Cakes are made from various combinations of refined flour, some form of shortening, sweetening, eggs, milk, leavening agent, and flavoring. There are literally thousands of cakes recipes (some are bread-like and some rich and elaborate) and many are centuries old. Cake making is no longer a complicated procedure.
Baking utensils and directions have been so perfected and simplified that even the amateur cook may easily become and expert baker. There are five basic types of cake, depending on the substance used for leavening.
The most primitive peoples in the world began making cakes shortly after they discovered flour. In medieval England, the cakes that were described in writings were not cakes in the conventional sense. They were described as flour-based sweet foods as opposed to the description of breads, which were just flour-based foods without sweetening.
Bread and cake were somewhat interchangeable words with the term "cake" being used for smaller breads. The earliest examples were found among the remains of Neolithic villages where archaeologists discovered simple cakes made from crushed grains, moistened, compacted and probably cooked on a hot stone. Today's version of this early cake would be oatcakes, though now we think of them more as a biscuit or cookie.
Cakes were called "plakous" by the Greeks, from the word for "flat." These cakes were usually combinations of nuts and honey. They also had a cake called "satura," which was a flat heavy cake.
During the Roman period, the name for cake (derived from the Greek term) became "placenta." They were also called "libum" by the Romans, and were primarily used as an offering to their gods. Placenta was more like a cheesecake, baked on a pastry base, or sometimes inside a pastry case.
The terms "bread" and "cake" became interchangeable as years went by. The words themselves are of Anglo Saxon origin, and it's probable that the term cake was used for the smaller breads. Cakes were usually baked for special occasions because they were made with the finest and most expensive ingredients available to the cook. The wealthier you were, the more likely you might consume cake on a more frequent basis.
By the middle of the 18th century, yeast had fallen into disuse as a raising agent for cakes in favor of beaten eggs. Once as much air as possible had been beaten in, the mixture would be poured into molds, often very elaborate creations, but sometimes as simple as two tin hoops, set on parchment paper on a cookie sheet. It is from these cake hoops that our modern cake pans developed.
Cakes were considered a symbol of well being by early American cooks on the east coast, with each region of the country having their own favorites.