The History of Your Favourite Cakes and Desserts

June 16, 2024

We can all name our favourite cakes or desserts, but do you know the history behind your favourite cakes and desserts?

For many of us with a sweet tooth, the mere mention of cake will have us salivating and imagining our favourite sugary treats. Be it cakes, pies, biscuits or ice cream, everyone has that one absolute go-to favourite dessert or teatime treat.

Sometimes, our reason for why we love a certain cake or dessert over all others is simply down to flavour preference.

For instance:

Some people go mad for anything chocolatey or crave the gooey, fudgey goodness that comes with a good chocolate brownie.

Others just love the simple, sweet deliciousness of a Victoria sponge cake or the crisp, tart deliciousness of a fruity dessert.

For others, their favourite dessert is wrapped in the comforting warmth of nostalgia. Maybe chocolate cake reminds them of birthday parties and homemade birthday cakes. Maybe scones remind them of their grandparents or a particularly lovely holiday.

Memory has a funny way of affecting how we view things, after all.

Everything starts from somewhere though, and the history of how these treats came into existence can be fascinating. So, without further ado, let’s jump into the history of some of your favourite cakes and desserts.

Russian Cake

The funny thing about Russian cake is that it’s not actually Russian!

While there is some debate over why it’s called Russian cake, what we do know is that this cake originally came out of New Orleans, USA. It goes by a few names; tipsy cake, Louisiana Russian cake, Creole trifle, Russian slice, Russian slab cake or simply Russian cake.

In fact, the exotic-sounding Russian slab cake has its roots in thrifty Louisiana baking in the 1800s and is traditionally made by mixing assorted leftover cakes and confectionary scraps with liberal amounts of alcohol (typically rum, though sherry is also a popular alternative) and pressing them into a cake tin to create a delectable boozy cake.

There is an interesting legend of how the Russian cake got its name. The story goes that a New Orleans baker made it because he ran out of ingredients to bake a proper cake for the visit of the Russian Grand Duke Alexis when he visited the city in 1872 for Mardi Gras.

History, however, has since debunked that theory so, as fun as this story is, the most likely theory is that the Russian slab cake got its name from the term ‘Russian Tea’ - a term used in the 1800s to describe any drink containing rum.

While the modern Russian slice is made using fresh cake and confectionary trimmings, the general gist of the recipe remains the same, a combination of crumbled sponge cakes mixed with lashings of rum or sweet sherry and jam pressed into a cake tin or baking tray (for the traditional Russian slab cake serve) and topped with fondant icing.

Some variants have a pastry or shortcake bottom or are layered with a jam sandwich middle but the most popular is simply cake crumbs, rum, jam and icing.

If you have never tried Russian cake before, or you simply have a craving, we do a marvellous Russian slab cake which you can purchase here.

Lemon Meringue Pie

Lemon Meringue Pie

Lemon Meringue Pie is a light, zesty dessert consisting of a shortcrust pastry base, lemon curd filling and topped with fluffy meringue peaks.

The origins of lemon meringue are a little murky, with some people crediting Elizabeth Coan Goodfellow from Philadelphia in the 1800s with inventing the lemon meringue pie while others claim that the first recorded written recipe was by Swiss baker Alexander Frehse. There is also a claim that a similar lemon meringue recipe was created by British botanist Emily Campbell-Browne in 1875.

Whoever the true inventor of lemon meringue pie was, one thing that is absolutely clear is how universally beloved this dessert is.

Here’s a fun fact - in America, August 15ths is National Lemon Meringue Pie Day!

If we were to follow Elizabeth Goodfellow’s Lemon Meringue recipes, the lemon filling would be more like a lemon pudding rather than lemon curd, and there would be less meringue topping, as this was used more as an accent than an alternative to a pastry top like what we would recognise today.

A typical lemon merignue pie today consists of layering a shortcrust pastry base with lemon curd and topping it with meringue and baking it slightly to get that crispy top layer of meringue we recognise when we think of lemon meringue.

There are variants that call for lemon custard instead of lemon curd, but the only real differences are the higher sugar content of lemon curd and the fact that lemon custard uses cornstarch to thicken it, so it comes down to preference in regards to flavour and texture.

Fruit Tarts

Fruit Tart

In what seems to be a bit of a running theme, the origins of what we would recognise as a fruit tart aren’t entirely clear.

While tarts as a means of layering sweet or savoury fillings in a pastry base date all the way back to medieval times, the earliest version of what we would recognise as a fruit tart didn’t really appear until the late 1800s in France when it was created by the Tatin sisters for the restaurant of their hotel in Lamotte-Beuvron.

In fact, fruit tarts are sometimes referred to as ‘Tartes Tatins’ in honour of their creators. Having said that, however, there was also a 15th-century Italian dish called a Crostata that was described as a ‘rustic free-form version of an open fruit tart’

Unlike their younger cousin the jam tart, fruit tarts are typically made by lining a tart tin with shortcrust pastry, basking until golden, then layering it with a creamy custard filling and your fruit of choice on top. We do a delicious small mixed fruit tart and a delightfully summery strawberry tart that are both perfect for picnics or as a sweet treat any time of year.

Surprisingly, the fruit tart hasn’t really changed much throughout history, at least as far as basic construction goes. Perhaps the only notable change has been the sugar content as this became more readily available through the centuries.

It really does seem like the humble fruit tart is a classic for a reason - easy to construct, super versatile and - most importantly - absolutely delicious!

Peach Melba

The peach melba has had quite the change throughout history!

Created in 1892 by the legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier for renowned Australian opera singer Nellie Melba, it was originally a dessert of peaches and raspberry sauce served with vanilla ice cream.

In fact, there are still places where, if you ask for a peach melba you will be served something akin to an ice cream sundae with peaches.

The origin of the more commonly recognised peach melba tart that most people think of today is a bit more of a mystery. The name seems to have been used for a range of dessert recipes, from flans, cakes and tarts.

In the UK, most people will likely think of the variation of peach melba as we make it which bears a striking similarity to the fruit tart. This version of the peach melba tart is made up of a shortcrust pastry base filled with a layer of peaches and whipped cream and topped with a thick layer of peach-flavoured icing.

The peach melba is definitely an odd dessert recipe as it has both the most changes to it but is also found in more or less its original form, depending on where you are.

However, whether you’re served it as a sundae or a peachy cream tart, the peach melba will always be a delight.


Fruit Scone

Ah, the fruit scone. One of the UK’s favourite treats to enjoy with a cup of tea.

The honour of who invented them though is apparently as debatable as how you’re supposed to pronounce their name. That they were invented somewhere on the British Isles is agreed, but the question of if the scone was invented by the Scottish, English or Welsh is up for debate. The most popular theory though is that the modern scone was invented in Scotland in the 1500s.

While the place of origin may be debated, we do know that fruit scones gained their reputation and popularity as a staple of the British afternoon tea when Anna, the Duchess of Bedford ordered her servants to bring her some tea and sweet breads, which included fruit scones. The story goes that she was so delighted by them that she ordered every afternoon from then on.

Originally, scones were made with oats and baked on a griddle in a large round which was then cut into triangles. Eventually, when oven baking became more popular, they were shaped and baked individually.

Today’s scones are more like a form of quick bread similar to the American biscuits and are made with flour, sugar, baking powder, milk, butter and eggs, then further sweetened by adding dried fruit such as raisins and sultanas. Traditionally, these are best served with lashings of clotted cream!

Then there are, of course, savoury scone variations.

These include the most popular savoury option, the cheese scone, typically made by adding mature cheddar cheese, black pepper and mustard to the pix and topping with more cheese before baking.

Victoria Sponge Cake

Victoria Sponge Cake

Did you know that sponge cakes can be dated back to the Renaissance?

This was when cake recipes began using beaten eggs instead of yeast as a leavener. However, the sponge cake we have come to know and love so well didn’t come into being until 1843 when baking powder was invented by Alfred Bird.

The reason this made such a difference to sponge cakes was that it meant that butter could be used in the batter, allowing for a lighter, more golden cake that would become known as the classic Victoria sandwich cake.

As any long-time fan of The Great British Bake-Off will know, the trick to a good Victoria sandwich cake can be hotly contested. This is especially true when it comes to creating the perfect consistency and flavour, even though its core ingredients (flour, sugar, eggs and butter) seem remarkably straightforward.

Some debate whether baking powder is even needed if you use self-raising flour, whereas others prefer using both to create a lighter cake. Even Mary Berry argues that margarine works better than butter in the recipe.

All this before we even get into the method of baking a Victoria cake, which is another debate in itself!

This simple, yet classic cake got its name from Queen Victoria as she was apparently extremely fond of this particular dessert (as well as many other sugary treats - it would appear that the Queen had quite the sweet tooth!).

Today, a classic Victoria Sponge is made by sandwiching a layer of cream and jam between two layers of sponge cake.

Interestingly, there are some sources that suggest that the versions of the Victoria cake that Queen Victoria enjoyed would have only used jam as a filling. Personally, we prefer to serve ours with both cream and jam!

American Brownies

American Brownies

The origin of the chocolate brownie is tangled up in a lot of urban legends.

One says that the original brownies were created when a chef accidentally added melted chocolate to a batch of cookies, another that it was when a chef ran out of flour when making a cake. Yet another says that it happened when a housewife in Maine forgot to add baking powder to her chocolate cake.

The first mention of brownies appeared in the 1896 edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook by Fanny Farmer but this version didn’t use chocolate, effectively making it closer to what we today would think of as a ‘Blondie’.

The first recipe to include chocolate appeared later in 1899 in the community-sourced Machias Cookbook. This is most likely the first recipe that would make what we would recognise as a typical American brownie today.

Brownies are a type of traybake served in slabs or as bite-sized pieces. It can best be described as a cross between a cake and a cookie, with the texture varying between more cake-like or a more gooey, fudgey consistency.

What sets them apart from cookies or cakes is a lower flour content than cookies and a higher fat content than cake.

While brownies are super versatile when it comes to what you can add for variety, the basic ingredients for a good chocolate brownie are eggs, flour, butter, sugar, chocolate and/or cocoa powder.

Overall, American brownies haven’t changed much since the introduction of chocolate to the recipe. While there are many variations, they’re still the same fudgey goodness we’ve come to know and love.

Red Velvet Cake

Red Velvet Cake

While the name of this particular colourful delight first appeared around the 1940s in America, using ‘velvet’ to describe a cake actually goes back to the Victorian period.

If a cake was described as ‘velvety’, this meant that it had a smoother texture and finer crumb. This was achieved by adding cocoa powder into the mix instead of chocolate as this softened the flour and made for a smoother cake.

The red colour first appeared as a result of the cocoa powder reacting to the acidity in the other cake ingredients, causing a slight red tinge to the finished cake.

Further rationing during WWII led to beet juice being added to the cake mixture. This not only enhanced the moisture of the cake but also created a more intense red colour to the cake, which proved to be highly popular. Add the white topping and you have the first incarnation of today’s red velvet cake.

Of course, the majority of red velvet cakes you get today use red food colouring instead of beetroot and the original ermine frosting has been replaced with the vastly superior cream cheese frosting.

The core ingredients of a good red velvet cake are cocoa powder, vinegar and buttermilk. This is what gives it its distinctive smooth, fluffy texture and subtle chocolate flavour. The cream cheese frosting adds satisfying colour contrast, as well as a slight tang that perfectly compliments the flavour of the cake.

Millionaire Shortbread

While shortbread itself originated in Scotland, this yummy confection of shortbread, chewy caramel and chocolate seems to have been invented in Australia in the 1970s.

This delectable treat first appeared in The Australian Woman’s Weekly magazine, where it was originally called a caramel slice (it’s also known as caramel shortbread or chocolate caramel slice). The name most commonly associated with it today, millionaire shortbread seems to have come from Scotland at a later date as the treat grew in popularity across the UK.

Unfortunately, eating a millionaire shortbread won’t make anyone an actual millionaire (we can dream though). Instead, the name instead refers to the calorific content in each slice of caramel shortbread.

Apparently, there is a saying in Scotland that goes “the millionaire’s shortbread is often richer in calories than the one who tastes is in hard cash”.

The distinctive sweetness of this delicious dessert comes from the use of golden syrup and condensed milk to create a thick, chewy caramel layer. The top layer of melted chocolate is then added after the caramel has had a chance to cool. Once the chocolate is completely chilled, it's finally ready to enjoy.

The combination of a crunchy shortbread base, sweet chewy caramel and smooth chocolate topping makes for a sinfully delightful treat.

Ginger Snap Biscuits

Ginger Snap Biscuits

This spicy biscuit most likely has its earliest origins in the medieval German lebkuchen.

These are apparently still available in Germany today but tend to be much more heavily spiced than our ginger snap biscuits.

The ginger biscuits more commonly found today in the UK and America first appeared in England in the 1840s and have been enjoyed as an accompaniment to a cup of tea ever since.

As well as that lovely warm spicy flavour, ginger has long been known to have healing properties such as reducing inflammation and settling upset stomachs. It’s hardly surprising then that ginger has a long history of being incorporated into multiple recipes throughout the years, including the ginger snap cookie, beloved by millions the world over.

Fun fact: Americans celebrate National Ginger Snap Day every July 1st. Given how synonymous with Christmas gingerbread and ginger snap biscuits have become, it’s strange that their day is slap bang in the middle of summer, but who are we to question?

There’s a story attached to these early incarnations of the ginger snap biscuit is that they were considered ‘hard as a nut’ which is what led to them earning their other common moniker ‘ginger nuts’.

In addition to the standard biscuit ingredients of flour, butter and eggs, golden syrup, powdered ginger and occasionally other spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg all go into making a batch of ginger snap biscuits.  

There are many different variants of ginger biscuits around the world, all of which vary in texture, shape or spice combination but the ginger snap biscuit enjoyed in the UK and America today has changed very little since it first appeared in Victorian England, all those years ago.

And there you have it, the history of your favourite cakes and desserts!

What was very interesting to learn was that, even though cake, in general, can be dated pretty far back into the history books, many of our favourite sweet treats that have stood the test of time only really appeared in the 1800s.

It would seem that heavy industry wasn’t the only thing enjoying a revolution during this time!

It’s also interesting to know that, with a couple of notable exceptions, no one can really say who the first person was who first invented the version of the cakes and desserts we enjoy today.

Almost as fascinating is the knowledge that the Russian cake was actually an American creation.

If you’re now craving cake as much as we are after reading this article, you can buy any of our excellent cakes and treats from our online store and have them delivered directly to your door.

Should you decide to host your own afternoon tea party from the comfort of your own home, we've got you covered with a guide to hosting the best virtual afternoon tea!