Free digital copy
Get Speciality Food magazine delivered to your inbox FREEGet your free copy
Birthdays, weddings, baby showers. A sneaky slice with a cup of tea, an indulgent treat with friends, or a warming full stop to a meal. It’s hard to find an occasion where it doesn’t seem right – or even obligatory – that cakes or puddings are involved.
They’re synonymous with special occasions, with celebrations, or with that edible bit of comfort when you need it most.
When it comes to serving up cake for celebrations like birthdays, the tradition dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who are credited with the idea of celebrating ‘birthdays’. They believed when pharaohs were crowned, they became gods, making their coronation day their ‘birthday’ as a god and therefore worthy of celebration. The Ancient Greeks are then believed to have adopted the same tradition but, needing something to offer up to Artemis, the goddess of the moon, on their birthdays, they started baking moon-shaped cakes and decorating them.
Fast forward to the 18th century when children in Germany would receive a cake with candles on their birthday, known as Kinderfest. Over centuries various other factors have played their part, from the expense associated with sugar, making them ‘special treats’ predominantly for the wealthy, as well as various cultural associations with sweet stuff and comfort or celebration, making them popular for all sorts of occasions across the globe.
For Lisa Smith, founder of Ginger Bakers, which produces a range of cakes and bakes for both the wholesale and retail markets, it’s simple. “Cakes and puddings aren’t what you might describe as a life essential,” she told Speciality Food. “They aren’t a vital part of our diet, which means we tend to associate them as something we enjoy more occasionally, as treats to be indulged in as part of the multitude of milestone celebrations and special occasions we experience, from birthdays to anniversaries and everything in between.
“You could even argue that this rich association gives cake ‘superpower status.’ After all, as soon as you think ‘celebration’, a cake of some description just pops into your head. It’s the go-to statement piece when you want to make a celebration truly memorable and that’s the lure of cake.”
A focal point for the big day
Nowhere is that ‘statement piece’ moment more obvious than at weddings, where the cake is often one of the stars of the show. From simple creations to multi-tiered extravaganzas designed to wow the guests, they are a focal point for the big day and a tradition that shows no sign of waning.
For Kate Tynan, owner of Little Button Bakery, a creative wedding cake studio near Manchester, what couples want out of wedding cakes may be changing, but it remains a key part of their day. “I’m sure there are some couples who don’t want a cake or perhaps want something different like a cake of cheese or a pork pie cake,” she told Speciality Food.
“But for all of my clients, the cake is a very important part of their wedding day.” Tynan started 10 years ago making a wide range of cakes, but soon found her heart didn’t lie in more traditional designs, and nowadays she specialises in modern, unique creations. “I like to think outside the box and create something really special for my couples – real focal point on their wedding day – almost a piece of edible art.” Her design style means using a lot of textures, bold colours, metallics and interesting detailing inspired by nature, ceramics, architecture and interior design trends.
But her cakes – which come in more than 20 different flavours ranging from traditional lemon and raspberry to ‘Pina Colada’ – are far from style over substance, made from top-quality ingredients like organic eggs, British butter, Belgian chocolate and high-quality professional fondant icing. “My clients are generally couples who appreciate high quality, both in the taste and look of their cake. The cake to them is a really important part of their day and they want it to have the wow factor to amaze their guests.”
Children’s cakes may have a different target audience, but that need for a ‘wow factor’ is just as key, says Sophia Butler, who runs a London-based mobile tea room and cake-making company, Sugar Tea Room. Butler, who was a 2020 regional winner in the buttercream category of the Cake Professional Awards, says children’s cakes have become more sophisticated, moving away from character cakes to rainbows, animals, trains and cars, as well as simple, stylish ‘drip cakes’ that are popular with older children. “Cakes are very much still part of parties, with some parents opting for two-tier cakes so they can have two different flavours,” she said.
“Parents love to match the cake with decorations and I’m often sent photos of the decorations so I can match the colours. Instagram plays a big part of this trend – the look of the cake is just as important as the taste, everything has to coordinate and look good for photos.” Despite people’s quest for increasingly extravagant cakes, some things haven’t changed, said Butler. “Chocolate and vanilla are the most popular and this hasn’t changed in many years!”
Cake for comfort
They may be the go-to for special occasions, but our love of all things sweet isn’t limited to the set-piece moments. Whether it’s an afternoon tea full of decadent, dainty cakes and patisserie, a slice of fruit loaf from a farm shop or deli, or a big slab of sticky toffee pudding smothered in custard, few of us are strangers to cakes and puddings and don’t have to search hard for a reason to try them. Beki Vallance, founder of Warwickshire-based Beki’s Brownies, sums it up.
“I believe brownies are perfect for every occasion! Need to celebrate? Brownie and a glass of bubbles! Catch up with a friend or relative? Brownie and a cup of your favourite brew. Going through a difficult time? Indulge and immerse yourself in a delicious brownie. Missing out on a friend’s birthday? Send them a box of brownies, bespoke to them to let them know that you miss them and can’t wait to see them again soon! There is something so special when you give a box of brownies as a gift, it makes them feel loved and brings a little bit of happiness into their lives.”
Vallance, who launched her business in November 2015 now supplies her brownies wholesale to independent businesses across the West Midlands, from cafés and coffee shops to restaurants, street food venues and a local farm park, plus offering online ordering for delivery nationwide as well as local food festivals.
Vallance offers over 40 flavours of brownies, blondies and brownie-based products, offering what she sees as something for everyone, and thinks the growing enthusiasm for independent businesses seen of late is ideal for boosting sales for things like cakes and bakes. Smith agrees. When it comes to her Ginger Bakers’ creations, each has a unique story attached to it, she says, whether that’s about the provenance of the ingredients, links to a historical recipe or direct links to the surrounding community or the local charities the team supports.
Smith has noticed the post-pandemic appreciation of all things artisan and homemade. While some of the enthusiasm for home baking that we all found during lockdowns in 2020 has remained, for many the way we spend our leisure time affects whether we choose to make our sweet treats ourselves – or buy them from the experts. “Some of the interest in baking from the pandemic has remained, with some people choosing to create their own foods at home, but ultimately people want to spend their time doing other things now that there’s no need for them to be stuck indoors, as a result, other dynamics have developed.
Especially, as a result, many consumers are consciously choosing to buy their food from people that they’ve developed relationships with, that they trust as a result and ultimately share the same values with.”