We like to justify taking that extra piece of cake by saying, "It's basically bread, right?" Turns out we're right -- cake probably got its start in ancient Egypt when an enterprising bread baker added honey to his loaves. Since then, it's taken off, taking on its own unique look and flavor in regions all over the world. Different regions have their own baking styles, so some traditional cakes look more like bread ... or even cake's arch-nemesis, pie. But these confections are still part of the cake-baking tradition. The multi-layered, perfectly frosted confections we think of as "cake" are just the most recent trend in a practice that's been around for centuries.
Some of these traditional cakes are common favorites today, but a few might be new to you. They're all sweet treats, though, and any one of them would make an inspired addition to dessert at your next shindig.
Gateau de Rois -- France
Gateau de rois proves that cakes aren't just for birthdays, and toys aren't just for kids. In France, gateau de rois, or king cake, is part of the Twelfth Night celebration honoring the Christian holiday of Epiphany in January. Recipes can vary, but most use puffed pastry, choux pastry, a thin sponge cake or meringue filled with cream and fruit.
The cake itself is only half the treat. Gateau de rois contains a hidden bean, toy or trinket. If it's in your slice, then you're the king or queen of the festivities. Plus, finding the treasure is said to be a sign of good luck. Gateau de rois isn't the only confection that might contain an unexpected treat -- there's a similar tradition for Portuguese sweet bread, too.
Pastel de Tres Leches -- Mexico
Pastel de tres leches is a sponge cake -- one that's soaking up three, yes three, kinds of milk. It's very rich and sweet, with a dense, wet consistency similar to bread pudding. Most of the time, the three milks are condensed milk, evaporated milk, and fresh milk or cream. But you can get creative in the kitchen and try everything from melted ice cream to eggnog in place of the milks.
Several countries, including Mexico, Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico and Costa Rica, claim to be home to pastel de tres leches. It's found a place for itself in the United States, too, where some regions sell ice cream flavors based on its sweet, mild taste.
Angel Food Cake -- United States
A uniquely American sponge cake with a divine, light consistency ... it isn't hard to imagine how angel food cake got its name. It's been around since the 19th century, and it was probably the inspired invention of the Pennsylvania Dutch. But its origins are more practical than heavenly -- whipping up an angel food cake was a great way to use the egg whites left over from yolk-heavy recipes, like noodles.
The Dutch were also well known for their skill at using special pans in their cooking. When it comes to angel food cake, the pan in question is a tube pan, so the finished cake has a distinctive hole in the center.
Strudel -- Germany
Looking for a cake that could fill in as dinner or desert? Try strudel, an old-style German cake made with high-gluten flour and shaped into a long roll. If you're making desert, layer the dough with a fruit filling, like raisins, cherries or apples, and decorate the top with icing. If a main course is what you're after, use ingredients like spinach and sauerkraut instead.
Strudel dough is dough is a lot like classic Greek phyllo dough, so the finished product can look a lot like another low-profile pastry: baklava. When it comes to phyllo and strudel dough, thinner is definitely better. You want to create layers that are so thin you can see through them.
Sacher Torte -- Austria
It can be impossible to pinpoint who came up with the idea for most cakes. Not so with sacher torte, a double-layer, semisweet chocolate cake with apricot jam filling. Master baker Franz Sacher created the sacher torte in 1832 for Viennese prince Klemens von Metternich. Today, most people serve it with dark chocolate frosting and a generous dollop of whipped cream on top. It's an easy cake to make but packs a real flavor wallop.
Whisky Dundee -- Scotland
If you think fruitcake makes a better brick than dessert, try whisky Dundee the next time the holidays roll around. This gentler, moister and more flavorful Scottish version of the traditional Christmas fruitcake has a lighter crumb and includes enough Scotch malt whisky to warm your heart. Even if dried raisins and currants aren't your cake filling of choice, this Scottish favorite has a nice blend of ingredients and a crunchy layer of almonds on top for texture.
Although traditional recipes call for adding Scotch whisky to Dundee cake, you can leave it out if you need to, or you can substitute another favorite, like rum or brandy.
Barfi -- India
Also known as burfi, this Indian cake is sometimes compared to cheesecake. Like cheesecake, it's usually refrigerated, and it's relatively flat and dense. Barfi is made by cooking sugar and evaporated milk together with a main ingredient, like coconut, until the mixture becomes semisolid. You can use the sugar-milk base to create lots of distinctive barfi variations. Some common ingredients for barfi-style cakes are cashews, pistachios, almonds and mangos. Even savory ingredients and seasonings, like carrots and saffron, aren't uncommon. Once the mixture cooks down, place it in a shallow pan, and refrigerate until it's firm enough to cut into small squares.
Panettone -- Italy
An Italian Christmas cake that started out as a regional favorite in Milan, this lighter, airier take on the classic fruitcake is usually baked into a dome shape containing candied fruits and nuts. Recent variations leave out the fruits or are filled with other popular ingredients, like custard and chocolate. Classic panettone is rich with eggs, and it has a light crumb and very airy texture. Allowing the dough to rise three times helps to create the distinctive loft.
We don't know who invented panettone, but this ancient cake probably originated during Roman times. If you want to create an authentic version at home, make sure to use a special, high-sided panettone pan.
Kulich -- Russia
Want something besides chocolate bunnies and goopy egg-shaped candy for Easter dessert? Try kulich. This traditional Easter dish from Russia is usually prepared in a very tall tin and decorated with thin, white frosting. A frosted kulich is often adorned with fresh flowers and painted eggs, too.
This cake is another example of a light, fruitcake-style holiday dessert that incorporates dried fruits and nuts into the dough, and like Italian panettone, creates an impressive loft.
If you want to try your hand at kulich and can't find a tall enough tin, try using a coffee can instead.
Pavlova -- Australia and New Zealand
If you were going to dedicate a cake to a ballerina, you'd probably want it to be delicate, light and lovely -- right? That's exactly what happened in when it came to developing pavlova. Both Australia and New Zealand claim this creation as a national culinary treasure. A cake fit for a dancer, pavlova was originally created to honor Russian ballet superstar Anna Pavlova. A masterpiece of timing and patience, a pavlova is a meringue cake that has a crisp exterior and a soft, marshmallowy center. It's traditionally served with whipped cream and fresh fruit, but Stephanie Jaworski at "Joy of Baking" advises that tart fruits, like kiwi, raspberries and passion fruit, help balance the super-sweet meringue.
If you want to prepare a pavlova of your own, you can bake it ahead and store it in a cool, dry place until you need it [source: Jaworski].
You crack open the fortune cookie at the end of your meal and ... well, it may not exactly tell your future, but who doesn't secretly hope it promises something fabulous?
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
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