Is cake 'less indulgent' than it was 50 years ago?

Mary Berry's chocolate sponge cake Cake has become more of a comfort than a luxury

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Once it was a luxury to eat a slice of cake, but that indulgence is now a more affordable treat.

We eat it when we celebrate, reward ourselves, or when we seek solace from the realities of life.

"Cake is a very comforting thing to make, eat and smell," says Jessica Simmons, who has penned a book on Women's Institute vintage teatime.

But with tea and coffee prices rising, and ingredients like milk, eggs and butter all affected by inflation, for some it has become an expensive pleasure to sit down with a slice of cake and a hot drink.

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As home economist Liz Martin says: "With everyone feeling the bite, it is probably still a luxury, especially in the average home."

While we still see cakes as a treat, 50 years ago "baking was a requirement really rather than a pastime", says Jessica Simmons.

Cheap, plain cakes were regularly whipped up as an essential part of Sunday tea during the 60s, but the more luxurious chocolate cake was a rarer treat.

For a basic cake, the same ingredients were available then as they are now. So how do prices compare?

Historian Annie Gray says a basic sponge recipe with chocolate powder is "the best reflection of something which covers then and now".

So I took Great British Bake Off presenter Mary Berry's chocolate sponge cake recipe and compared the prices of the ingredients in 1962 and 2012, leaving out water, the cost of the power used to bake the cake and avoiding monetising the baker's time.

Using average prices from Tesco online, it was easy enough to work out that in 2012 it would cost £3.85 to make the cake (see below), or 48p per slice (cutting it into eight portions).

But it was a little harder to work out how much it would have cost in 1962. The Office of National Statistics's Retail Price Index gave some prices, but I also used those in a leaflet for goods from 60s grocery retailer Shaw's, and a Cadbury's chocolate price list from the time.

By converting the imperial measures for the ingredients into metric, and their pre-decimalised prices in to decimalised currency, I found the cake cost 35p to make, or 4p per slice.

Cooking the books

Mary Berry's chocolate sponge cake
Ingredients 1962 cost in cake 2012 cost in cake

50g cocoa powder

£0.02

£0.46

6 tbsp boiling water

£0.00

£0.00

3 free-range eggs

£0.06

£0.70

4 tbsp milk

£0.002

£0.02

175g self-raising flour

£0.014

£0.11

1 tsp baking powder

£0.004

£0.04

100g soft butter

£0.04

£0.14

300g caster sugar

£0.02

£0.32

150g chocolate

£0.0013

£1.48

150ml double cream

£0.11

£0.50

3 tbsp apricot jam

£0.010

£0.08

Totals:

Per cake:

£0.35 (£6.12 today)

£3.85

Per slice:

£0.04 (£0.70 today)

£0.48

Cup of tea:

£0.03 (£0.53 today)

£0.03

Cup of filter coffee:

£0.01 (£0.18 today)

£0.15

Notes: Sourced using ONS Retail Price Index, Shaws grocery list and Tesco online. All metric measurements converted from imperial measures and 1962 prices converted from pre-decimalised currency. Cost today based on using Bank of England inflation calculator.

To reveal what that would have been worth in today's money, I multiplied it by the average rate of inflation using Bank of England inflation calculator, which works on the basis that £1 in 1962 would be equivalent to about £17.50 today.

This revealed that the 1962 cake would have cost £6.12 to make - 70p a slice.

Both tea and coffee were more expensive back then too - using the same way of working out costs, tea, which costs 3p a cup in 2012, would have cost 53p in 1962, and coffee, slightly more at 18p, compared to 15p now.

Cakes we ate

Sponge cake
  • 1944 - Chocolate cake made with with mashed potato and cocoa
  • 1957 - Chocolate cake with vinegar as a substitute for eggs
  • 1950s - Victorian sandwich cake a sponge that could be adapted to become chocolate
  • 1962 - Chocolate fruit cake made with clarified beef dripping and black treacle
  • 1969 - A golden cake which uses eight egg yolks to give it its yellow colour

Source: Jessica Johnson's Women's Institute recipe books

Liz Martin says she expected the cake to be more expensive in 1962, because supermarkets today are "driving prices down with suppliers".

But she says, if you price it going to local shops or using a premium brand of chocolate, such as Lindt instead of Cadbury's, it would be more expensive today.

However, baking your own simple cake is "still good value for money" Jessica Simmons says, although "most people are still easily tempted by picking one up at the supermarket".

That convenience was an unknown luxury in the 60s.

Back then baking was seen primarily as a way to feed a family, when "plain cakes were a staple part of family fare, but women did also make celebration cakes".

"Not many people would make a plain cake now out of necessity. Back in 1962 cake was very much a part of Sunday tea time.

"Sunday afternoon cake was a feature point of the table, and would be used up over the course of the week," she explains.

Since then, the way we eat cake has changed.

"They are not enjoyed as much as they were 50 years ago, when you would sit down for a treat, now it's eaten more on a snacking basis - you can grab a slice wrapped up by the till in some coffee shops, ready to go," says Ms Martin.

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This could be partly because there was a shift towards using cake mixes for simple cakes in the 80s and 90s, which are seen as faster and cheaper.

"To buy all those ingredients if something is wasted or a mess is made of it by a child - cake mix means less cost or loss involved," says Liz Martin.

Finding clever ways to save money while making cakes at home is something that members of the Women's Institute have become skilled at over the years.

"Chocolate cake is the cornerstone of every old recipe book I've used, even during war-time," says Jessica Simmons.

"The Hampshire Federation of Women's Institutes produced a cookery book in 1944 that uses potato in 95% of the recipes - including the ubiquitous chocolate cake.

"Mash is mixed together with fat and added to sparse measures of flour, cocoa, custard powder and a reconstituted egg.

"Some books even have three or four different interpretations of the cake owing to such a medley of different ingredients and baking techniques," says Jessica Simmons.

We're not eating such basic plain cakes today, so what are we baking?

Baking today is now more of a "fashion statement" with special occasion cakes having had a huge resurgence.

But Jessica Simmons says "people will always make an exception for a homemade cake", and Liz Martin agrees.

"With the influence of Mary Berry, people are once again beginning to see it as a luxury.

"You are getting to see more wonderful classic cakes being made, and the resurgence of cupcakes and muffins has made cakes infinitely more accessible again, with people able to eat cake at breakfast, at elevenses, at lunch, in the afternoon," she says.

So when should we eat it? There's one particular time that it's best, Liz Martin says.

"The only day to eat it is the day it's made."

Additional reporting by Michelle Warwicker.

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