This post has been scheduled to pop up automatically on the blog on this day, because I am travelling. If all goes as planned, I will be in Washington DC today and for the next nine days (then, here I come, New York!) Naturally, my thoughts turned to Washington Cake as a topic for the day.
George Washington (1732-1799) was, of course, the first President of the United States of America (1789-1797.) It is assumed that the cake is named in his honour, but that does not mean that it was invented in his honour - dishes are never actually invented, they are derived by tweaking a pre-existing concept or recipe for a variety of reasons.
The story of Washington Cake is as confused by myth and mystery as are many other named dishes. The ‘inventor’ (or first-namer) and his or her location are disputed, as is the ‘authentic’ recipe. Similar recipes of the time are called Composition Cake, but recipes for this also vary a great deal. Most recipes for Composition Cake consist of a rich butter or cream-laded dough, leavened (or not) with yeast or powder, which may or may not include dried fruit and flavourings such as spices and brandy or rose-water.
Martha Washington was said to be famous for her ‘Great Cake,’ so perhaps I should start with this. Here is the recipe as given by Karen Hess in her transcription of the collection of Martha’s recipes, written down by her granddaughter and known as Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats.
To Make a Great Cake.
Take a peck of flower, 4 nutmeggs grated, halfe and ounce of cloves & mace, & as much cinnamon, & as much caraway seeds beaten, 3 quarters of A pound of sugar mingled with 7 pounds of currans pickt clean & rubd clean with a cloth. A pinte of good ale barme, & almost A pint of lukewarm water, 3 pound of butter melted. first strow in a little salt upon ye flower, then mingle all ye spice together, & strow into ye flower, & strow in yr water, barme, & butter. when all is well mingled, kned it up & let it ly an houre by ye fire covrd close with a cloth, mingle ye currans & ye sugar with ye dow. 2 hours will bake it.
The earliest recipe for a cake specifically named ‘Washington Cake’ that I know of appears in The Cook Not Mad, Or Rational Cookery (Watertown, NY, 1830) - a work offering “good republican dishes and garnishing, proper to fill an every day bill of fare.” This version of the cake does not contain a leavening agent, although the eggs (depending on the method used) would have performed this function to some extent. The recipe given is:
“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.”
Other recipes for Washington Cake of the 1830’s are leavened with saleratus (the action sometimes enhanced with sour milk or vinegar); some contain wine, or rosewater, or lemon, or spices such as nutmeg. I rather like this one, from The Godey's Lady's Book Receipts and Household Hints, (Philadelphia, 1870.)
Three-quarters of a pound of butter, and the same of sugar worked to a cream, five eggs well beaten, nutmeg and cinnamon, one pound of sifted flour, one gill of wine, half a tearspoonful of soda dissolved in one gill of cream, one pound of currants or raisins. Bake in a moderately quick oven.
The book also contains the following interesting variation on the theme:
Washington Pie Cake.
Half a teacup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, four eggs. Mix the butter and sugar together, add the yelks, then the whites beaten to a froth. Mix one teaspoonful of cream of tartar in the flour, add one-half a teacupful of milk, in which is dissolved a half teaspoonful of soda. Bake like a loaf of jelly cake.
The Jelly Part—One pint of sweet milk sweetened and flavored, one egg beaten, two tablespoonfuls of corn-starch. Cooked like blanc mange.