What ingredients were used in cake before the invention of any factory produced or processed foods such as refined sugars? Does anyone know where I could find historical recipes for such things?

  • I think the modern notion of cake is a consequence of refined sugar.
    – SAJ14SAJ
    Jun 7, 2013 at 19:01
  • 3
    I don't think so, honey ;-)
    – J.A.I.L.
    Jun 7, 2013 at 20:01
  • I've wondered the same thing. I don't know, but you might also be interested in the history of watermelon molasses in the Southeast in the USA. They might have had refined sugar by then, but I got the impression that poor people made watermelon molasses on their own. Dates and date molasses would be other alternatives. Then there's maple syrup, and tree tapping generally (Palmyra palms are supposed to be excellent for that, too). Also, sorghum syrup. I'm not sure if anyone made cakes with any of these things, before refined sugar existed, but they certainly could have. Sep 10, 2020 at 14:12
  • I think some tribes may have used wood ash as a leavening agent similar to baking powder (but I'm not sure what they made with it). But, be careful of the heavy metal content of wood ash. Sep 10, 2020 at 14:23

1 Answer 1


See Food Timeline, which explains that historically, the closet thing to cake was more an enriched, sweetened bread, enhanced with honey, perhaps with fruits or nuts added. They would have been closer to what we think of as fruitcake.

According to them, the precursors to modern cakes came about due to more reliable ovens, and the availability of refined sugar. They were baked in a ring or hoop, and covered with a boiled sugar icing.

Truly modern cakes did not emerge until baking powder became available:

It was not until the middle of the 19th century that cake as we know it today (made with extra refined white flour and baking powder instead of yeast) arrived on the scene. A brief history of baking powder. The Cassell's New Universal Cookery Book [London, 1894] contains a recipe for layer cake, American (p. 1031). Butter-cream frostings (using butter, cream, confectioners [powdered] sugar and flavorings) began replacing traditional boiled icings in first few decades 20th century. In France, Antonin Careme [1784-1833] is considered THE premier historic chef of the modern pastry/cake world. You will find references to him in French culinary history books.

I was not able to easily find historical recipe for very old precursors to cakes.

Still, the archive of The Old Foodie includes a recipe it indicates is circa 1769, which is in the refined sugar era, representing one of the early transitional recipes:

Gateaux d’Amandes. Almond Cake.

Take half a Pound of Flour, half a Pound of pounded sweet Almonds, and five or six bitter with it, half a Pound of Sugar, six Eggs, and work it well all together; form it into a Cake; bake it on a sheet of Paper, well buttered; when cold, glaze it with a white Sugar-glaze: another Method for the same Sorts of Cakes; bake it in a Mould, or Baking-hoop; pound a Pound of sweet Almonds very fine, and one Dozen of bitter ditto, putting Whites of Eggs, to hinder them from turning to Oil; then put to it half a Pound of fine Sugar-powder by Degrees, two whole Eggs, Lemon-peel, finely chopped or rasped; when this is properly mixed, add eight Eggs, the Yolks and Whites first beat up separately; stir it, and mix it all properly; and pour it in the Mould, to bake about an Hour: serve in its natural Colour.

  • Thanks. I knew it would be something more like fruitcake or bread but also didn't realise refined sugar existed so long ago! I was thinking along the lines of the Marie Antoinette (mis)quote "Let them eat cake" and was wondering what "cake" would have been in 1766. Thanks for your answer. Very interesting! Jun 9, 2013 at 18:42
  • 1
    The original French was "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche," but probably wasn't actually said by Marie Antoinette. Brioche is an egg and butter enriched yeast raised bread, of course.
    – SAJ14SAJ
    Jun 9, 2013 at 19:47

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