The History & Future of the Washington Cake.

It’s the 4th of July and it’s safe to say we’re all feeling some of those annual patriotic stirrings from deep within. How better to celebrate the independence of our country than eating what our forefathers ate while they were making history fighting for it? Taste the freedom of the Washington Cake.

The Cakes of Washington

Washington Cake, like so many old desserts, retains a certain amount of mystery. In looking back through the cookbooks of our forebears that mystery intensifies as we see not one but four different cakes traveling under the moniker of Washington. The first written account of a “Washington Cake” is something called a creamed cake which is similar to a pound cake. Being a chemically unleavened dessert, it is this creaming method that gives the cake its rise. Intensely flavored with spices, and filled with dried fruits and brandy this moist rich cake stands on its own feet without the aid of icings or garnish and emerged shortly after Washington’s inauguration.

George Washington Cake

Jump forward in time a few years and we find the “George Washington Cake.” This one boasts cherries or apples (the apples a nod towards Washington state for which apples have some significance) the cherries seemingly have no ties to the cake other than their complementary flavor.

Washington Pie

Then there is the “Washington Pie” which is a pie in the same sense that a Boston Cream Pie is. It is in fact to all reasonable observers a cake, the only ties that bind it to the name of pie would be the old practice of baking the cakes in pie tins. This Washington Pie is a two-layer white or yellow cake filled with jam or custard, not dissimilar to the Boston Cream in make-up only lacking its signature chocolate topping.

In 1908 the Washington Post made mention of something they also called a Washington Pie in an article titled The Power of Pie. Their description of the dessert is far better than anything I could record so instead of rewriting their words allow me to simply repeat them:

“As a pie it is a nefarious fraud, but hungry men have eaten it with great relish. . . . It is made of shortened pie dough filled with stale bread, pieces of cake, the refuse of the bakery, cheap spices, a few raisins and an occasional shingle nail.”

The Power of Pie – 1908 – Washington Post

The least appetizing of its brethren, this Washington Pie hybrid was a monstrous creation seemingly created for nothing more than the disposal of a baker’s old product and a cheap sugar fix for those down on their luck.

Why so Much “Washington?”

At this point, you may be asking yourself, why so much “Washington?” Washington firmly established himself as a man of note and deserving of respect. In American historical context this means people name baked goods after you. We begin to see things named after him, the nation’s capital and the state of Washington. Every town boasts a statue or street in recognition of our first president. It was also a well-entrenched British practice to celebrate a noble’s birthday with a specific cake or dessert and this was seemingly the American imitation of that same practice.

However, there is some speculation that perhaps the Washington cake originated from a more personal source. The tale goes that one Mary Simpson, who also went by Mary Washington, was a former slave of the President. Freed by George before he moved to Philadelphia, Mary went on to open a small shop but she still had respect for her former slave owner. Every February 22nd, she celebrated his birthday by making a large cake. Placed at the forefront of her shop directly below a portrait of the President, she sold slices of her George Washington Cake alongside glasses of punch and coffee.

Times Change

Washington Cake had a good long run, in fact, it stayed very popular through the 19th century. Through time tastes have changed as American fancy turned towards cookies, brownies, and ice cream. Today we no longer see the Washington Cake in any of its forms, an unfortunate demise to several great recipes. In an effort to restore the once famous cake to its former glory we give you the updated version of the Washington cake in the hopes that your restaurant, cafe, or bakery may decide to do things a little differently this Independence Day.

The George Washington Cake Ingredients

For the Cake

  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • 2 Tablespoons milk, whole
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

For the Filling

  • 1 ½ cups seedless raspberry jam
  • 2 Tablespoons Kirschwasser
  • Confectioner’s sugar

Instructions

For the Cake

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease and flour two 8″ round cake pans, line with parchment.

In the bowl of a standing mixer beat the eggs and sugar at high speed for about 3 minutes, until they’re golden and creamy looking. Beat in the baking powder, salt, vanilla, and almond. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine and heat the butter and milk until the milk is steaming and the butter is completely melted. Stir the milk and butter into the batter until thoroughly combined, then stir in the flour, and mix.

Divide the batter evenly into the pans and smooth the surface of each. Bake the cakes for 25 minutes, or until they’re a very light brown on top and a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Transfer the cakes to a cooling rack, and after 10 minutes run a butter knife around the edge turning them out of the tins and removing the parchment. Turn them right side up to finish cooling completely.

For the Filling

Combine the raspberry jam and kirschwasser in a small bowl and mix thoroughly, then refrigerate until ready to use.

For the Assembly

When the cakes are entirely cool, split each one in half around the equator, to make four 8″ layers. Place one layer on a serving plate, cut side up. Spread with 1/3 of the filling. Place another layer atop the filling, and spread with half the remaining jam. Top with a third layer, and spread with the remaining filling. Top with the final layer, smooth (not cut) side up. Gently press down on the cake to settle it, and to help spread the filling right to the edges.

Wrap the cake well in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, or for up to 2 days. Just before serving, sift a heavy layer of confectioners’ sugar atop the cake. Slice and serve with whipped cream and, if the mood strikes, some fresh fruit.

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Hannah Abaffy

Hannah Abaffy

Pastry Chef & Recipe Development

Hannah Abaffy is a pastry chef and an active member of the culinary community. From working in kitchens to developing recipes, and creating menus for restaurants, she has been involved with food in one capacity or another for the past decade. After starting a food history blog, Hannah has been continuously writing and learning about the ever-changing realm of cuisine, its history, and its future. Since then her appetite to learn about and share all things that touch upon the world of food can only be described as voracious.

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