As Marie Antoinette once famously quipped, “Let them eat cake.” And we are!
Cakes truly are one of the world’s greatest gifts. Mankind has enjoyed these baked wonders in some form or another for thousands of years. The world’s oldest cake recipe dates back more than 4,000 years and was found in an ancient Mesopotamian tablet; the ingredients for it included flour, honey, and curdled milk (yum!). The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all loved to snack on sweetened cake-like treats containing honey, fruits, and nuts.
During the Middle Ages, early bakers mastered a variety of dense fruitcake-like creations. As time went on, these OG pastry chefs also improved their craft, learning how to make their cakes lighter and fluffier with the addition of butter and eggs (and, eventually, baking soda and baking powder). Today, cakes come in an infinite variety of flavors, shapes, and forms — the only thing uniting them being that they (almost) always contain flour, a sweetener, a fat source (butter, oil, or shortening), eggs, and a leavening agent (baking powder, baking soda, or yeast).
Which cake reigns supreme is, of course, a matter of personal taste. Some of us love the soft, buttery moistness each bite of cake offers. Others enjoy the smooth, silky sweetness of frosting and icing. But the one thing we can all agree on is that when it comes to rich, decadent desserts that make you go “mmmmm,” there’s nothing like a great slice of cake.
The most popular types of cakes around the globe
Here’s a layer-by-layer look at the types of cakes people around the world just can’t stop devouring.
The United States of cake
Americans down a remarkable 19.5 billion pounds of cake and pastries each year.
And, much like the rest of the world, research shows that more than half of Americans love a good chocolate cake — especially if it’s frosted or has incredible icing. However, chocolate cake isn’t actually the most popular cake in the U.S. That honor goes to these five beloved (and delicious) cake varieties:
Our favorite types of cake
Disclaimer: The rankings shown above are those of other people and do not necessarily reflect the cake preferences of this writer. Here’s what I think are the best cakes in all the land.
Ice cream cake
This frozen variation on a layer cake or filled Swiss roll or jelly roll cake is believed to date all the way back to the 16th century, when it was an extravagant treat for wealthy English lords and ladies. Typically consisting of layers of ice cream and cake, plus some form of frozen ganache (Is it just me or should ganache be its own food group?) or whipped cream topping, ice cream cakes today are a favorite for important occasions like birthdays and holiday celebrations.
Whereas chocolate and vanilla ice cream cakes tend to be most common, mint chocolate chip, Neapolitan, and peanut butter ice cream cakes can combine all our favorite flavors in one incredible bite!
Better by the slice: To make serving ice cream cake a breeze, keep the cake frozen until just before serving. Use a sharp knife dipped in hot water to quickly slice through the frozen layers and serve the cake slices on chilled plates to help slow melting.
Although its designation as a cake is somewhat questionable, cheesecake’s combo of custard-like filling and crumbly cookie crust create a textural contrast that is similar enough to “cake” for the name to stick.
With origins dating back to ancient Greece — athletes competing in the first Olympics in 776 B.C. are believed to have eaten a cheese-like treat for energy — cheesecake continues to be one of the most popular desserts around. Whether you like yours classic, topped with fruit, or extra dense and rich New York style, this sweet, indulgent treat is an all-time favorite for good reason.
Better by the slice: Not all cheesecakes are made with cream cheese, sugar, eggs, and a graham cracker crust. Italian-style cheesecakes swap ricotta for their dairy, whereas Japanese-style cheesecakes include whipped egg whites for a lighter, fluffier texture.
Take a traditional cake made with flour, eggs, oil, and sugar, toss in some grated carrots — plus spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves — and you have all the makings of one incredible dessert: carrot cake!
While a rabbit-friendly veggie like the carrot may seem like an unusual ingredient for a cake, consider that refined sugar back did not exist back in the Middle Ages, so grated carrots were the next best thing. And the recipe has stuck ever since, even making a major comeback during World War II, when ingredients like sugar were rationed, and again in the 1960s, when people started eating more for health (making a cake filled with veggies a seemingly ideal option).
Better by the slice: While many swear by the spice and sweetness of carrot cake, it wouldn’t be the same without that classic tangy cream cheese frosting. Making your own? Throw some chopped nuts or toasted coconut into the batter before baking for an extra special treat.
Ever struggle to remember a favorite cake recipe by memory? You’re not alone. All those cups and ounces can get confusing. That’s why English bakers a few hundred years back created the pound cake, a simple, rich, dense cake that requires equal parts butter, sugar, eggs, and flour. That’s right: To make the original pound cake recipe, you just needed a pound of each of those kitchen staples. Mix them together, bake, and voila…instant cake!
Over time, we’ve added special refinements, such as a pinch of lemon zest or dash of vanilla extract, but the basic recipe for pound cake remains essentially the same. (For a beautiful marbled pound cake, just swirl some melted chocolate into your cake batter before baking!)
Better by the slice: While great on its own, pound cake really shines when paired with fresh sliced berries and a scoop of whipped cream, or even a simple dusting of powdered sugar. Yum.
Sorry, coffee lovers: Coffee cake typically doesn’t contain any actual java. Instead, this incredible treat, which originated in early European coffeehouses, was designed specifically to complement a great cup of Joe.
Known primarily for its sweet, crumbly streusel topping (the primary factor that helps it stand out from other cakes), coffee cake is made by adding a layer of spiced sugar, butter, flour, and nuts to a standard cake batter before the dessert goes into the oven. When making your own coffee cake, don’t be afraid to experiment. Fruit fillings, chocolate chips, and spices like cardamom and nutmeg can all be exceptional additions to any recipe.
Better by the slice: Adding sour cream to a coffee cake recipe can help keep the cake extra moist and delicious. Just be sure to store any moist cake in an air-tight container since it can dry out incredibly quickly.
Bundt cakes get their name from the German word “Bund,” which means a “gathering” or “group.” And that’s just what the cake was intended to be — an impressive looking dessert you could bring to friends’ or neighbors’ homes for a potluck or celebratory gathering.
The traditional ring-shaped, fluted Bundt pan these cakes are typically baked in was created by a Midwest baking supply company in the 1950s. The owner’s inspiration? A trip to Europe and all those beautiful, intricate works of edible dessert “art” often put on display and sold in high-end bakeries across the continent, where the use of cake molds was also incredibly popular.
Better by the slice: One of the biggest obstacles to making Bundt cake is getting it out of that pan in one piece. Follow these tips: 1) Always use a non-stick spray, 2) don’t fill the pan beyond two-thirds full to allow for expansion when cooking, 3) and let the cake cool before trying to remove it. Using a thin spatula or knife to gently run around the edges of the pan before inverting it will also increase your chances of a successful cake release.
Like cheesecake, tiramisu is another “cake” that doesn’t fit the traditional definition of the dessert. However, since it’s a sweet, layered dish served in slices, most foodies let it slide and classify the dish as a cake.
This classic Italian no-bake dessert typically consists of luxurious layers of coffee-soaked ladyfinger cookies topped with alternating layers of a creamy mixture of mascarpone cheese, eggs, sugar, and either chocolate or coffee. For the best-tasting tiramisu, serve the cake cold — right from the fridge — and top with a light dusting of cocoa powder or grated chocolate to further enhance the dark, rich flavor of the dish..
Better by the slice: You can find ladyfinger cookies (or savoiardi, as they’re known in Italy) to make your own tiramisu in most large grocery stores. Look for sweet, spongy cookies that are fresh and not overly dry — you want them to absorb that coffee or espresso goodness without becoming overly mushy!
Don’t worry, none of our feathered friends are harmed in the making of this uber-moist, tropical comfort food. Instead, the name hummingbird cake comes from the cake’s sweet blend of warm spices and nuts, plus bananas and pineapple — the recipe contains more fruit than flour! That powerful combination of ingredients is said to create a “nectar-like” flavor sweet enough to draw literal hummingbirds.
Originally dreamed up in the Caribbean, the hummingbird cake has since become a staple in all types of family and friendly gatherings throughout the Southern United States.
Better by the slice: Hummingbird cake is typically topped with a fluffy, tart cream cheese frosting. To make a homemade hummingbird cake truly shine, try stirring some added orange or lime zest into the frosting or mixing in a handful of toasted coconut before you frost your cake. Quick, easy, and oh so delicious!
One of the oldest desserts around, and the original prototype for most cakes we know today, fruitcake is a dense and rich dessert that’s made with loads of candied or dried fruits and nuts. The cake is baked, cooled, and then often soaked in some form of alcohol to prolong its shelf life.
Love it or hate it, fruitcake’s ability to last so long without spoiling has made it infamous around the holidays, and contributed to a number of ongoing jokes about it being widely passed around and re-gifted through families and social groups. Still, despite that bad rap, fruitcake can be a wonderful treat, especially if you warm it before serving and top it with a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
Better by the slice: Fruitcake is best enjoyed in thin slices, since the dense and flavorful cake can pack serious flavor. Pair it with a cup of coffee or hot tea — the natural bitterness of those drinks is the ideal complement to fruitcake’s intense sweetness.
Somewhere between a beautiful fluffy pancake and a rich fruit-topped pastry is the French dessert known as a galette. You may not think of this flat sweet and savory treat as a cake, but the folks at the Joy of Baking tell us it is one, so we’ll stick with their definition!
Consisting of a ring of free-form pastry dough that’s folded over a layer of fruit filling (such as apples, cherries, peaches, or plums) and then baked until crispy and golden brown, the galette started as a simple, rustic peasant food and has gone on to become a beloved culinary institution.
Better by the slice: Galettes are one of the easiest and most fun desserts to make for bakers of all experience levels. All they require are a great dough, some incredible fruit for the filling, and a bit of creativity and patience.
Smaller than a cupcake yet bigger, fluffier, and more crumbly than a cookie, tea cakes are a wonderful hybrid of what we all love in a good dessert — scaled down to a couple of tiny, delicious bites. These small, semi-sweet mini-cakes come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and flavors. In fact, the only thing that really unites most tea cakes is that they were made to be enjoyed with some sort of hot tea as a light snack or pick-me-up. As part of tea-drinking tradition, the cakes tend to be highly decorated — so they can be shared or presented to visiting guests — and are often served on a multi-tiered tray.
Better by the slice: New to the “high tea” experience? Pick a theme for your gathering, grab a few simple decorations and a variety of teas, and then set out a variety of different tiny tea cakes to munch on. Add some jam or jelly, fresh fruit, and a little whipped cream to dip the cakes in, and your guests will think you’re a tea party pro!
If you haven’t had the pleasure of cutting into a warm, moist molten chocolate cake or chocolate lava cake and seeing that core of gooey, molten chocolate pour from the center, then you’re missing out and need to try one of these wonderful treats toot sweet!
Generally considered the creation of a French chef who accidentally undercooked a batch of tiny chocolate cakes and then discovered how incredible their warm, liquid chocolate center was, lava cakes became an incredibly popular restaurant dessert option in the 1990s. Since then, the cakes have evolved to include variations with flavored fillings like caramel, peanut butter, or fruit preserves. But, for true chocolate lovers, nothing can compare to the dark, rich cocoa flavor packed into the original lava cake.
Better by the slice: Lava cakes should be served warm, immediately after coming out of the oven. You want the cake firm yet undercooked slightly, so the interior remains gooey. Top it with powdered sugar, whipped cream, fresh berries, or a scoop of ice cream for added decadence.
Pineapple upside-down cake
First popularized in the U.S. just over 100 years ago as the result of different pineapple manufacturer promotions, pineapple upside-down cake has since become a staple on most dessert menus.
This classic dessert features a caramelized topping of pineapple slices, maraschino cherries, and a buttery brown sugar glaze. To make the cake, fresh batter is poured over the topping before baking. Then, the finished, cooled cake is flipped over and removed from the pan, creating that iconic upside-down cake grid of yellow pineapple circles with vibrant red cherry centers.
Better by the slice: Although you can create a similar upside-down cake using apples or peaches, no other fruit packs the same nostalgic yet tropical homey dessert punch as pineapple. For an ideal dessert break, serve the cake either warm or at room temperature. Eat it on its own or with a dollop of fresh whipped cream.
Red velvet cake
Last, but certainly not least, comes the wonderful red velvet cake — the runner-up to a standard chocolate cake as the most popular cake in the world.
Today, this distinctive dessert, which packs a subtle hint of cocoa flavor, gets its name from its striking red color (created with natural beet juice or red food coloring). However, the first red velvet cakes were actually colored naturally by a chemical reaction that can sometimes occur when cocoa powder reacts with buttermilk, creating a red color in foods. A true culinary phenomenon, red velvet cake is another cake that’s wonderful on its own but even better with the addition of sweet, tangy cream cheese frosting.
Better by the slice: Red velvet cake is so popular that it has inspired a wide variety of spin-offs, including red velvet pancakes, red velvet donuts, red velvet cheesecake, and even red velvet whoopie pies!