Yesterday I gave you a recipe for Fannie Farmer's version of Lady Baltimore Cake without giving you any history of the cake itself. My conscience was pricked and my curiosity piqued by the comment posted by T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types, who was intrigued by the name of the cake, and what is more, he actually made it, and it looks fantastic! You can see the pictures HERE.
So, to correct my omission, I give you the results of my very brief foray into the story behind the Lady Baltimore Cake.
Naturally, its origins are disputed and controversial which is good news as such stories are much more fun. We can probably fairly quickly discount the idea that it was named after the real Lady Baltimore, whose Irish husband inherited Maryland in the mid-seventeenth century. The Lady never got to America, and in any case baking powder leavening agents were not invented until well into the nineteenth century – a ‘cake’ in her day was more like sweet fruit bread. Another story says it was a variation of a cake enjoyed by Dolly Madison, the fourth First Lady but this story fails to explain why it is not then called Dolly Madison cake.
The other two common explanations have more substance, and perhaps both of them are right. One says it originated in Charleston at the end of the nineteenth century, at “The Lady Baltimore Tearooms”, and was a variation of another popular cake (aren’t all cake recipes variations of of one that has gone before?). The final story says that the original cake was purely fictional, and made its first appearance in a novel but sounded so good readers clamoured for the recipe. The book was called, in case you cannot guess - ‘Lady Baltimore’, and it was set in a Southern city something like Charleston. It was written by Owen Wister and published in 1906.
Here is the relevant passage from the book:
… at twelve, it was my habit to leave my Fanning researches for a while, and lunch at the Exchange upon chocolate and sandwiches most delicate in savor. As, one day, I was luxuriously biting one of these, I heard his voice and what he was saying. ...
Young he was, very young, twenty-two or three at the most, and as he stood, with hat in hand, speaking to the pretty girl behind the counter, his head and side-face were of a romantic and high-strung look. It was a cake that he desired made, a cake for a wedding; and I directly found myself curious to know whose wedding.
…. "Are you quite sure you want that?" the girl was asking.
"Lady Baltimore? Yes, that is what I want."
"Because," she began to explain, then hesitated, and looked at him. Perhaps it was in his face; perhaps it was that she remembered at this point the serious difference between the price of Lady Baltimore (by my small bill-of-fare I was now made acquainted with its price) and the cost of that rich article which convention has prescribed as the cake for weddings; at any rate, swift, sudden delicacy of feeling prevented her explaining any more to him, for she saw how it was: his means were too humble for the approved kind of wedding cake! She was too young, too unskilled yet in the world's ways, to rise above her embarrassment; and so she stood blushing at him behind the counter, while he stood blushing at her in front of it.
…. My day had been dull, my researches had not brought me a whit nearer royal blood; I looked at my little bill-of-fare, and then I stepped forward to the counter, adventurous, but polite.
"I should like a slice, if you please, of Lady Baltimore," I said with extreme formality. I thought she was going to burst; but after an interesting second she replied, "Certainly," in her fit Regular Exchange tone; only, I thought it trembled a little.
I returned to the table and she brought me the cake, and I had my first felicitous meeting with Lady Baltimore. Oh, my goodness! Did you ever taste it? It's all soft, and it's in layers, and it has nuts--but I can't write any more about it; my mouth waters too much.
Delighted surprise caused me once more to speak aloud, and with my mouth full. "But, dear me, this Is delicious!"
A choking ripple of laughter came from the counter. "It's I who make them," said the girl. "I thank you for the unintentional compliment."
The narrator finds that the incident has ‘broken the ice’ with the charming cake-maker, and he returns to continue the flirtation. In case that still isn't enough romance for you, another embellishment of the tale of the novel itself says that Wister had been given some delicious cake by a beautiful Southern belle, and decided to write about it.
No wonder the public clamoured for an actual recipe for this romance-soaked idea of a cake!
Now for the evidence. There seems to be no mention anywhere of a cake with the name of ‘Lady Baltimore’ until 1906. Suddenly there was a spate of newpaper articles mentioning it as the ‘famous’ or ‘original’ cake, with one writer (in January 1907) coyly agreeing to part with the recipe ‘with the sanction of Owen Wister’. The very first mention of the cake that I have been able to find is on October 27th 1906 in the The Post Standard of Syracuse NY, in an article about an upcoming sale and dance on behalf of the Harmony Circle, the auxillary to the Womens and Childrens Hospital. Slices of the cake with the recipe were ‘sold by chance’ that evening, and the lucky winner was Mrs Frederick R Hazard.
The first recipe that I have been able to find appeared on December 24th 1906 in the Daily Gazette And Bulletin of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and here it is:
‘Lady Baltimore Cake’.
Beat the whites of six eggs. Take a cup and a half of granulated sugar, a cup of milk, nearly a cup of butter, three cups of flour and two teaspoonfuls of good baking powder. Sift the flour and baking powder together into the other ingredients, adding the eggs last of all. Bake in two buttered pans for fifteen or twenty minutes.
For the frosting: Two cups of granulated sugar and a cup and a half of water, boil until stringly, about five minutes usually does it. Beat the whites of two eggs very light, and pour the boiling sugar slowly into it, mixing well. Take out of this enough for the top and sides of the cake, and stir into the remainder for the filling between the two layers, one cup of finely chopped raisins and a cup of chopped nuts. This is delicious when properly baked.
Who originated this recipe? We will probably never know for certain, but undoubtedly some entrepreneurial cake-shop owner noted the interest – perhaps had even read the book – tweaked a popular white cake recipe and re-named it. Perhaps it was indeed the ladies at the Lady Baltimore Tea Rooms in Charleston.
P.S there is a yellow-cake version, using egg yolks, called, of course ‘Lord Baltimore Cake’.
P.P.S please let us all know if you find any earlier mentions of this cake!