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<   No. 3358   2014-11-16   >

Comic #3358

1 {photo of a decorated chocolate cake}
1 Caption: Let us eat cake

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I thought I'd talk about something fun today. So let's settle down and have some cake.

Cakes come in many forms throughout the world. It might just be too much of a generalisation, but I'm prepared to go out on a limb and say that everybody likes cake. Most of us, I think, like lots of different types of cakes. Cakes are a treat for everyone. Children may turn up their noses at vegetables or whatever, but I can't ever recall meeting a child who didn't like cake.

Take the basic ingredients: flour, sugar, eggs, butter. Add some baking powder or possibly yeast to make it rise. Mix in some other ingredients for flavour and texture, or decorate the baked result, or do both. The possibilities from such a simple beginning are endless in form, colour, taste, and the ability to delight the palate of young and old alike.

Mini Mud
Chocolate mud cake.

I have to admit I've never been a big fan of your basic light and fluffy sponge cake. There's just not enough substance to it, even if layered with cream and sliced strawberries. On the other end of the spectrum is something like a chocolate mud cake, rich with flavour, dense and moist. That's my kinda cake. Although up until the 1990s I'd never heard of chocolate mud cake. I don't know if it was invented around then, or if it had taken its sweet time (literally) arriving in Australia, but I'm pretty sure chocolate mud cake never existed where I live until then. (And for some reason I can't find a Wikipedia entry for chocolate mud cake, nor any variant name for a cake which appears to be the same thing.)

The cakes of my childhood were ones my mother and grandmother made. Two stand out, the first being baked cheesecake. This was made to an old German recipe, with quark cheese bought from the German deli. There was no biscuit crumb base; the base was actually a baked layer of cake dough, mixed by hand, then filled with the creamy cheese mixture and baked again until the top turned a slight golden brown. It was heavy and delicious.

Ricotta and cherry cake
A baked cheesecake.

The second type of cake was fruitcake. Fruitcake is one of the most delicious things anyone can possibly make. When I grew older, I discovered that a lot of people (particularly in the USA) see fruitcake as nothing but the butt of jokes about inedibility, and I could not fathom where such an opinion came from. Then I tried some commercially made fruitcake, and discovered that it was a travesty, dry and hard and flavourless and nothing at all like real fruitcake.

I'm here to tell you that fruitcake is the most marvellous creation - you could virtually live on nothing but fruitcake and die happy and contented. If you think otherwise, seek out a German grandmother and get her to bake you a proper fruitcake, because you are missing one of the last remaining pure unadulterated joys of life, and you will be the poorer for it if you never try a decent fruitcake. Yes, I like fruitcake that much, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a heretic!

Christmas fruitcake
My mother's fruitcake.

I'm actually tempted to put my money where my mouth is, or rather where your mouth is, and offer to anyone who is sceptical about the glory that is fruitcake to have my mother make one of her fruitcakes, and mail you a slice. In fact, the only thing stopping me is the fear that I may get hundreds of people clamouring for me to send them a piece, and my mother will think I've gone weird asking her to bake three dozen fruitcakes. I tell you what: I'll append the recipe here and anyone who is dubious can make it for themselves. If you do try it, let me know how it goes. Anyway, true fruitcake is lusciously moist, rich, dense, and dark with brown sugar and spices and all those other good things and thick with juicy plump fruit. It's virtually a meal on its own.

The third sort of cake I enjoyed as a kid was Black Forest cake. Layers of chocolate cake and cream, and cherries. Is there any more sinfully delightful combination of ingredients than chocolate and cherries? We had a continental bakery near our house and we occasionally bought one of their Black Forest cakes (my mother never made one of these, as far as I can remember - I don't think the lighter and more delicate cakes are her thing, cooking-wise). About the only thing better than eating a slice of Black Forest cake is eating a slice of Black Forest cake in Bavaria, which I heartily recommend to anyone travelling in that area.

I remember the first time I ever had carrot cake. I remember thinking that putting carrots in a cake was a stupid idea - who puts vegetables in cakes? I remember being amazed and deciding that carrot cake was one of the best things ever invented.

NZ Carrot Cake
Carrot cake.

For certain types of cakes there seems to be a trend to top and decorate them in certain ways. Carrot cake is inextricably linked with cream cheese icing[1] for some reason. Which has always struck me as odd, because the first carrot cake I ever had was topped with a fluffy lemon icing which had no cream cheese in it. So every time I get a slice of carrot cake now, and it comes with the inevitable cream cheese icing, it feels wrong to me. I wish I could find somewhere that sells carrot cake topped with fluffy lemon icing, but my endless quest has so far been in vain. I think cake makers should loosen their constraints a bit and be bold about going with different flavour and texture combinations, rather than sticking to the same old thing.

Food experiences should be broad and always bringing new things to your palate (I think). I love trying new things. And cakes represent one outlet for this experimental urge, because they can come in endless varieties and variations.

The field of cheesecakes alone comes in a stunning number of varieties. Besides the basic baked or chilled dichotomy, either type can come in chocolate or caramel or vanilla or lemon or orange or several other flavours, and can be topped with a layer of berries, or a fruit glaze, or a glaze with berries in it, or chocolate pieces, or toffee, or spun sugar, or whatever takes your imagination.

Mini Cheesecake
Mini cheesecake, made by me.
This must be one of the reasons why cakes are so enduringly popular. They can be customised and decorated and made into any flavour, colour, and shape you care to think of. A basic cake is like a blank slate, upon which the cook can express an infinite variety of creativity, by adding flavouring ingredients, layering or topping the cake with different materials and textures, and sculpting it into a desired form. Take anything which can be varied to such a degree and people will inevitably explore the possibilities, creating and discovering amazing things which nobody has thought of before.

And cakes are not mere playthings and trinkets to be eaten and forgotten. Cakes serve many important social roles, with perhaps the most obvious two being the wedding cake and the birthday cake. As a universally popular food item, cakes make a perfect focal point for social gatherings. And because cakes are sweetness and decadence combined, they are a perfect fit for celebrations of happiness. So grand traditions and rituals have grown up around the preparations and eating of the cake. At a birthday party, everyone gathers around to sing "Happy Birthday"[2], followed by the birthday celebrant blowing out the candles and making a wish, before the cake is cut and devoured.

Home made cake
Birthday cake.

For a wedding, it is the cutting of the cake that is of prime importance, being the symbolic first act of domestic cooperation taken by the happy couple after being married. The cake cutting photos rank right up there with the first kiss and the tossing of the bouquet in representing the most iconic moments of a wedding. After the cake is cut, it is shared with all the guests as the special thank you to everyone for attending and for being supportive. And slices of cake are wrapped and taken home for anyone who was unable to attend the big day, as a proxy to show that they are still in the circle of family and friends. United States tradition has layered an additional custom onto the cake[3], with the bride and groom ceremonially feeding each other a piece before it is served to the guests.

Cake is so much a symbol of celebration that it is the one item of food you can commonly get away with bringing to a restaurant, where you are normally expected to order and pay for the food which the establishment cooks. But just let them know it's a special occasion and you have brought a cake, and many restaurants will oblige by cutting and serving it for you after the main meal (though some will charge a "cakeage" fee for the service and the fact that they're not selling any desserts).

Cakes of various sorts feature in other activities too, and different types of cakes are identified with specific places and cultures. As with any food there are regional specialties. Panettone, stollen, moon cakes, lekach... the list goes on and on.

There are many more things I could say about cakes, but this annotation is too small to contain them. Go out and eat cake!

276/365: Cake is Good for you!
Cake is good for you!

[1] I never use the American English term "frosting".

[2] Incidentally, the song "Happy Birthday", one of the most well known songs in English speaking culture, is still under copyright and the owners charge a hefty licensing fee for commercial use. Which is why many movies and TV shows depict the incongruous event of people gathering around a birthday cake and not singing "Happy Birthday".

EDIT: At this writing, there is actually a class action lawsuit in progress, with the plaintiffs attempting to overturn the copyright and put "Happy Birthday" into the public domain. If they succeed, this will probably hit the mainstream news media. Keep an eye out!

[3] See what I did there?


My mum's fruitcake recipe.

(Don't worry, it's not a family secret. She actually got the recipe out of a magazine many years ago.)

Ingredients

Method

This cake is best made 4-6 weeks before eating. Wrap it tightly in plastic wrap to seal against the air, and store in the fridge. Allow to warm to room temperature before serving.

If you make one now, it'll be ready just in time for Christmas! (You can eat it soon after baking though, if you can't help yourself.)

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