Chocolate Birthday Cake has long been an integral part of celebrations, stretching back to the Ancient Romans.
Food historians confirm that Roman bakers made cakes and special-shaped breads to mark births, weddings, funerals, harvest celebrations, religious observances, and other significant events. Cakes were usually saved for special occasions because they were made with finest, most expensive ingredients available to the cook.
In classical Roman culture, 'cakes' of flat rounds made with flour containing nuts, leavened with yeast, and sweetened with honey were served at special birthdays. Fruitcakes and rich, yeasted cakes were the traditional English festive cakes.
In early Europe, the words for cake and bread were virtually interchangeable; the only difference being that cakes were sweet while bread was not.
The chocolate birthday cake more or less took on its contemporary form
during the 17th century.
Cakes at that time possessed many aspects of contemporary cakes, such as layers and decorations, but were only available to the very wealthy. For example, Colonial birthdays were enjoyed by privileged adults who, at the very least, shared a glass of wine and a small slice of fruitcake with friends. The wealthy were more likely to consume cake on a more frequent basis.
But, cakes did not remain limited to the upper class. In the middle of the 19th century, the practice of eating cake on a regular basis by "average people" became attainable thanks to the Industrial Revolution.
Baking ingredients and tools became more affordable and more readily available to home bakers. The introduction of modern leavening agents (baking soda & powder), the supply of cheaper ingredient substitutions (corn syrup for sugar; margarine for butter), and the production of more reliable ovens allowed more elaborate birthday celebrations to become increasingly possible for the middle-class by the late 1800s.
Because of this, a plethora of simple chocolate birthday cake recipes began to show up in cookbooks in the last quarter of the 19th century. The oldest cake recipe in an American cookbook specifically named "birthday cake" was published in 1870.
A cake made with cocoa, constructed in layers, filled and frosted, became the image of the standard chocolate birthday cake, enjoyed by both middle and upper classes alike.
Certain rituals and traditions associated
with birthday cakes are common to many Western cultures.
Two rituals are prominent:
1. The singing of the traditional birthday song and
2. The blowing out of candles decorating the cake by the birthday person.
-Interestingly, the phrase "Happy Birthday" did not appear on birthday cakes until 1910 when the song Happy Birthday to You became popular.-
A letter written by Goethe in 1799 chronicles:
"...when it was time for dessert, the prince's entire livery...carried a generous-size torte with colorful flaming candles--amounting to some fifty candles--that began to melt and threatened to burn down..."
Though the exact origin and significance of the candle blowing ritual is unknown, the history of placing candles on top of the cake is well documented.
This tradition can be traced to Kinderfest, an 18th century German birthday celebration for children. At the time, people believed that on birthdays children were particularly susceptible to evil spirits. Because of this, family and friends protectively kept the cake's candles lit all day until after the evening meal, when the cake was served. It was thought that the candles carried one's wishes up to God.
In North America, the number of candles equals the birthday person's age, sometimes with one extra for luck. Traditionally the birthday person makes a private wish, which will be fulfilled if all the candles are blown out in one breath.
Around the world many variations on the birthday cake exist:
~The Chinese birthday pastry is the sou bao, lotus-paste-filled buns made of wheat flour which are shaped and colored to resemble peaches. A single large pastry is not often served, rather each guest is served their own.
~In Korea, the traditional birthday dish is a seaweed soup.
~In Western Russia, birthday children are served fruit pies with a birthday greetings carved into the crusts.
~The Swedish birthday cake is made like a pound cake and is often topped with marzipan and decorated with the national flag.
~A Dutch birthday pastry are fruit tarts topped with whipped cream.