Baking · Cake · History of Cake · Uncategorized

Positively Medieval – Development in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages (specifically in England) was a milestone in the development of cake as a specific baked good, as this was the first time that cake and bread became two distinct forms. As discussed previously, the two terms used to be used pretty much indiscriminately, the only differentiation being size. This all changed during this period – now the term cake was used specifically to denote a baked good sweetened with sugar.

A crucial factor in baking of this time was preservation – without the methods of food preservation that we are used to today, foods needed to be able to be stored for a significant period of time. With this in mind, the two cakes that came to the fore were gingerbread and fruitcake. The Roman influence was evident in the importance of fruitcake, which had its roots in the sweetened, fruited bread mentioned last week. These cakes served two purposes – not only were they made to last for several months, they also included ingredients which would mark out the eaters of being wealthy people able to afford such ingredients.

During this period, the function of cake also developed, and it became the main celebratory dish of the period. Cakes became very ornate and elaborate, Chaucer remarking that one cake included 13 kilograms of flour, not to mention copious amounts of of fruit, cream, nuts, sugar and butter – all very expensive ingredients that really marked the owner out as a well-off member of society.

The recipe that follows in an authentic recipe for gingerbread, taken from here.




  • 1 cup clear honey
  • 1 small loaf of brown bread, ground into breadcrumbs
  • 3/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper, ground
  • 1/4 tsp ginger
  • ground cinnamon, to finish


In a small pan, bring the honey to the boil before reducing the heat and allowing to simmer for 5 minutes, ensuring that you skim off any scum that may float to the top. Remove from the heat and add the spices, before mixing in the breadcrumbs a cup at a time.Knead the mixture until thoroughly combined and roll out  to a depth of 1cm. Cut into 1in squares or circles and dust with the remaining cinnamon.

Baking · History of Cake · Vegan

The Great Ancient World’s Bake Off – Rome vs Greece

The two contestants stood behind their benches, their stone ovens and fires at the ready. This challenge was going to determine their future, and the question of which country would win the baking crown. The competitors stood in silence – the time for trash talk was over. As the judges stepped forward, the bakers apprehension rose; what would they be asked to make in this challenge?

Terra cotta oven from Pompeii on display in th...
Terracotta Oven from Pompeii

The baking battle between the Ancient Romans and Greeks was at full throttle at present and tension was rife in the kitchen. The Roman competitors consistently mentioned their baking guild, how it was considered so important in their country that a member of the baking guild was asked to sit in on the Senate! They viewed the Greek baking cuisine as far less advanced – they didn’t even grow their own wheat flour, but had to import much of it from Sicily and Egypt. Not to mention most of their cakes were created for sacrifices – what a waste! However, the final was approaching, and it was between a Greek and a Roman – he had a chance to win this!

It had been a tough day. The signature bake has gone well on the whole, both of them managing to complete a cheesecake of their choice. Chrysippus felt that his recipe for placenta, a cheesecake layered with honey and filo pastry had been received a little better than his competitors effort of honey-soaked goats cheese balls (no soggy bottom!), however the technical challenge of a honey cake has possibly gone slightly more towards his Roman competitor. However, it now all rested on the showstopper challenge.

The judges announced the challenge; to cook a cake of their choice, representing themselves and their culture. The time limit was set and the competition started. Both bakers ran to the oven and started preparing their ingredients. Mad thoughts ran through Chrysippus’s mind – would they think that his cake was too simple, especially considering that it didn’t require any baking? Had he played it too safe? Should he have used beer to leaven his cake, or was that too Egyptian in style? Was creating a traditional round cake too boring – fit for the temple but not for the competition? He quickly shrugged this thought off – if it was good enough for Artemis the Moon Goddess, it was good enough for the judges!

Ancient Greek Cake

The time had come – the time was up. The cakes were presented and tasted. Positive comments were given for both his cake and his competitor’s egg and honey enriched cake. Now all they could do was wait.

Chrysippus’s Recipe for Gastris



  • ½ cup golden raisins, soaked overnight
  • ½ cup dark raisins, soaked overnight
  • 1 cup almonds, soaked and blanched
  • 1 cup dried apricots, soaked
  • 8 tbsp honey
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cups hazelnuts
  • ½ cup walnuts, soaked overnight
  • 2 cups poppy seeds
  • 1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
  • A splash of water


  • 3 tbsp honey
  • 2 cups sesame seeds
In a medium pan, dry toast the poppy seeds on medium heat for 1 minute. Transfer the poppy seeds into a bowl before toasting the hazelnuts
Add all the ingredients for the filling in a blender, starting with the soaked dried fruits, then adding the almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts, then the honey and olive oil. At last, add the poppy seeds and the pepper. If the mixture gets too dry, add cold water, one tablespoon at a time. The mixture should not have a liquid consistency.
To make the crust, blend together the sesame seeds and the honey until the mixture is completely combined before dividing the mixture into two parts. Spread the first half on a parchment paper lined pan, add the filling on top, and press down to ensure an even covering.  Top with the remaining sesame mixture and refrigerate until completely set (at least a couple of hours).
Notes: To make this recipe completely vegan, substitute the honey for an appropriate sweetener.
Baking · Cake · History of Cake · Savoury Cakes

The 7,000 Year Old Cake

In the first of our series of posts on the historical development of cake, we are looking at Ancient history, going back 7,000 years to find the original source of cake. Get your time-travelling shoes on, step in the Tardis or turn over your time-turner and we’ll head back 7,000 years to the Neolithic Era and this particular settlement.

Clegyr Boia ancient settlement -

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t look like that in the Neolithic Era, but here is a more modern reconstruction of what it might have been like.

English: Skara Brae, Neolithic settlement, Ork...

This particular settlement is Clegr Boia in the north of Scotland, and it was in a settlement similar to this that the first items of a cake-like nature were discovered. Now bearing in mind that there was no leavening agent around at the time (the stuff that enables cakes to rise), the cakes were very different to what we think of now. Examples found were made of whole grains, crushed and moistened before being shaped into cakes and cooked on a flat hot stone. Produced today, they would be called oatcakes, and far from being a sweet, fluffy treat they would be a crisp, oat biscuit to be eaten with cheese. Not what we might want, but considering the resources available to these primitive peoples, it’s fascinating to see the roots of our now-common cake.

Oatcakes 1

Next week, we will move forward some years to meet with the Ancient Egyptians and introduce you to the innovations that made modern cake-making possible, whilst getting ready to meet the competitors of the Great Ancient World’s Bake-Off – the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Meanwhile, here is a recipe for oatcakes, which whilst using modern techniques (such as an oven) will still help to give you a taste of the Neolithic Bakery.

oatcakes 2

Neolithic-Style Oatcakes


  • 225g oats
  • 60g flour (wholewheat is more traditional but plain flour will do)
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 60g butter
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 60-80ml warm water


Preheat the oven to gas mark 3. Mix together all the dry ingredients before adding the butter in pieces to create the texture of coarse breadcrumbs. Add the water slowly until a thick dough is formed (this may take some or all the water, depending on the oats used – as long as it’s not too loose it should be fine). Sprinkle the work surface with oats and flour and roll out the mixture to a thickness of about 0.5 cm. Cut out the oatcakes using either a cutter or using a sharp knife and bake for 20-30 minutes until golden brown and firm.

Serve with cheese or pate.

[It seems very different from our idea of cake, but it is worth remembering the alternative meaning of the word cake – a firm, compacted mass, such as a cake of soap. Whilst meanings can change, the roots are still there.]