Green’s Dictionary of Slang

take the cake v.

also embezzle the pastry, take the bakehouse, ...baker’s shop, ...the bakery, ...the beer, ...the bun, …the candied-peel, ...the candle, ...the duff, ...the flour, ...the gingerbread, ...the pastry, …the peach, ...the scone, ...the tea-cake, capture the cake, …the crumb, cop the cake, ...the currant, grab the cake
[the perceived ‘tastiness’ of the cake]

1. to surpass, to outdo, esp. in excessive or extreme behaviour or of a near-intolerable situation or happening; ad hoc vars. abound, e.g. cit. 1905.

[US] in R.G. Carter Four Brothers in Blue (1978) 23 Jan. 227: For pure unadulterated demoralization, Kilkenny fighting and downright cussedness, ‘this took the cake.’.
[UK]Sporting Times 12 Jan. 1/3: Baddeley certainly gave the cake, but as certainly Ole Brer Rabbit took it on Monday last.
[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 14 Mar. 18/2: From Braidwood comes this little tale / About a trap named Miller, / Who now may surely take the cake / As champion serpent-killer.
[US]N.Y. Mercury in Ware (1909) 240/1: There is a woman in Fargo who takes the flour.
[UK]Sporting Times 29 May 1/2: Old Gladstone’s latest move fairly takes the cake for cheek and cunning.
[US]Lantern (N.O.) 5 Feb. 2: The chap who runs the hash-morgue up on Camp near Julia takes the duff.
[US]Lantern (N.O.) 28 May 2: The members of Mascot No. 4 took the pastry. [Ibid.] 3: If this don’t take the beer I ain’t right.
[Aus]Truth (Sydney) 4 Nov. 5/8: India takes the cake for snake bites and destruction of wild animals. The statistics for last year — 21,988 human beings and 81,668 cattle.
[UK]M. Williams Round London 107: I used to go to Margate, but Ramsgate takes the cake.
[UK]E.E. Rogers [perf. Marie Lloyd] The French Lady’s Maid [lyrics] Flirt, Mon Dieu! make no mistake, at ze mash she take ze cake.
[Aus]Broadford Courier (Vic.) 25 Feb. 5/3: ‘It takes the bun,’ in its amended and more modern form of ‘It embezzles the pastry,’ is still popular with all classes of society .
[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 27 Jan. 24/3: For downright ignorance some country racing stewards capture the crumb.
[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 3 Feb. 14/4: This should annex the crumpet.
[UK]Marvel XIV:344 June 7: With our new show we three shall not only take the cake of the profession, but the whole stock of the professional pastrycooks’ depot.
[UK]B. Pain De Omnibus 78: I ’ad a young man on my ’bus whart feerely took the gingerbread.
[UK]Harrington & LeBrunn [perf. Marie Lloyd] Bond Street, Tea Walk [lyrics] The cake-walk is the rage, at present on the stage / But the cake-walk takes the tea-cake every time.
[UK]A. Binstead Pitcher in Paradise 145: Well, this cops the currant!
[Aus]Sun. Times (Perth) 3 Jan. 3/3: Of all the bad judges in Westralia surely the cake — tin, label and all — must be awarded to Paddy Bolger.
[UK]Sporting Times 1 Apr. 3/3: Well, this bites the Simnel!
[Aus]Sun. Times (Perth) 11 Mar. 1/1: A Subiaco beer swipe takes the scone for persistent bumming.
[Aus]Sun. Times (Perth) 25 Feb. 1/1: A self-styled waterside pressman takes the bakehouse for lug biting.
[Aus]Gadfly (Adelaide) 28 Mar. 9/2: ‘Drunk an’ disturbin’ the peace, yer worship,’ says the slop, an’ then ’e gets into ’is kennel. I ain’t got no time fer p’licemen, any’ow; but this chap fair took the baker’s shop with blanky cuffers.
[UK]‘Doss Chiderdoss’ ‘A Consistent Consort’ Sporting Times 13 June 1/3: I don’t say that my Edwin’s exactly the pick / Of the basket, he’d capture no cake.
[UK]Sporting Times 11 Apr. 1/4: Frank Slavin as ‘a commissioner for oaths’ [...] takes the bakery!
[US]‘Sing Sing No. 57,700’ My View on Books in N.Y. Times Mag. 30 Apr. 5/2: Don Quixote [...] This one grabs the cake.
[Aus]Truth (Brisbane) 8 Nov. 12/4: ‘For honesty and gentlemanly bearing. “Gentleman Jim,” as we called him, took the cake’.
[UK]Magnet Library 25 Sept. 2: I fancy that will take the cake!
[Aus]T. Skeyhill ‘Shrapnel’ Soldier Songs from Anzac (1916) 7: I’ve ’ad some narrow shaves, but that / ’Ad fairly took the peach.
[Aus]T. Skeyhill ‘The Sniper’ Soldier Songs from Anzac (1916) 14: For cunnin’ an’ for darin’, ’E takes the candied-peel.
[US]S. Lewis Babbitt (1974) 20: A car of your own! [...] That pretty nearly takes the cake!
[Aus]Horsham Times (Vic.) 14 Sept. 7/4: Oh, strike! just look at ole Tom Croft, ’e takes th’ blinkin’ scone.
[US]A. Bontemps God Sends Sun. 79: Yes, suh. Lil Augie takes de cake.
[UK]A. Christie Murder in the Mews (1954) 55: Upon my word, you take the cake!
[UK]G. Fairlie Bulldog Drummond Stands Fast 76: Of all the self-satisfied, conceited young pups [...] Master Jack Fortescue takes the cake.
[US](con. 1944) N. Mailer Naked and Dead 276: This is neat, this is gonna take the cake.
[US](con. 1920s) ‘Harry Grey’ Hoods (1953) 189: This guy! He cops the cake [...] he could teach us how to steal an election.
[US]R. Prather Scrambled Yeggs 41: Of all the crackpot capers [...] this takes the cake.
[Aus]‘Nino Culotta’ Cop This Lot 77: We’ve ’ad some queer drinks, but that takes the cake.
[Aus]J. Wynnum I’m a Jack, All Right 16: Of all the cases of ingratude that I have witnessed, this takes the bloody candle.
[US](con. 1930s) E. Thompson Garden of Sand (1981) 224: Fuckin Roosevelt can’t do nothing right even at the end. This just takes the cake!
[US]C. Hiaasen Skin Tight 175: Stranahan had seen some bizarros in his day, but this one took the cake.
[Aus]R.G. Barrett Boys from Binjiwunyawunya 180: Well, if that doesn’t take the cake, he chuckled to himself.
[UK]Indep. on Sun. 18 July 21: The film takes the cake, so to speak, with jokes about semen, vomit, masturbation, premature ejaculation, and much more.
[Aus]J.J. DeCeglie Drawing Dead [ebook] I’d been in some shit in my life[...] but this took the cake, took it and shoved that bastard right in my handsome face.

2. to be highly improbable.

[US]K. Brasselle Cannibals 199: And the chickie story [...] takes the cake.