The fascinating backstory of how cakes won over the world, one sweet bite at a time

Frail and elegant stars made of marzipan sat atop this dark brown plum cake on the white floral dish that was handed down by the good neighbour on the afternoon of Christmas. A bite into the rich cake, followed by the melt-in-mouth moonish stars, brought a smile to the last working week of the year. For a few seconds, it seemed as if the world was less bitter.

We are at that time of the year when tens of thousands of pastry chefs, bakers, home cooks are unceasingly attempting to make a universe of milk, sugar, eggs, chocolates, cocoa, fruits and what not — in short, cakes and pastries. A foodie’s delight! Even the health-conscious do not hesitate to indulge in a sumptuous Chocolate Truffle Cake or the timeless Sponge Cake as the world ushers in the New Year.

One wonders when cakes and pastries conquered the human heart and various food cultures, or even more importantly, when this sweet treat surfaced as a celebratory dessert of the subcontinent, being a part of the sweet lineup, sitting neatly beside the desi rasmalai or rasgulla. Before we track down the India bit, here is the backstory of the cake.

Like many firsts to which ancient Egyptians can lay their claim, an impression of a honey cake was discovered among the display of funerary materials at Pharaoh Ramesses II’s tomb. Some believe that this little impression could very well be an ancestor of the fine folded pastry, the famed Feteer Meshaltet of Egyptian origin that is so popular across the Middle East and North Africa even today. Feteer is said to have influenced the French croissant when the French were in constant contact with Egyptians. Meanwhile, honey cakes, the simplest of all cakes, emerged in various forms in the cuisines of Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, UAE, and Turkey, in addition to heavenly desserts like Mshabak (Lebanese), Qatayef (Arab), Aish El Saraya (Lebanese) as celebratory food.

Qatayef, the celebrtaory dessert of the Arabs

By180 BC, the first-ever printed Greek cookbook Deipnosophistae recorded the recipe of Enkhytoi honey cakes, simply made of honey, flour, milk and eggs. Ancient cakes, mostly derived from bread, were made by hands and thus fashioned as rounds. They were baked on hearthstones or shallow pans (perhaps the idea of baking moulds emerged from there).

According to lexicographer John Ayto, the word ‘cake’ entered the English language dictionary sometime in the thirteenth century. It had an etymological root in the word ‘kaka,’ derived from an older version of Nordic languages in usage during the Viking period

Travelling to the East

Though ‘cake,’ the generic word, along with torte and gateaux, prevailed in European languages, the modern cake as we know it today made its appearance in European food history in the mid-seventeenth century. It was a time when European nations were involved in trading, which necessitated movement of commodities across continents. Evidence tells that sweet oranges reached Europe around the mid-sixteenth century. It would not be too off the mark to say that this is when the traditional Sicilian Orange Cake recipe was created. It could also be a time when Portuguese were themselves experimenting with baking, minus the presence of modern day all-purpose white flour and baking powder — ingredients that seem essential indispensable in baking today.

Fatima da Silva Gracias, the famed historian who had been working on the history of Goa, including its cuisine, mentions in Cozinha de Goa: History Tradition of Goan Food (1556) how Bebinca was crafted by Portuguese nun Sister Bebiana at the Convent de Santa Monica, who was trying to make a sustainable and good usage of surplus egg yolks while the egg whites were used as bleach. The first modern-day cake was born out of experimentation with those leftover egg yolks and the local ingredient coconut milk and sugar. Silva Gracias enumerates Sister Bebiana’s cake as a seven-layered one, which went through changes in its number of layers advised by the authorities of Convent of Augustine to which Sister Bebiana’s Convent was affiliated.

India, however, had to wait for its spree of cakes and pastries, considered very much European delicacy at the end of 17th century, exclusive to private parties of the Dutch East India Company officials of Portuguese, French, and the British. A typical party would contain plum cake, sponge cake, and bread pudding. Faraway in Europe, with rising literacy rate and popularity of printing presses, cookbooks were written and published. They were pushing the boundaries and a cake was no longer only associated with luxurious life. In 1846, Charles Elmé Francatelli, a British-Italian chef, published his cookbook, a first by a British called The Modern Cook, followed by the Plain Cookery for the Working Class (1852). The Modern Cook contained a section titled ‘Cakes in General’ and here sits neatly the first printed recipe of a plum cake.

In The Colonised Universe

William Carey Baptist minister, social reformer and author in his seminal book, The Good Old days of Honorable John Company; Being curious reminiscences during the rule of the East India Company from 1600-1858, complied from newspapers and other publications, notes the recurrence of plum cake in menus of early British-owned taverns and hotels of Calcutta, like Harmonic, Le Gallais, Esplanade and Chowringhee Hotel, Auckland Hotel, Spence Hotel and more.

Though cakes featured in these menus, the culture of bakery, boulangerie or patisserie hadn’t fully developed. Enter Federico Peliti, an Italian pastry chef and baker, who would forever change the bakery scene of India. Having won a confectionary competition in Paris, Peliti was hired as the personal chef of Viceroy Lord Mayo. Soon he bought a grand property in Calcutta’s downtown that turned out to be the ‘go to place’ for the city’s elites. The bakery and all-day diner, located in erstwhile 41 Bentinck Street, was a collaboration between the Turin-born Italian and a British named Thomas O’Neil. However, the partnership did not last long and, in 1870, Peliti opened a new and bigger restaurant in the Chowringhee area at 10 and 11 Government Place East. He added a full-fledged confectionary section that churned out delicious teacakes and delicate cups of Darjeeling tea. These were the same teacakes that were served in Peleti’s Shimla outlet too and found their way to Rudyard Kipling’s memoirs of India.

There was no looking back for Peleti. Soon, he came up with a vermouth or vermut dedicated to Prince of Wales, Edward VII. Interestingly, the exact recipe of this infused wine is closely guarded and remains a secret on the family website even today, while the specialists believe it to be a mixture of Piedmontese flowers and well-blended Indian spices. These creations made Peleti mythically famous much more than a celebrity chef as he transformed the food scene of Kolkata, and India. Influenced, the sweet-tooth Bengalis started including cakes and puddings in their celebrations.

Cooked Doughnut

At the turn of the twentieth century, Angelo Firpo, another Italian from Genoa, arrived in Kolkata. Sauve and globetrotter Firpo was taken in as an apprentice by Peleti. In some time, Firpo branched out and immediately set up a tea room, a patisserie, and a restaurant catering to the social elites of the city. Firpo’s bread would sweep away the aspiring self-fashioning locals and Firpo would go down in history by baking the finest of breads and cakes — the true successor to Peliti. The Auckland Hotel, later The Great Eastern Hotel, was added. Together, they would be known as the Bread Basket of the East. Various colonial style clubs, like Bengal Club, Calcutta Club, Tollygunge Club, Dalhousie Club, Grail Club, Calcutta Scottish Club, Calcutta Rangers Club, Armenian Club and Portuguese Club, only added to this fervour — read the culture of confection.

Today many know the history of confectionery in India, and more so Calcutta’s, from 1902 when the still thriving Jewish bakers Nahoum started their journey, followed by Calcutta’s very famed Swiss bakers — Flurys in 1927. One would not reiterate this bit of history here but share a slice of what was happening in the other universe.

In the winter of 1883, Mambally Bapu, a Malayali baker, was requested to bake a cake by cinnamon baron Murdoch Brown, a British planter who ran the largest individual cinnamon trade of Asia. Bapu, who had recently started his Royal Biscuit Factory, picked up the challenge. Hardly did he know Christmas cakes would turn around his destiny. Though Murdoch supplied him with ingredients like raisins, cocoa, dates and French brandy, the clever baker tweaked the recipe with local ingredients, including an arrack made of locally grown fruits like banana. Bapu’s business soared and today Royal Biscuit Factory is headed by their fifth generation. Mambally Bapu holds the credit of being the first Indian to professionally bake a cake.

Thousands of miles away in Calcutta, Bipradas Mukhopadhyay, a cookbook writer and magazine editor, had been writing cookbooks, unknown to the readership. In 1831, he published India’s first printed cookbook, Pak Rajeshwar (loosely translated as the King of Cooking). This was followed by another, titled Byanjan Ratnakar (The Gems of Cooked Food). These initial books may not have been popular but Mukhopadhyay was not deterred. A few more books in the offing and Bipradas Mukhopadhyay published the first-ever Indian book of Sweets, Savouries and Desserts called Mistanna Pak in 1904 (two volumes). Much like his other books, Mistanna Pak had recipes from various cultures. Spread across chapters, this book recorded the recipes of Ginger Bread, Pound sponge, Madeira Cake, Queen’s Cake and others for the first time in a vernacular language by an Indian author. Mukhopadhayay was smart like Bapu. He often suggested local ingredients for these recipes which he was sure would be a part of Bengali household.

Bapu and Mukhopadhyay facilitated the desi culture of confection in their distinct ways as both consumption and baking took over the culinary culture of India. Today, there are hardly any celebrations without a cake of some kind, but it wasn’t a cakewalk popularising this dessert — from an enterprising Italian’s café to a Malayali’s risk-taking attitude to the many Indian women who started baking at home, making cakes their own.

Next Story