Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Birthday Cakes - Facts and Recipes
I spent a lot of time on the net today doing a little research work on birthday cakes! Why? Well, it all started this way. I was expecting Harry to call up and he didn't! Some how he always gets busy when he has to call me up! So I was making myself comfortable on a cozy corner of my balcony, relishing on the leftovers of my birthday cake. And it struck me! If birthdays are of such cultural and social significance as I had mentioned earlier, it's customs, rituals and everything related to it must also have some historical facts about them. That just gave me enough food for my idle brain and here I am, with Kate's own little take on birthday cakes!!!

The origin of birthday cakes can be traced back to ancient times. However, they were not the cakes that we have today. The word 'cake' is a derivation of the Old Norse word 'kaka' and is believed to be coined as early as the 13th century.

According to some historians, the custom of the birthday cake was observed in ancient Greece who made round or moon shaped honey cakes or bread and took it to the temple of Artemis -the Goddess of Moon. Ancient Romans celebrated three different types of birthdays: Private celebrations among family and friends, the birthdays of cities and temples, and the birthdays of past and present emperors or members of the imperial family. The 50th year was celebrated with a honey cake made of wheat flour, grated cheese, honey, and olive oil. Some other scholars, however, believe that the tradition of birthday cake started in Germany in Middle Ages, where a sweetened bread dough was made in the shape of the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes and were used to commemorate his birthday. The birthday cake later re-emerged in Germany as a kinderfest, or a birthday celebration for a young child. In England, birthday cakes are baked with symbolic objects inside. In medieval times, objects such as coins and thimbles were mixed into the batter. People believed that the person who got the coin would be wealthy, while the unlucky finder of the thimble would never marry. Today, small figures, fake coins and small candies are more common.

The birthday cakes are often decorated with a person's name and a message of congratulation! And candles, one for each year the person has been alive, make an integral part of it's decoration. Sometimes, an extra candle is also added for good luck. Tradition of placing candles on birthday cake is attributed to early Greeks, who used place lit candles on cakes to make them glow like the moon as they took it to the temple of Artemis -the Goddess of Moon. These candles were placed on the cakes with the intention of bringing up birthday wishes to God. In ancient times, people often prayed over the flames of open fire with the belief that the smoke would carry their wishes up to God. Today, it's believed, that if all the candles could be blown out in one breath, birthday wish would come true.

The cakes are usually yellow in color, though nowadays they come in all types of fancy shapes and themes. One of the flavors that have remained most popular over the years is the Chocolate birthday cake.

Earlier cakes were mostly round in shape. Scholars associate religious beliefs and technical compulsions for the same. Greeks offered the cakes to Artemis, and hence the round shape symbolizing the moon! Some believe, that the round shape in the early times resembled the cyclical nature of life, more specifically the Sun and the Moon! However, a technical explanation could be that in the early times most cakes and breads were made by hand. Typically, these were fashioned into round balls and baked on hearthstones or in low, shallow pans. Hence, these naturally relaxed into round shapes. With the progress of times baking pans of various shapes were developed and today we see cakes in imaginative shapes and sizes.

Finally, a lot of birthday cake recipes can be found in cookbooks publishes towards the last quarter of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th century. Some of the more famous and older recipes are from Fannie Merritt Farmer's "Catering for Special Occasions". It had a seperate chapter on birthday feasting, and cakes recipes were included in the child birthday menus. Some of the popular ones are Angel birthday cake and Sunshine birthday cake.

Angel cake:

Whites 5 eggs,

3/4 cup sugar,

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar,

1/2 cup bread flour,

1 teaspoon vanilla.

Beat whites of eggs until stiff and dry and add gradually, while beating constantly, sugar (fine granulated) mixed and sifted with cream of tartar. Sift flour into mixture, add vanilla, and cut and fold until blended. Turn into a buttered and floured angel-cake pan and bake in a moderate oven. Remove from pan, cover with White Mountain Frosting, and ornament with small candles placed in flower cases. The little cases may be bought of first-class city grocers or dealers in confectioners' supplies. --Catering for Special Occasions, Fannie Merritt Farmer [David McKay:Philadelphia] 1911 (p. 222)

Sunshine birthday cake:

Whites 5 eggs,

1/4 teaspoon salt,

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar,

Yolks 3 eggs,

3/4 cup sugar,

1/2 teaspoon almond extract,

1/2 cup pastry flour.

Add salt to whites of eggs and beat until light. Sift in cream of tartar and beat until stiff. Beat yolks of eggs until thick and lemon colored and add two heaping beaten whites. To remaining whites add gradually sugar measured after five siftings. Add almond extract and combine mixtures. Cut and fold in flour measured after five siftings. Bake in angel-cake pan, first dipped in cold water, in a slow oven one hour. Have a pan of hot water in oven during the baking, Remove from pan, frost and decorate, same as Angel birthday cake." ---Catering for Special Occasions, (p. 228-9)

Whew, all these about birthday cakes are making me hungry again! Gotta grab some grub!

Till then...

posted by Kate at 5:18 PM | Permalink | 0 comments