“You know when you are getting old when the candles cost more than the cake.” – Bob Hope
Our word “cake” is from the Old Norse term kaka and has no link to “cook” (which derives from the Latin coquere). The Latin for a cake is placenta (a placentarius was a pastry-cook) and comes from the Greek plakos meaning “flat” (as in the Plaka district of Athens). In modern Romania, plačintă is a cakeish circle with a cheese or fruit filling.
The anatomical term “placenta” was first used by the 16th-century Italian anatomist Realdo Colombo. He was stressing its flat shape (although it does nourish the foetus in utero). Until the 15th century, the English word “cake” meant a flat, round loaf of bread. Indeed, as the food historian Alan Davidson points out, “the frontiers between cake, bread, biscuit and bun remain indistinct”.
The British love of spice and sugar soon led to bread becoming sweeter and richer – more cake-like. Now there are few festivals or domestic celebrations that don’t have their accompanying sweet cake. Some, such as Banbury cakes, have closely guarded secret recipes; others seem to change dramatically wherever you find yourself. A good example of this is the “wigg”, a small cake whose name, according to Elizabeth David, derives from the Norse term for “wedge”. In the north-east they are more like a teacake. In Bristol they are just small bread buns. In Lincolnshire they are long and thin and finished with caraway seeds; in Hampshire they are oval with honey in the middle. We shouldn’t be too surprised – regional innovation and competition has long been the preserve of bakers, as the success of The Great British Bake-Off reminds us.
Medieval Epiphany parties marking the end of Christmas would feature a huge cake out of which live birds or frogs would burst. In later centuries the Twelfth Cake was baked with a bean, a pea and a clove hidden in the mix. Whoever found the bean became King for the evening; the finder of the pea became the Queen and the clove, the Knave. All would continue in their role until midnight and could appoint court officials to carry out their orders. Samuel Pepys mentions the custom several times, and once, having drawn the clove, surreptitiously stuck it into his neighbour’s slice.
A modified version of the custom persists in France, where the galette des rois eaten on January 6 contains a fève, or bean — in fact, a small plastic toy or widget.
One of the most curious English cake customs concerns a love charm called cocklebread. The 17th-century diarist John Aubrey’s description is unimprovable: “Young wenches have a wanton sport which they call ‘moulding of cocklebread’ – they get upon a table-board, and then gather up their knees and their coates with their hands as high as they can then they wabble to and fro with their buttocks as if they were kneading of dough with their arses, and say these words: ‘My dame is sick and gone to bed/ And I’ll go mould my cocklebread’ ”. The rich dough, imprinted with the young woman’s backside, was then baked and given to her intended, who would then fall under her spell.
Marie Antoinette didn’t say “Let them eat cake!” on the eve of the French Revolution in 1789. Jean-Jacques Rousseau quoted it as early as 1740 and some historians have attributed it to the wife of Louis XIV, Marie-Thérèse, who died in 1683. The original French was “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”. Given that 18th-century brioche was only lightly enriched by modest quantities of butter and eggs and not very far removed from a good white loaf of bread, it might even have been an attempt at kindness: “If they want bread, give them some of the good stuff.” In French, un biscuit is not a biscuit but a cake – a sponge cake, to be precise. A biscuit in the English sense is un biscuit sec (literally, a dry sponge cake).
Jaffa Cakes are technically classified as cakes, not biscuits. Chocolate biscuits are subject to VAT at 17.5 per cent, but cakes are zero-rated. In 1991 the British government tried to have Jaffa Cakes reclassified as biscuits. McVitie’s vigorously opposed this, as it would have added considerably to the price. As part of their evidence to the VAT tribunal they baked a special 12-inch Jaffa Cake to demonstrate the product’s inherent cakiness, and won the case. The key difference between cakes and biscuits is that cakes go hard when stale, whereas biscuits go soft.