Americans have been celebrating George Washington’s birthday on February 22 since the centennial of his birth, when nationwide festivities marked the occasion. (Adopted as a federal holiday in 1885, the date is still officially considered “Washington’s Birthday” by the federal government, even though we now observe the all-purpose Presidents’ Day instead.)
Admiration for Washington’s legacy, along with a patriotic frame of mind in general in the early 19th century, created a trend at the time of people naming desserts after the presidents. There was a Madison Cake, a Tyler Pudding and even a Jackson Jumble (a sugary cake made with sour cream and brandy). But much like the man himself, none of those desserts reached the height of popularity that Washington Cake and Washington Pie did.
Washington Cake was a round layer cake of sponge or poundcake with jelly or cream between the layers (pretty much the same thing as a jelly cake or Boston cream pie). Mrs. Putnam’s Recipe Book, published in 1850, gave directions to “let the cake cool, then spread marmalade or any other jelly over the cake in a layer as thick as the cake, then cover it with another cake.” The whole thing was finished off with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar.
According to Mrs. Bliss’s Practical Cookbook of 1850, the recipe for Washington Cake combined butter, sugar and eggs with “one glass of rosewater and one pound of sifted flour. Bake in a shallow circular tin one-half-inch deep. When done, spread a thick layer of raspberry jam or any jelly upon one cake and lay another cake upon the top of the jam. Sift white sugar over the whole.”
The thickness of the layer of jelly seems to have been an important attribute of a good Washington Cake. In a story in Student and Schoolmate magazine (Boston, 1869), one of the characters says that the piece he ate “would have been well enough, only I like the jelly thick, and that jelly was thin.” A few recipes in Godey’s Lady’s Book (1870) and Housekeeping in Old Virginia (1879) had applesauce between the layers; and by the 1880s, English cream or chocolate custard was the preferred filling.
More intriguing are the ingredients of Washington Pie: a unique confection made by encasing in piecrust a filling made of leftover pieces of cake moistened with flavorings. Washington Pie was usually baked in massive two-and-a-half-foot-square pans, then cut into rectangular pieces to be served.
Neither the cake nor the pie seems to have had anything to do with our first president’s actual dessert preferences. “The Washington Pie was so-called by way of paying the highest possible honor to the father of his country,” wrote The Nation: A Weekly Journal, in 1866. A reporter from the Washington Star interviewed a Washington, DC baker in 1898, who said that he’d had “an intimate acquaintance with Washington Pie” since the 1860s, having “made and handled an immense quantity of it… and there was nothing of Washington about it except the name.” The baker described Washington Pie, “properly made,” as consisting of “odds and ends of broken cakes that pile up in bakeshops. They are just as good as if they were whole, but because they are not whole, they are at times unsalable.”
The cake pieces were moistened with milk or cream, he added, and raisins and spices thrown in. “There was a pie crust put under and over it and the result was Washington Pie. Now and then some pies that happened to get broken were put into the works, which made Washington Pie toothsome and satisfactory to so many thousands. When it was fresh and hot, it was decidedly good eating.”
Washington Pie was served at the nicer hotels and boardinghouses in the Northeast, often topped with a sauce. “There was more of it served than any other pie,” said the baker interviewed by the Washington Star. “There was nothing exclusive about it, for nearly all bakers made it and found a ready sale for it. There were also great quantities of it sold by the bakers in the city markets.”
But Washington Pie fell into disrepute during the Civil War, according to the baker, because “certain bakers, in their efforts to produce great quantities of it, were not so very careful as to what it was composed of. Some bakers got to making it out of stale bread and the like.” This viewpoint is backed up by an account in an 1880 Chicago publication in which the author maintained, “The very cheap articles so often met with at the coffee stands and lunch houses in the vicinity of the docks and railroad depots, and known as Washington Pie, railroad cake, etc., are made up chiefly of the refuse and waste material of the bakeries, old and musty cakes, waste fruit, a little spice and much molasses.”
Nobody seems to know where, exactly, Washington Cake or Washington Pie was first made. The desserts did find their way to New York by 1898, when the Astor House had them on their menu in New York City. And in the Hudson Valley, Alice J. Hasbrouck, married to a descendant of the Huguenot Street Hasbroucks of New Paltz, features two recipes for Washington Cake in her 1976 cookbook, As Our Ancestors Cooked, published by the Huguenot Historical Society.
According to Beth M. Forrest, professor of Liberal Arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, “the sheer number” of 19th-century cookbooks that include Washington Cake or Washington Pie indicates that New York women, including those of the Hudson Valley, “would have known about the confection, and likely baked it. The cake also appears on many hotel restaurant menus from Bermuda to Portland, Maine, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey.” The Ellicott Club of Buffalo, New York, she adds, included a dessert called Gateaux George Washington on its menu in 1906.
Forrest also notes a recipe found in a 1910 cookbook put out by the Altrurian Club of Troy, New York. In what seems to be a “next-generation” version of the original frugal practice of making Washington Pie by using up leftover or broken pieces of cake, its recipe suggested filling a piecrust with “rich, yellow cake dough, bake, let cool, then cover with blackberry or raspberry jam. Put a heavy meringue on top and place in the oven to brown.”
And then there’s the philosophical Washington Cake recipe found by Forrest in the 1911 cookbook, Good Things: Ethical Recipes for Feast Days and Other Days by Isabel Goodhue. She advises combining “four cups of the flour of truthfulness; two cups of the butter of generosity, sweetened with two cups of high ideals; made light with courage and patriotism, flavored with sagacity. Add the fruits of fame and love, and when well-baked, cover with icing and decorate with preserved cherries and cut with a small, silver hatchet.”