Cream cakes and layer cakes
More than 100 years ago, cakes with luscious layers of cream and custard became very popular here in Scandinavia. One of the reasons (apart from their deliciousness) was that more sophisticated cooling systems meant bakeries could make cakes that would keep fresh for a whole day. So bakeries started to increase their production. There were plenty of willing customers, because in the mid and late 19th century people from the higher echelons of society liked to go out to see and be seen. This was also the time when coffee became widespread. Cafés (konditorier), where you could eat cake and drink coffee, started to open up in all the major towns.
Baking at home only became common in the early 20th century, when the household cast-iron stove became widely available. These days, all families have their favourite layer cakes. There are endless recipes containing various berries, fruits and creams, and a plethora of ways to decorate them. They can be a lot of fun to make, especially with children. Over the years I have made many different layer cakes for my childrens' birthdays and in many shapes: a football field, a turtle, a castle, a ladybird…
In this chapter you will find my favourite cream cakes and layer cakes, those we enjoy the most in my family.
Danish pastries and other sweet yeasted cakes
Danish pastries are world-famous. All around the globe they come in many different forms and with countless fillings. But, in spite of the name, most of them bear no resemblance to the real thing. In Denmark the general term is in fact wienerbrød, meaning bread from Vienna! In a Scandinavian bakery in the morning you ask for the individual type, never just for ‘Danish pastry’.
There are lots of stories about how wienerbrød came to Denmark. They probably all have some truth to them, but it is really difficult to pinpoint the origin. One story is that it started in 1843 in Copenhagen when a local baker returned from Vienna, where he had learned how to make croissants. Knowing how the locals loved sugar, he added some remonce, a sweet paste made from sugar and butter, sometimes with a little marzipan and spices such as cinnamon, cardamom or poppy seeds. It was an instant success. Initially, only the originating baker had the right to sell wienerbrød, but in 1850 a magistrate allowed five cake bakeries to bake it.
Another very special thing in Scandinavia are cakes based on sweet yeasted dough. I serve them in the afternoons. They are some of my favourite cakes. They’ve got a texture similar to brioche and are not overly sweet. They came about many years ago, when bread bakeries were barred from baking cake, only bread. So they developed a kind of sweet bread that they were allowed to sell! The yeasted cakes differ depending on which region in Scandinavia they are made in.
Loving cake baking
Why do we love cake? The answer may be a matter of psychology rather than simply of taste. My grandparents played a huge role in my childhood – maybe even more in my imagination as the years have gone by – but real or imagined, a particular smell, a song, or in this case home baking, brings me back to happy childhood hours spent with my mormor and morfar. I cherish the moments when, especially on summer days at the beach house, we sat outside in the afternoon in a light breeze, listening to the sea while eating cake and drinking coffee. The cake was greener than green from food colouring and covered with thick chocolate glazing. My mother rightfully claims that today I would find the cake too artificial… but that is beside the point. For me it is a cake of my childhood. I have never tried to recreate the recipe, out of fear of disappointment or the risk of spoiling my memories.
Eating sweet things has always seemed attractive to human kind; honey, berries and fruit were prized way before sugar became part of life. The Romans ate a flat bread with honey and spices, in effect what Scandinavians call kage (in English, ‘cake’). Medieval times had honey cakes, while late 16th-century plays mention cakes made with eggs. The development of cakes as we know them didn’t really take off until we had invented whisks or forks to create volume by whisking eggs; you could say cake making was – in its day – high-end technology!
Two crucial factors allowed home baking to become widespread: access to ovens, and affordable sugar. Then of course came the invention of baking powder, which made baking much easier with fewer eggs (and thus cheaper) in the mid 19th century. Until that time, most cakes were developed by specialist patisseries or made at royal courts or grand houses, the only places with access to ovens and battalions of staff working in the kitchens.
Home baking became popular and widespread in the 20th century with access to new machinery, cheaper ingredients and smaller, convenient ovens at home. Recipe books became bestsellers; while Britain had Mrs Beeton, in Scandinavia it was Madam Mangor and Fru Nimb. Later came the Swedish bestseller Sju sorters kakor (‘Seven kinds of cake’), which was first published in 1945 and sold more than three million copies! (The title refers to the Scandinavian cake table tradition).
Over the last decades, sugar has become the big enemy. I don’t just spontaneously pop into my neighbours’ house any longer with home bakes for their children, because they are not allowed any sugar during the week. I understand the point of a healthy diet for children, but feel this has spiralled out of control because of all the horrible sweets and fizzy drinks that are available today. I do not think home-baked cake can harm anybody if it is made from good-quality ingredients.
Why do I feel so strongly about home baking? Because it’s an act of love. In Scandinavian culture, and especially in children’s literature or films, there are so many joyful moments where children eat cake together. These moments reflect our culture: we love the excitement of cake baking. The idea, the preparation, the wonderful smell in the house, the waiting for the cake to cool down and for guests, friends or family to arrive, then finally eating the cake.
European culture also has many meaningful sayings about cakes, think of ‘the icing on the cake’, or ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it’. Proust famously brought back childhood memories by eating a madeleine with a cup of tea. Or consider the way Alice in Wonderland is woven into her fantastic story by eating a tiny cake that had ‘eat me’ written upon it in currants. All these sayings, memories, references and stories from our heritage tell us about the cake’s role in our society. It is a luxury that we crave and that tempts us. It shows us who we are and gives us pleasure.
Loving baking at home is about all that: the pure pleasure of baking and eating cake. You can find a lot of peace in home baking. It gives a feeling of connection with history and tradition, however brief, that is very important in a world that runs forever faster and faster.
Cake is not just cake when you visit a Scandinavian bakery. Oh no. That would be too simple! There is a vast range, all divided into different categories. We have pastries for morning, cakes suitable for the afternoon, and other cakes for after dinner. Pudding has never been a great tradition in Scandinavia. Maybe that also has to do with our strong culture for home cooking and baking and inviting people home for dinner. The restaurant culture is more recent here.
In Scandinavia, the cakes within this chapter would be called ‘dry’ cakes (without cream or custard) and ‘coffee’ cakes, to be eaten with tea or coffee. In English, neither term sounds as delicious as these cakes are! I have made the collection of recipes here very simple so, once you have familiarised yourself with them, you can play around with different fruits, sugars or nuts; there are endless possibilities.
Some of these recipes are decades old and have a long tradition. One of the very oldest and most celebrated ‘dry’ cakes is hindbærsnitte. It dates back to 1750 and there is a raspberry version overleaf. The author Hans Christian Andersen famously used to travel to Skagen, at the northern tip of Denmark, to visit Brøndums Hotel… just to eat their hindbærsnitte. It was not only Mr Andersen who made the long journey to enjoy that cake. Brøndums Hotel was a meeting point for the Scandinavian bourgeoisie and for many artists. The hotel is still in business. It carries excellent food and cakes, and in the winter you can visit the hotel on Sundays and enjoy a cake table.
A few of the recipes here are for less traditional cakes; those I've baked for years for friends and family and that I turn to when I need baking to be no fuss. I always have the dry ingredients in my cupboard and the fruit in the freezer, so I'm ready to bake whenever the mood takes me. That's a very comforting thought.