Yes yes, I know it should be the Romans, and the Romans had their share of cakes too – but the Greeks really knew what they were about when it came to baked goods. They had an absolutely bewildering array baked in different shapes and for different purposes. They were served on feasts, birthdays and as snacks, and as temple offerings (they were often round in shape in honour of Artemis, the goddess of the moon). The Greeks even started the tradition of putting candles on cakes, again for Artemis and her lunar light. The most common name for these dainties was ‘Plakous’ (meaning ‘flat’) – the origin of the word ‘placenta’, which is literally life-giving and nourishing.
Not too many written recipes have survived from this time, but we do have several for cakes of different types, while others are described in plays and paintings in the last centuries BC (there was a whole book called On Cakes by Iatrocles, but it sadly has not come down to us). We even have some more immediate evidence from the ash-preserved ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, where excavations have turned up individual cake tins, and carbonised cakes in several different shapes.
Some of these cakes were everyday, some were for special occasions. Some clearly had a cheeky side: Heraclides of Syracuse described festival cakes of sesame and honey called ‘mylloi’ which were made in the shape of female genitals in honour of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone; while the Spartans made cakes called Kribanai in the shape of women’s breasts. The pyramid-shaped Pyramous, which were made from toasted wheat soaked in honey, were given as prizes to men who stayed awake through all-night Symposia (drinking festivals), and many other cakes were served at bars as well as at home. Others still were more like sweetened bread or pizzas, made using local specialities like dried figs, dates and sheep’s cheese. We can see that the line between bread and cake was a fine one, especially with dainties like the Cretan Glykinai, which got their sweetness only from sweet wine. Others used a natural leavener derived from wine-making, called must (these were traditionally served on fresh bay leaves, which lent a subtle flavour as well as some extra moistness from their oil).
So we can say with some confidence that while most of the world was making fairly primitive bread, the Greeks were enjoying their cakes with some gusto. Their liberal use of honey has been preserved in many modern Greek cakes too – witness the syrupy baklava and honey cakes we still enjoy today. Who knew they had such a pedigree?