A few weeks ago, I began considering
what dish to prepare during the annual
Presidents’ Day festivities held this past
Monday at the Israel Crane House. Before
long, it hit me: a Washington Cake! It’s
perfect for a day that celebrates, at least
in part, the birthday of the man who led
us to victory in the War for Independence
and who was the very first President of
our brand new nation: namely, George Washington. Nothing
could be better! HUZZAH!
Now, I’ve made a few Washington Cakes before, including
one during a Fireside Feasts session years ago at Brooklyn’s
Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum. At that time, we used the receipt
given below, which is one of two for such cakes in Catharine
Rapelye Wyckoff’s (of Flatlands, Long Island, NY) manuscript
cookbook. As I recall, it turned out well, was quite tasty, and
every last crumb disappeared quickly:
1/2 lb of butter 3/4 lb of Sugar
1 lb of flour 4 Eggs coffee cup
Cream pearlash. Spice. fruit
However, I wanted to try another receipt this time. Besides,
there’s a slight problem with the Wyckoff manuscript receipts:
both are circa 1855, which is later than I’d like. So, I began
to do some research, to see if I could find any earlier versions.
Of course, Washington Cakes are strictly of the 19th century.
They began to appear at some point after our First President’s
death (1799), when someone apparently thought it’d be a good
idea to honor him by either taking an already tried ‘n true cake,
or creating an entirely new one, and naming it after him. Based
on the make-up of the various receipts I found, I tend to think
it’s most likely the former, because it’s similar to the so-called
“Great Cakes” of past centuries. In fact, with its standard cake
ingredients, fruit, and assorted spices, most Washington Cakes
are highly reminiscent of your basic everyday, run-of-the-mill
cakes of the Medieval era. What’s even more interesting is that
not only do these cakes hark back to Medieval times, but they’re
also very similar to receipts, particularly those for Great Cakes,
in Martha Washington’s own manuscript cookery book. A work,
as you may know, whose origins are medieval! And so, I have
to wonder, were the creators of the Washington Cakes aware
of that? Did they make a deliberate and conscious decision
to devise just such medieval-like cakes? Surely, it can’t just
be a coincidence. Or can it? But…how? I tell you, I wish I had
the answers to all these questions!
However, there’s a slight glitch in my theory. You see, I did
find several other Washington Cake receipts, including three
in published sources and three in manuscript cookbooks. All
but two* contained fruit and spices, and often specific ones.
Two exceptions to this were, surprisingly, the printed versions!
I was a bit puzzled by this. Did the manuscript writers insert
the spices and fruit on their own? Did they copy the similar
fruit ‘n spice printed versions? Or did they possibly refer to
a printed receipt that I have yet to find? Once again, all are
intriguing, and at this point, unanswered, questions.
Lastly, there is one specific ingredient in all of these cakes
that sets them apart from those of more ancient times. It’s
one that makes them truly “modern” confections of the 19th
century. And that one ingredient is what was then a relatively
new “invention”: the chemical leavener known as pearl-ash.
Technically known was potassium carbonate, it was also
called pot-ash and was the forerunner of today’s common
So, when all was said and done, which receipt did I use this
past Monday? I chose that of a woman who lived essentially
in my neighborhood, in my own backyard, back in the 1800s.
I made my Washington Cake from the following receipt from
the handwritten household book of Mrs. Lefferts of Flatbush,
Long Island, NY (circa 1838?):
19. 1 lb of Flour 1lb of Sugar ¾ lb butter
4 Eggs 2 lb raisins half a pint of milk
a teaspoon of pearlash one glass of wine
one of Brandy two nutmegs two
spoonsfull of cinamon and one of cloves
And it was mighty good! HUZZAH!
*The two published cookbooks with Washington Cake receipts
that do NOT contain fruit or spices were Eliza Leslie’s Directions
for Cookery, in all its Various Branches, (1837/1840) and Lettice
Bryan’s The Kentucky Housewife (1839). In addition, Mrs. Bryan
uses the possessive form in the title of hers, as in “Washington’s
Cake,” as opposed to just the “Washington Cake” of the others.