wealthy circles, the christening feast was completed with a christening cake which would be very luxurious.  This tradition originated in Great Britain. British nineteenth-century recipe books always contain a recipe for a 'christening cake’. As of the 1960s,  the time between birth and baptism became longer and both occasions were celebrated separately. A birth was celebrated with sweets - for a sweet baby. Cake was served at a christening. This cake was no longer made according to a special recipe but generally, there would be an inscription referring to the occasion. Some couples kept a piece of their wedding cake at their wedding and ate it at the christening feast.

Picture of a christening cake, Original Source: Bakkerijmuseum Veurne
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Picture of a christening cake, Original Source: Bakkerijmuseum Veurne
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Today, fewer children are baptized and birth is celebrated all the more exuberantly. At a baby shower, a birth cake will be shared amongst family and friends. Birth cake is a new concept: a sponge cake with pink or blue decoration, with or without the name and the date of birth of the new-born. Pink for a girl and blue for a boy. This is the opposite of past tradition as pink began as a ‘boy’s colour’. It’s only since the fifties of the twentieth century that it became a 'girl’s colour’.

Picture of Baker Desmedt with a christening cake, Original Source: Bakkerijmuseum Veurne
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A birthday goes with gifts, cards and… cake! But it hasn’t always been this way. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans celebrated the birthdays of gods and kings, but not those of ordinary mortals. And because no birthdays were celebrated in the Bible, Christians didn’t celebrate birthdays either. Have you considered that in order to celebrate the same day every year, a calendar is needed where each year has as an equal number of days? The Julian calendar used by the Romans was adapted in the sixteenth century to a system that is still prevalent today: 365 days per year with a leap year every four years, except for any century years that are not multiples of 400. Birthday calendars, showing dates but not days, can be reused year after year. These have been printed since the nineteenth century.

Painting of a birthday cake, Osias Beert, 1600/1650, Original Source: Rijksmuseum
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In the nineteenth century, the bourgeoisie started to celebrate birthdays, but in a much more sober fashion than today. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, anniversaries were more commonly celebrated with gifts, cards and cakes with candles. Many long-held traditions have been preserved and are still survive today. It is important, for example, that the birthday cake comes out well to ensure  a long and happy life ahead. A failed birthday cake means that the year might be the celebrator’s last birthday. When the candles are blown out in one breath, the birthday boy or girl can make a wish. That wish can only come true if it is not revealed. This custom goes back to the ancient Greeks. Artemis, goddess of the moon, had cakes offered in the shape of the moon with candles on top of it. Blowing out those candles at once, would propitiate the goddess.

Before blowing out the candles there is singing. Calling and singing will ward off evil spirits. 'Happy Birthday', the most famous English song, was composed in 1912.


Easter and Christmas are the most important Christian holidays. To accompany the celebration of Easter, there is often a great feast with cake included. This is especially enjoyed in countries where there has been a period of fasting.

On Easter Sunday in Poland, baba cake is made with baker's yeast mixed in warm milk and flour with sugar and a pinch of salt. The original baba was baked in a crinkle-cut truncated cone, and, after baking it, white or pink icing was poured over it. These cakes were first baked in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late seventeenth century. During the eighteenth century they became popular in many other European countries. In Lithuania for example, the ‘Velykine boba’ recipe could be found in many culinary books from the early nineteenth century onwards. In Western Europe, the baba became very popular in France, as a consequence of the marriage of Louis XV with a Polish princess. The name of the pastry also entered the English language from Polish, via the French.

Picture of a Polish Mazurek, Renata Wypij, 2015, Original Source: ICIMSS
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But there is another Polish traditional Easter cake that is even more famous than the baba: the mazurek. Mazureks are baked in different shapes - oval, triangular, square – and they are traditionally made of short pastry with sweet layers. There are many types of layers such as chocolate, walnuts, kajmak (butterscotch), orange, etc. The overwhelming sweetness of the mazurek serves as a great award after 40 long days of  fasting during the Great Lent.

In Italy too there is a typical Easter cake: the pastiera, made with eggs, boiled wheat and ricotta cheese. According to certain sources, this dates back to pagan times for celebrating the arrival of Spring. The eggs represent new life. Today’s pastieras have a delicate flowery and citron taste. The story goes that a Napolitan nun wanted the pastiera to have a spring perfume so she added some water with the fragrance of flowers, candied citron and aromatic spices.

Picture of an Italian Pastiera, Mattia Luigi Nappi, 2011, From the collection of: Europeana
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One of the highlights of a wedding is the cutting of the wedding cake. Of French origin, but also reflected on Belgian menus, is the 'croquembouche' - a cone of profiteroles, glued together with caramel sauce. The iced wedding cake built upon different tiers is of British origin. When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840 she received a cake weighing one hundred and fifty kilos, with a diameter of 1 meter. Bigger cakes were impossible to bake. In order for the next generation to compete with and surpass such extravagance, they raised the height of the cake. The first layered cake was shown at the occasion of the first World Exhibition in 1851 held at Crystal Palace, London. This venue was a gigantic glass temple in Hyde Park, and the Exhibition displayed the latest and newest  versions of every conceivable thing. This includes the latest machines and techniques, the newest cars and, for the bakers, the layered cake!

For confectioners to work in height they often used the magnificent sugar and nougat pièces montées constructions. But they served for decoration only as the layered cake could not easily be eaten. In 1858, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria married and she celebrated with a wedding cake with three tiers. With every royal wedding came another tier. From the beginning of the twentieth century, the British wedding cake was part of  every royal - or at least very luxurious - marriage in the Western world. Fifty years later it appeared at ordinary wedding parties and often with an American twist: a bridal pair at the top. Three tiers became the standard and each tier represented the various stages of married life. The top layer is made of white candy to represent sweet, young love; the second layer consists of pastry with a few bitter almonds; and the last layer is made of ordinary cake, although still under a thin layer of sugar.

Newspaper illustration of the first layered wedding cake, The Illustrated London News, 1858-01-25, Original Source: TopFoto
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Many saints are honoured with a cake on their holy day. Saint John is one example. In Catalonia, Spain, his birthday, on June 24th, is celebrated exuberantly with great bonfires. Those fires represent the sun and so, in order to purify the soul, the people burn everything that they do not want or need. Some sources claim that already in the Neolithic era the ancestors used fire to celebrate the solstice, while others claim that the origin of these fires come from  Celts who travelled to the peninsula through the pre-Roman cultures.

Besides the fires there is also the ‘coca de Sant Joan’. Even though the cake seems to be documented through the centuries, this tradition was particularly popular in the nineteenth century. The coca de Sant Joan was reborn in Barcelona to a family that owned an oven. Busy as they were, they had no time to buy any gifts for their son John for his Saint’s day. So the father, showing a great capacity for improvisation and patience, designed a cake with candied fruit and pine nuts and invited family and workers to share the celebration.

In Greece and Cyprus, Saint Fanourios has his own Fanouropita, a spiced raisin cake. In popular tradition, this saint is the finder of lost objects. By baking this spiced cake, people Saint Fanourios can help then to retrieve their belongings. The cakes baked in his name are traditionally offered at the church during the vespers on the night before feast day, or during the morning service on the holiday. The cakes are blessed by the priest and then shared with the congregation.

Picture of Fanouropita, Antonio Fajardo i López, 2010, From the collection of: Europeana
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A successful harvest is celebrated with a festival and all the hard work is rewarded with fairs and with cake. This often takes the form of fruit cake - with fresh strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and juicy pears – or with pies containing cherries, apricots, plums and gooseberries.

Unlike today, in the nineteenth century fresh fruit was not available throughout the year. Some apple or pear varieties could be stored for long periods but not long enough to last until the next harvest. Fruit was preserved in the form of syrup, jam or compote. From the early twentieth century, fruit could also be canned.

Fruit has played a strange role in our cake history. Unlike sugar, considered a luxury product by rich and poor alike, fruit was for a long time only a luxury product in the eyes of the rich. In the countryside fruit was available from late spring until autumn. Despite this, only in the beginning of the twentieth century did fresh fruit become regarded by ordinary people as a possible cake topping or filling. With its sweet taste, it was a cheap alternative to sugar.

Picture of women filling a cake, Original Source: Erfgoedcel Haspengouw
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Christmas Eve and Christmas day are wonderful opportunities for everyone to bake together, inside the house and around the Christmas tree.

In Germany, Stollen is made. This is a fruit cake containing dried or candied fruit and often marzipan, covered with powdered sugar. Its history goes back to the Council of Trent in 1545. Advent, like the Great Lent, was a time of fasting. The cake was a form of reward after sober days, especially when the oil was replaced by butter.

In Belgium people share a ‘kerststronk’ (Dutch) or a ‘Bûche de Noël’ (French). The log-shaped cake is said to go back to an old, pre-Christian tradition of burning a log to welcome the longer days. It became a typical Christmas dessert during the first half of the twentieth century.

In Poland, poppy seed rolls (makowiec zawijany) are baked on Christmas Eve. According to popular beliefs, consuming poppy seeds on Christmas Eve would ensure happiness and girls even associated it with helping them to marry soon. Why poppy seeds? In the Christian tradition poppy - a plant which contains thousands of seeds in one poppy head – is a symbol of fertility, fecundity and peaceful sleep.

Picture of a Polish Makowiec, Renata Wypij, 2015, Original Source: ICIMSS
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Cake in its often round-shaped pastry form and topped with goodies and sweets is of Western European origin. But all cultures celebrate and indulge at religious events and other occasions with sweet pastry. Or at least with something sweet as not everywhere bakes their sweet treats. Western European habits did spread, however. An example is in Lebanon, a French mandate from 1920 until 1943, were they still bake ‘katoe’ (from the French gateau).

A Jewish feast can’t pass without pastry either. Sweet pastry, honey cake or Lekach at Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) will sweeten the new year. Soufganiot, filled doughnuts, go with Chanouka, the feast of the light and the oil. At Pesach, Jewish Easter, one has to bake without flour as it is not permitted to eat risen food. Despite this, pastry with whisked egg is allowed.

African cuisine hardly contains pastries or cake. In Western  Africa, sweet beignets  are served at festive occasions. But ‘sweets’ are simply fruits very often. In the South East Asia there is little tradition of baking. In China, festive diners often end with sweet soup. Only at the Moon Feast, celebrated on the fifteenth day of the eight month of the Chinese calendar, do people bake. Moon cakes are round, made of puff pastry and filled with lotus seed paste.

Picture of Ma'amoul, Gveret Tered, 2008, From the collection of: Europeana
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Arab and Northern African cuisine has its very own tradition of pastry as well. A festive diner, at the occasion of a wedding, the Sugar Feast, or after the Hadj, is only truly festive when the two H’s are looked after: hamal (lamb) and halwa (sweets). Those sweets are baklava, but also ‘cornes de gazelle’ and Ma’amoul, date pastry. Christians in the Arab world prepare that same Ma’amoul at the occasion of Easter.


Where does this human fondness for sweet comes from? That is something many anthropologists have been examining. Symbolism is found in all eating habits and dietary patterns, but with 'sweet’, there is something special going on. There is no nation in the world that has no word for 'sweet', and there are very few nations where sweets do not accompany a feast.

There are different theories to explain the predilection. But one thing all researchers agree on, the love is partially innate. For primates and humans, a sweet taste - from berries and other fruits - was a guarantee of edibility and so the love was born. The importance of sweet immediately explains the importance of sweeteners, of which the quest for them continues. Honey is the oldest known, sugar cane and sugar beet is the best known. The sugar cane plant was domesticated in New Guinea around 8000 BC and travelled from there to the Indian archipelago. Cane sugar was probably for the first time produced at the beginning of the Christian era. From the 8th century, Arab peoples brought the sugar to the Mediterranean area and from there it entered North Western Europe around 1000AD. Arab and Southern European sugar cane production came to a standstill when, in the 17th century, sugar was imported from the colonies. This, as a consequence, made it beneficial for only the elites.

Pencil drawing of sugar cane, Jan Brandes, 1779/1878, Original Source: Rijksmuseum
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By the 19th century Europeans had figured out a way to be independent of importing sugar cane by instead extracting sugar from sugar beets. Because of its white colour, the refined sugar from beets was considered even more precious and pure than the light brown cane sugar. Industrial production of sugar from beets made sugar cheaper and more widely used. From the 1950s onwards sugar slipped in a lot of food - not only in pie!

Today, the search is primarily directed to find healthy sweeteners, as refined sugars are not that healthy. But with agave and maple syrup it is very well possible to continue to make celebration cakes!

Credits: Story

—This virtual exhibition was made possible through the Europeana Food and Drink project (, which is funded by the European Commission under the ICT Policy Support Programme as part of the Competiveness and Innovation Framework Programme. 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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