Cake is a form of sweet food made from flour, sugar, and other ingredients, that is usually baked. In their oldest forms, cakes were modifications of bread, but cakes now cover a wide range of preparations that can be simple or elaborate, and that share features with other desserts such as pastries, meringues, custards, and pies.
During the Great Depression, there was a surplus of molasses and the need to provide easily made food to millions of economically depressed people in the United States. One company patented a cake-bread mix to deal with this economic situation, and thereby established the first line of cake in a box. In so doing, cake, as it is known today, became a mass-produced good rather than a home- or bakery-made specialty.
Cakes may be classified according to the occasion for which they are intended. For example, wedding cakes, birthday cakes, cakes for first communion, Christmas cakes, Halloween cakes, and Passover plava (a type of sponge cake sometimes made with matzo meal) are all identified primarily according to the celebration they are intended to accompany. The cutting of a wedding cake constitutes a social ceremony in some cultures. The Ancient Roman marriage ritual of confarreatio originated in the sharing of a cake.
Special cake flour with a high starch-to-gluten ratio is made from fine-textured, soft, low-protein wheat. It is strongly bleached and compared to all-purpose flour, cake flour tends to result in cakes with a lighter, less dense texture. Therefore, it is frequently specified or preferred in cakes meant to be soft, light, and/or bright white, such as angel food cake. However, if cake flour is called for, a substitute can be made by replacing a small percentage of all-purpose flour with cornstarch or removing two tablespoons from each cup of all-purpose flour. Some recipes explicitly specify or permit all-purpose flour, notably where a firmer or denser cake texture is desired.
A finished cake is often enhanced by covering it with icing, or frosting, and toppings such as sprinkles, which are also known as "jimmies" in certain parts of the United States and "hundreds and thousands" in the United Kingdom. The frosting is usually made from powdered (icing) sugar, sometimes a fat of some sort, milk or cream, and often flavorings such as a vanilla extract or cocoa powder. Some decorators use a rolled fondant icing. Commercial bakeries tend to use lard for the fat, and often whip the lard to introduce air bubbles. This makes the icing light and spreadable. Home bakers either use lard, butter, margarine, or some combination thereof. Sprinkles are small firm pieces of sugar and oils that are colored with food coloring. In the late 20th century, new cake decorating products became available to the public. These include several specialized sprinkles and even methods to print pictures and transfer the image onto a cake.
Royal icing, marzipan (or a less sweet version, known as almond paste), fondant icing (also known as sugarpaste), and buttercream are used as covering icings and to create decorations. Floral sugarcraft or wired sugar flowers are an important part of cake decoration. Cakes for special occasions, such as wedding cakes, are traditionally rich fruit cakes or occasionally Madeira cakes, that are covered with marzipan and iced using royal icing or sugar-paste. They are finished with piped borders (made with royal icing) and adorned with a piped message, wired sugar flowers, hand-formed fondant flowers, marzipan fruit, piped flowers, or crystallized fruits or flowers such as grapes or violets.