By Lindsay Suto
The moon nearest the winter solstice, when the nights are longest and darkest, is known as the Moon of the Long Nights. For many this season is a time of celebrating, as halls are decked and baked goods show up in full force. During this time of year when many foods are not in season, baking is the perfect holiday tradition since it uses grains and other kitchen staples.
The history of baking is one that was transformed by both culture and technology. The Egyptians learned how to bake from the Babylonians back in 2600 BC, although bread was originally seen as a rich man’s food, and was commonly served during festivals and celebrations. Since grains and the resulting baked goods were used as commodities in this culture, any natural disasters that could destroy the crops were greatly feared. For this reason, the Egyptians would bake sweet breads to be used as sacrifices, believing that the sweets would soften the anger of the gods and bring favor upon their land.
Around 300 BC the Greeks and Romans developed baking skills into artisan trades, and bread baker became an officially recognized occupation. From there, the art spread to Europe and Asia. Today baked goods play an important role in every culture’s cuisine, and many hold religious significance. Bread has played a prominent role in the Christian church since it’s inception, serving as a physical representation of Christ’s body during the sacrament of the Eucharist. Some other examples include challah, matzo, hot cross buns, and pancakes served on shrove Tuesday.
Flour and sugar became cheaper and more available in the 16th century, and the emerging middle class also made baking more popular as it became more accessible to the masses. Globalization brought about new types of bread and baked goods, as spices and fruits were traded from across the world.
The Industrial Revolution of the 18th century brought advances in kitchen technology such as cake pans, semi-closed ovens, and cooking literature. Before women entered the workforce, baking was seen as a primarily domestic activity, and fresh breads and cakes were made in the home. The invention of baking powder and commercial yeast made the art of baking less of an art and more of a mechanical process, fit for large scale commercialization. Unfortunately the flavor and appeal of baked goods largely depends on freshness, and an increased demand for convenience foods has led to an increased use in preservatives and additives to make these items shelf stable.
Nowadays we have mechanical technology, new recipes influenced by worldwide cuisines, celebrity bakers, and televised bake-offs. But the baked goods we are used to are nothing compared to the rich artisan treats of the past. As we focus on traditions this time of year, why not take up the art of traditional baking?