If you’ve browsed through headlines on any major food publication lately or, if you, like I do, have a Google alert set for “Japanese food craze,” then you already know: The war on cake is real. In the last two months alone, two different clearly non-cake substances, have been touted as a new cake trend. The first, salad cakes, are actually artfully layered vegetables “frosted” with tofu or cream cheese, and nimbly decorated with herbs and carrot curls. So far, these imposters have been contained to one café in Japan and a handful of slideshows. But the second, a raindrop cake, served up for $8 apiece at Smorgasburg, threatens to become, like rainbow bagels, cronuts and over-the-top milkshakes, a trend. It is already the kind of dessert that people wait in line for.
Except to call a “raindrop cake” dessert fundamentally misrepresents dessert. It is a category error. Raindrop cake is, according to its creator Darren Wong, nothing more than a mixture of pure spring water and agar, a vegan substitute for gelatin, topped by black sugar syrup and roasted soy flour. Is it cool-looking? Absolutely. Do I want to try it? Definitely. Does it taste good? Probably! Is it cake? Under no reasonable circumstances.
“Cake” has been used before to describe things that are clearly not cake—I see you, pizza cake—but never before have we been asked to believe that those things are acceptable substitutes for the calorically over-filled joy that is actual cake. No one is under the illusion that you should serve a four layer rice cake at a wedding.
I have no qualms about innovation in cakes. If the so-called “raindrop cake” were named anything but “cake”—say, an experimental jello—we could live together in peace. But the sheer chicanery, the utter malice of labeling a glob of water with agar in it “cake” disrespects the good name of cake and cake enthusiasts everywhere. The thing barely breaks the hundred-calorie mark, and you would be hard-pressed to balance a candle in it without the whole operation going south. Dropping water on a plate and calling it “cake” is one of the most magnificent scams of our lifetime.
I am a believer in the vast array of cakes out there: cola cakes and coffee cakes, German chocolate cake and boxed Funfetti cake, cakes both Lord and Lady Baltimore, ice box cake and ice cream cake, and the pleasingly, perplexingly named Tipsy Parson cake. Even fruitcake has a hallowed place in my heart.
But the through-line in all these cakes, whether they’re made with chocolate or jam or gluten or cream, isn’t really about their recipes. After all, the basic ingredients of a cake are not so far away from those of bread, as many involved in the cupcake-versus-muffin battle have pointed out. What separates cake from bread is intent. To quote a friend, “Cake is bread with dreams.”
Water cakes and salad cakes have whimsy, sure, but what are their dreams? Not to appear on the table at a birthday party, to be enjoyed surreptitiously for breakfast, or even to linger tragicomically in the break room after an office farewell party. Their only dream is to be marveled at, to be a novelty. That is a valid goal, and one with many culinary predecessors: the baked Alaska, the turducken, any cocktail that is served on fire. But cake is not about that. Cake is as much a workhorse as it is a show pony. Cake, in the post-industrial age, isn’t about elitism. Cake is about democracy. Cake is about finding a slice at the corner bodega at 2am that is not too many tiers below from what you would get for your most cherished personal celebration. Like pizza and sex, as the saying goes, even bad cake is pretty good. Let us stand for this treachery no longer. As Ernest Hemingway absolutely never said: Cake is a fine thing. It is worth fighting for.