‘Let them eat cake!’

‘Let them eat cake!’

The queen of France supposedly said “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” which translates into English as “Let them eat cake!” Though there is no historical evidence that Marie-Antoinette ever said such a thing, but history liked it, it must be one of the most often repeated phrases, perhaps because it remains as a good example of a reign oblivious to the poor, suggesting the people should eat fancy food, disregarding their despair. Since the elections are now over, hopefully it will not be regarded as a political act to write about cake and its unfortunate relationship with power. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s election vows include an offer for free cake in a chain of national kıraathanes. “Kıraathane” is the original word for “kahvehane,” which means coffee house. “Kıraat” means “to read” in Arabic, so the word normally translates as a reading place. In the 16th century, coffee houses were indeed also reading places, where intellectuals and the elite frequented, where literature was a favorite discussed topic and poetry was read aloud.

In time, the places degenerated into places where the jobless hang out and play cards. Today’s kahvehanes funnily serve more tea than coffee and newspapers are the only reading done there. Creating a new chain of coffee or reading houses equipped with books, offering free tea and coffee, may be a great idea for young people, but in this project, “the cake” seems to be the weak link, an unfortunate suggestion that could be misread.

Cake is a later addition to Turkish baking, a gift that came with westernization. Food historian Özge Samancı, an expert in Ottoman cuisine, gives a few examples. The earliest cake recipe ever printed in Ottoman cookbooks seems to be pandispanya, a name corrupt of Pan di Spagna (sponge cake), which appeared in “Yeni Yemek Kitabı/The New Cookbook” printed in 1880.

Samancı points out to another cake recipe in the book “Tatlıcıbaşı/Sweetsmaster” written by Hadiye Fahriye in1924. This cake recipe is named “Katr Kar,” not translated but written in Turkish as a direct pronunciation of “Quatr-Quarts” a typical French cake that features four eggs and equal amounts of sugar, butter, and flour.

Another cake recipe appears in 1933, simply named as “Kek” in the book Alaturka ve Alafranga Tatlı ve Yemek Kitabı/Allaturca and Allafranca Sweets and Dishes Cookbook.” Apparently the cake is very “Alla Franca”—very French and foreign for the Turkish cook. French cuisine has had a great influence, especially in the evolution of Turkish patisserie, a totally new chapter in the Turkish food scene.

Coming back to the cake controversy of the French, whether true or not, the cake or brioche quote marked the end of an era, and ignited a revolution. Marie-Antoinette was the last queen of France. The French revolution toppled the monarchy and she was decapitated by guillotine. She was greatly disliked, as she was highly profligate and irresponsibly spent huge amounts of money on luxury.

Her lavish expenditure caused her to be nicknamed Madame Déficit, as she was blamed for causing the country’s financial crisis. She probably never suggested brioche to her folks, but nonetheless, people were outraged and revenge came swift. No pun intended, but Turkey is now at such a breaking point. Suggesting cake to people might have good intentions, but it might also prove to be highly risky. If history repeats itself, people may misunderstand and may not appreciate the offer of cake!


Recipe of the Week:

Recently, another cake crisis has shaken a royal family, breaking with the British Monarchy’s wedding traditions. The change from the traditional fruitcake to a lemon flavored sandwich cake meant Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s marriage would spike changes in old traditions. Funnily, that Victorian recipe is also a version of the French Quatr-Quarts recipe, or pound cake, made from one pound each of flour, sugar, butter, and eggs. This kind of cake is dense and rich, satisfying and filling, and keeps well at room temperature.

So, despite western influence, whether it be French Quatr-Quarts or pound cake, this cake can well be Turkey’s new national cake, if of course, the election vows are ever realized. My take on this classic cake will be with Turkish coffee. I have replaced some of the flour in the original recipe with Turkish coffee.

Beat 250 grams each of butter and sugar until creamy. Beat in four eggs (each weighing about 60 g), one at a time. Sift 200 g flour, 50 g Turkish coffee powder, a pinch of salt, and add to the batter by folding in with a spatula. Grease a rectangular cake tin with butter and dust with flour, pour the cake batter and level the top. Bake at 180˚C for about 40-45 minutes. Enjoy!