Baking with our mothers or grandmothers is a sweet childhood memory for many of us. Making biscuits and cakes was always something that brought families and generations together: measuring the ingredients under the a watchful eye of an elder; putting them into a bowl and mixing together to produce a batter that was worth eating by itself; fighting over who got to lick the bowl or spoon; the delicious smell of the cake baking and the hell of waiting for it to cool to be iced and sliced. Cake is a timeless creation, changing and evolving to suit the society it inhabits. It’s something that, quite simply, never goes out of style.
Emma Mackay, pastry chef and owner of specialty cake service Cakes of our Lives, started making cakes as a child. “I was very young,” she recalls. “I was always a keen cook. My grandma was a champion sweets cook, so I guess it was in the gene pool.” Genetics aside, it’s the evocative memories of baking cakes that are really special to Mackay. “The smell of fresh cake is particularly emotive,” she contends. “It takes me to happy places – summer holidays, Europe, Granma’s house – all great memories. That’s timeless.”
Angie Lochaden, owner and chef of wholesale cake company Caaaake! also recalls starting young. “I used to bake with mum as a child, so I’m thinking I was probably about nine or 10,” she says. “I also remember a Home Ec. class at primary school, where I made a simple chocolate cake with a good friend and we were awarded top marks. We were so proud.”
Via such memories, favourite types of cake stick with us throughout our lives. We make them time and time again, from recipe pages dog-eared and stained from years of use. Noela MacLeod, Member of Honour and Member of State Council of the Country Women’s Association Victoria, lists some of the cakes that remain popular within their organisation year after year. “Sponge cakes, cup cakes, lamingtons, scones, jam and cream, rich fruit cake, sultana cake,” she offers. “Fruit cake conjures up weddings and special occasions such as significant birthdays. Everyone enjoys a little sweetness – orange cake, chocolate cake, cream puffs, cup cakes – the list goes on.”
To make a cake – even a simple butter cake – requires time and patience more than anything else, but also a strong awareness of the temperature of ingredients and the oven being used, explains Mackay. “A simple butter cake can be quite tricky to get right,” she says. “The most useful thing I ever tell anyone is…don’t over work the gluten, fold the sifted flour through last. That bit of info will take you a long way.”
Lochaden enjoys helping friends conquer the art of cake. “My advice to people who want to learn is to start with simple recipes and always follow instructions,” she explains. “Also, it is important to take time to make a cake… Each process, such as creaming butter and sugar and then adding eggs, has a reason for being there and is very important to the creation of a good cake.”
Advice from MacLeod gets even more specific. “All ingredients should be at room temperature and weighed and measured before commencing,” she says. “After the creaming, do not overbeat the rest of the ingredients or you will lose the air you have already beaten into the mixture.
“Flour needs to be sifted and folded in. Do not put the scrapings from the mixture on top as this causes a sticky top and the sugar in this will cause caramelised spots on top. Make sure the oven is not too hot as this can cause cracks on top of the cake.”
MacLeod’s counsel extends beyond that of practical guidance. The care and the time it takes to make a cake can be interpreted as an act of love and friendship. Cake represents a moment. Whether a birthday, another special occasion or an excuse to have a chat and a cup of tea with a friend, the ceremony of cutting and eating cake is a moment to stop and cherish.
As Lochaden puts it, “I don’t think people will ever stop eating cake. It is about sharing an occasion, whether it be coffee and cake with a friend, or a big chocolate celebration cake for someone’s birthday,” she says. “I think these occasions would be incomplete without cake.”