By Gil Marks
Washington cake is an early 19th century creamed cake (a variation of pound cake) flavored with spices and frequently raisins and dried currants. The result is a moist, harmoniously spiced cake with a tantalizing flavor unnecessary to mask or enhance with frosting. It is not cured with alcohol and aged like a denser, more intense Christmas fruitcake. Washington cake is akin to and sometimes identical to the chemically-leavened (but less patriotically titled) composition cake, which emerged around the same time. Both treats arrived shortly after the inauguration of the nation’s first president and, when chemically leavened, reflect the beginning of the truly distinctive American approach to cake.
In addition to the original Washington cake, there are also much later “George Washington cakes” incorporating cherries (derived from Parson Mason Weems 1806 fable) or apples (associated with the state of Washington). Neither is the same as “Washington pie” from around 1850, a two-layer round yellow or white cake filled with jelly or lemon custard, the latter sometimes called “Martha Washington pie.” Philadelphia bakeries beginning around the early 1950s boasted a unique “Washington cake” consisting of dark spiced batter baked as sheet cakes and covered with chocolate or white icing. By the way, Martha and George Washington at Mount Vernon for special occasions generally served “Great Cake,” a massive yeast fruitcake, but not our creamed Washington cake.
A brief (but I think interesting) presidential history lesson: On September 5, 1774, Peyton Randolph of Virginia became the first of 14 men to serve as “President of the Continental Congress,” the final being Samuel Huntington of Connecticut (till July 6, 1781). Under the Articles of Confederation, adopted on March 1, 1781, there was no executive branch, but rather something resembling a prime minister. Samuel Johnston of North Carolina was chosen on July 9, 1781 by Congress to serve as the first “President of the United States in Congress Assembled,” but adamantly declined the ‘honor.’ The following day in his place, Congress elected Thomas McKean of Delaware, who resigned in October of that year following the British surrender at Yorktown. The first person to serve a full one-year term as “president of Congress” was John Hanson of Maryland, and seven other presidents of congress followed until 1789. Only with the ratification of the Unites States Constitution in 1789 was the position of “President of the United States of America” formed and the first elections held.
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, 1940 (artist unknown). Source: Wikimedia Commons
Congress under the Constitution formally convened for the first time on March 4, 1789 in New York City and George Washington was sworn in on April 30, 1789 at Federal Hall on Wall Street as the first president of the United States of America (sorry, presidents of Congress don’t count). Although John Adams, as the newly-installed presiding officer of the new Senate (April 1789), struggled to replace the title president with what he deemed a more dignified and majestic term than one used for the head of “fire companies and a cricket club” (yes, the original widespread colonial usage of president was for the leader of cricket clubs), James Madison and the House and especially Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania considered president a more republican term and rejected Adams’ attempts at quasi-monarchical and self-important titles. Washington tended to refer to his office as “chief magistrate.”
For the ensuing sixteen months after Washington’s inauguration, the country’s government was located in New York City, at the time America’s second largest metropolis with a population of 33,000. During this time, the Washington family (along with seven slaves from Mount Vernon) lived in the Samuel Osgood House at the corner of Pearl and Cherry Streets in Manhattan. Then on July 10, 1790, Congress, as part of a compromise arranged by Alexander Hamilton in which the federal government assumed all of the states’ debts accrued during the Revolution, voted to permanently locate the national capital along the Potomac River and to temporarily place the capital in Philadelphia. While the new city in the District of Columbia was under construction, Philadelphia -— then the largest city in North America with a population of 42,000 -— served as the nation’s capital. George Washington took up residence at a mansion at 6th and Market Streets, attended to by nine slaves from Mount Vernon. At the end of his second term in 1797, Washington returned to Mount Vernon where he died two years later. Finally in December 1800, the federal government of the United States relocated to its permanent home, named after Washington.
In addition to the nation’s new capital being designated after the first president, people began calling various treats after him, most notably Washington cake. The origin of this patriotic terminology may have been an American imitation of a British practice to celebrate a noble’s birthday with a special cake. In the early 1800s, pound cake or a fruit-laden variation was a common sight in the new United States at special occasions, such as weddings and holidays, as well as weekly fare in some households. Or possibly Washington cake emerged from a personal source. According to The Market Book by Thomas F. De Voe (NY, 1862, p. 219), one Mary Simpson (d. 1834), who was also known as Mary Washington, claimed (although there is no record of a Mary in Washington’s New York household) she was one of George Washington’s slaves and born on Mount Vernon, who he freed upon leaving New York City for Philadelphia. In the early 1800s, Simpson ran a small store in a Manhattan basement at the corner of Cliff and John Streets, where she sold milk, butter, and eggs along with various baked goods from her kitchen. Mary retained an intense devotion to Washington, even hanging his portrait in her shop. Wanting everyone to remember her former master’s birthday (February 22, 1732), Mary celebrated the observance of that occasion by preparing Washington cake. Each February 22nd, New Yorkers from diverse backgrounds lined up in front of her shop to purchase a piece of Mary’s “Washington cake” along with a glass of punch or coffee and offer a salute to the first president. The idea of Washington cake caught on as well as the practice of calling various treats after notable public figures.
The combination of raisins, spices, rosewater (later replaced with vanilla), and brandy was characteristic of colonial American baking. The raisin-studded cakes in the 1813 still life painting “Currants and Biscuits” by the Philadelphia-painter Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825) were the first depiction of this type of cake. The Peale family lived down the street from the shop of Mrs. Elizabeth Goodfellow, founder of America’s first cooking school and teacher of cookbook author Eliza Leslie (and an ancestor of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis), where the artist probably procured the subjects for his rendition.
Currants and Biscuits by Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825).
The earliest recipe and record for “Washington Cake” I could locate was an unleavened raisin-and-currant-laden spiced creamed cake in the anonymous The Cook Not Mad, Or Rational Cookery (Watertown, NY, 1830), a work offering “good republican dishes”: “One pound of sugar, one of flour, half pound butter, four eggs, one pound of raisins, one of currants, one gill of brandy, tea cup of cream, spice to your taste.” Soon thereafter, the “Washington Cake” in The New England Cook Book edited by Hezekiah Howe (New Haven, 1836) contained leavening (resulting in a lighter texture) and skipped the raisins of conventional cakes of the era: “Dissolve a tea spoonful of saleratus in a wine glass of milk, and put with half a pound of butter and a pound of sugar previously stirred white [the sugar], and a wine glass of wine, four eggs, and a pound and a half of flour, put in rosewater or essence of lemon, to taste.” Similarly, the “Washington Cake” in Directions For Cookery by Eliza Leslie (Philadelphia, 1837), a book with a national following, added chemical leavening and omitted the fruit: “Stir together a pound of butter and a pound of sugar, and sift into another pan a pound of flour. Beat six eggs very light, and stir them into the butter and sugar, alternately with the flour and a pint of rich milk or cream; if the milk is sour it will be no disadvantage. Add a glass of wine, a glass of brandy, a powdered nutmeg, and a table-spoonful of powdered cinnamon. Lastly, stir in a small tea-spoonful of pearl-ash, or sal-aratus, that has been melted in a little vinegar; take care not to put in too much pearl-ash, lest it give the cake an unpleasant taste. Stir the whole very hard; put it into a buttered tin pan, (or into little tins,) and bake it in a brisk oven. Wrapped in a thick cloth, this cake will keep soft for a week.” When the temperance movement gained support in the latter 19th century, some versions of Washington cake began omitting the alcohol. As late as The Blue Grass Cook Book by Minnie C. Fox (New York, 1904), depicting authentic Kentucky cookery, the “Washington Cake” included raisins, currants, citron, walnuts, and “1/2 glass of whisky” (and “soda”).
Washington cake remained extremely popular throughout the 19th century, but then faded as American tastes turned to layer cakes, coffeecakes, vanilla, and chocolate. However, unlike many early 19th century cakes that have long since disappeared, venerable Washington cake endures in various places. Some people even prefer it to the more intense gingerbread and the more delicate spice cake.
Enjoy Washington cake on July 4th, or July 9th or 10th for the Congressional presidents, for Washington’s birthday on February 22nd (or, if you follow the old Julian calendar, February 11, 1731; Britain only switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1752), and also any other time. The flavor becomes more pronounced after the cake stands and mellows overnight.
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- 2 cups sifted cake flour, or 1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted (7 ounces/200 grams)
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground cloves
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 cup unsalted butter, softened (65 to 67°F) (2 sticks/8 ounces/225 grams)
- 1 1/3 cups granulated sugar, or 2/3 cup granulated sugar and 2/3 cup packed light brown sugar (9.25 ounces/265 grams)
- 4 large eggs, lightly beaten (¾ cup/7 ounces/200 grams)
- 1/4 cup heavy cream or milk (2.125 ounces/60 grams)
- 2 tbsp brandy or sweet wine (such as Port)
- 2 tsp vanilla extract or rosewater
- 1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped raisins (8 ounces/225 grams)
- 1 1/2 cups dried currants (8 ounces/225 grams)
- Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease a 9- by 5-inch loaf pan, 9-inch springform pan, 9-inch (9-cup) tube or Bundt pan, or four 5- by 3-inch (2-cup) loaf pans, line the bottom and sides with parchment paper, and grease again.
- Sift together the flour, baking powder, spices, and salt.
- In a large bowl, beat the butter on low speed until smooth, about 2 minutes. Increase the speed to medium, gradually add the sugar, and beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes.
- Gradually add the eggs, beating well after each addition. Total time for beating in the eggs is about 4 minutes.
- Add the cream, brandy, and vanilla.
- In 3 additions, fold in the flour mixture.
- Stir in the raisins and currants.
- Pour into the prepared pan, smoothing the top. Bake until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1¼ hours for a large loaf pan or springform pan; 1 hour and 5 minutes for a tube pan; or 40 minutes for the small loaf pans.
- Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove the cake to a wire rack and let cool completely, at least 1½ hours. Wrap tightly in plastic, then foil. Store at room temperature for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 2 months. Use a serrated knife to cut the cake into slices.
- Double the recipe and bake in a 10- by 4-inch (16-cup) tube or Bundt pan for about 1¼ hours.
- Spicier Washington Cake: Omit the fruit and cloves, and increase the nutmeg to 2 teaspoons and cinnamon to 1½ teaspoons.