The History Dish: Washington’s Birthday

washingtoncakeWashington Cake: Dense, moist, and chock full of raisins.

Today we have a guest post from my intern, J.C. Paradiso! She’s a trained chef with her masters in Food Studies from NYU, and this “semester”, we’re working towards launching her own blog under the handle The Savage and the Sage. Look for it soon!

Presidents’ Day has never really resonated for me. If you are like me, a holiday just isn’t a holiday unless there is some kind of food involved. No food memories, no holiday.

I did some digging and realized that there is no holiday called Presidents’ Day. The holiday we celebrate is officially called Washington’s Birthday. 

At the time of his death in 1799, George Washington was largely considered the most important figure in American History. He was eulogized by Congressman and Revolutionary War General, Henry Lee, with the beautiful sentiment: “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen…”  Washington was a towering figure in the relatively newly minted American psyche; he was Pater Patriae, the Father of our Country. In the wake of his death, his birthday became an important celebration, including speechifying, fireworks, and “…taverns across the country filled with revelers celebrating the birth of the nation’s hero…” (source)

Washington’s birthday became an official holiday in 1879. In 1968 Congress passed the Monday Holiday Law to “provide uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays.” The official celebration was moved to the third Monday in February, nestled between Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays. By creating more 3-day weekends, Congress hoped to “bring substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the nation.”

While there may not be food associated with Presidents’ Day today, historically there are food traditions associated with celebrating George Washington.  Perhaps the most well known story about George Washington is that of Washington chopping down the cherry tree, which is now regarded as having been fabricated by his biographer, Parson Weems. That being said, according to The Presidents’ Cookbook: Practical Recipes from George Washington to the Present, George Washington apparently loved cherries, and all things cherry continue to have an association with Washington, like marzipan cherries and a chopped-cherry Washington salad.

By the early 19th century, there are recipes in cookbooks and memoirs of various versions of “Washington Cake.”  The origin of this patriotic baked good may have been an American imitation of a British practice to celebrate a nobleman’s birthday with a special cake.  According to The Market Book by Thomas F. De Voe, in the early 1800s, a woman named Mary Simpson, who claimed to have been a former slave of Washington’s, took in laundry “for several bachelor gentlemen” in a basement storefront on the corner of Cliff and John Streets in Manhattan. She would also sell homemade baked goods, eggs and dairy.  According to De Voe, “She never forgot her old master’s birthday…and she kept it most faithfully by preparing a very large cake which she called “Washington Cake,” (once a favorite of Washington,) a large quantity of punch, then a fashionable drink, and hot coffee…” She arranged these treats under a portrait of her old master, and was called upon by prominent members of the community who would “..praise her old master’s portrait and his many noble and heroic deeds…She said she ‘was fearful that if she did not keep up the day by her display, Washington would be soon forgotten.” (ED Note: JC and I both agreed this story dealt with some uncomfortable, yet fascinating, stuff. It’s an interesting perspective on slavery, written by a man living in a free state in the midst of the Civil War. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.)

So, what exactly is Washington Cake? While there are a few variations, the first published recipe for Washington Cake that I could find appeared in 1831 in The Cook Not Mad or Rational Cookery, A Frontier Cookbook. It called for “One pound of sugar, one of flour, half pound butter, four eggs, one pound raisins, one of currants, one gill of brandy, tea cup of cream, spice to your taste.” As was typical of the time, it contained no chemical leavening.

And you know what? The Cook Not Mad recipe for Washington Cake is pretty delicious–how could it not be with all that fat and all that sugar? The one caveat is that you really do have to like raisins, because this cake is FULL of them. 


Washington Cake
Adapted from The Cook Not Mad, 1831.

2 cups sugar
2 cups flour, sifted
2 sticks butter, plus 1 TBSP for greasing
4 eggs
3 cups raisins (or 1 1/2 cup raisins and 1 1/2 cups currants)
¼ cup brandy
½  cup cream
¼ tsp each: cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg (all finely ground)

1.Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9×5 inch loaf pan and set aside.

2.Cream together butter and sugar until mixture is light and fluffy and the color is light yellow, about 3 minutes on medium high speed.

3.Continue to beat mixture on medium high speed, adding in eggs 1 at a time. Add in remaining wet ingredients (brandy and cream).

4.Fold flour, by hand, into cake batter in three batches.  Add in spices. Add in raisins and mix well to fully incorporate all ingredients.

5.Transfer batter to loaf pan and cook for about 80 minutes, or until a cake tester (or knife) inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

6. Let cake sit for 15 minutes before removing it from pan.

Etsy Kitchen Histories: Easy-as-Pie Apple Peeler

apple1Get this for your kitchen.

My latest on Etsy is about the 19th century invention that has innovated my kitchen: the mechanical apple peeler.

I’ve never minded paring apples by hand, but it is time consuming. As opposed to fiddlin’ or courtin’, I usually binge watch TV shows or catch up on NPR while spraying the counter and floor in a sticky snowfall of peels and seeds. But this holiday season, I’ve added a tool to my kitchen arsenal that will make my share of the pie baking so much easier: a mechanical apple peeler-slicer-corer. When I sent my first fruit through the cranks and blades of my cast-iron peeler, it blew my mind.

I use the apple peeler to recreate a 1763 recipe for apple and pumpkin pie, which I think is one of the best recipes I have ever made while writing Four Pounds Flour. It is simple. It is sooo delicious. It is the new/old pie that is going to rock your Thanksgiving table.

pie31763 Apple & Pumpkin Pie – a recipe well worth making.

The finished pie had all kinds of caramelized sugar and molasses qualities as a result, giving it a taste somewhere between sweet potato casserole and apple crisp. It’s an excellent addition to your Thanksgiving feast as is, but there is also room for adventurous bakers to play with texture and flavor.

Make it. Read it. Do it.

The History Dish: Buttermilk Soup or “Pop”

Baked pears, thickened buttermilk, and fried bread.

On Sunday, I appeared on the Heritage Radio Network, chatting with Carmen Devito & Alice Marcus Krieg of We Dig Plants. We talked all about PEARS!  If you haven’t heard the show yet, go here and listen for free.   I dug up some pear recipes from the annals of history with the idea that we would pick one to try.  Well, we had a difficult time agreeing, so this week I’m going to cook up three very different 19th century pear recipes.

The first was Alice’s pick:  Buttermilk soup or “Pop.”   This recipe is odd. I’ve never seen a precedent for it: buttermilk is heated, mixed with pears, and poured over fried bread.  Check it out:

I needed some buttermilk education, so I naturally turned to that font of knowledge, Wikipedia.  I knew buttermilk as the bi-product of butter making: when cream is churned, the result is a solid (butter) and a liquid (buttermilk).  I knew that before seperation, fresh milk was often set in a cellar to seperate into milk and cream; what I didn’t realize is that this milk would also ferment because of naturally occuring bacteria.  This fermentation is what gives buttermilk its sour taste, although in modern production facilities we artificially inseminate pastuerized milk with a squirt of lactic acid bacteria.

Although the recipe doesn’t explicitly say to make a roux, I think it implies it.  The roux will thicken the buttermilk.

Buttermilk Soup or Pop

From Practical Sanitary and Economic Cooking by Mary Hinman Abel, 1890.

2 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon flour
2 tablespoon butter
pinch salt
2 large pears (I used Bosc)
1/4 cup sugar (brown sugar would be good; maple syrup if you’re feeling adventurous)
1/2 tsp cinnamon (or spice of your choice)

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Pare, core, and dice pears, then arrange in a baking tray (cake pan, etc).  Sprinkle with sugar and spice.  Bake for 35-45 minutes, or until tender.

2. In a large saucepan over a medium-low heat, heat 1 tablespoon of butter and the flour to make a roux.  Cook until flour begins to brown.  Add buttermilk and salt, turn heat to medium-high.  Bring to a boil while stirring constantly, then turn heat off.  Add baked pears to buttermilk mix, stir to combine.

3.  Melt remaining butter in a small skillet and fry two slices of bread.  Remove to a plate and top with pear/buttermilk mixture.


The original author of the recipe warns that cooking buttermilk “brings out the acid,” but I found the taste of the finished product to be surprisingly mild, either as a result of being cut by the fat of the butter or the sweetness of the pears.  And frankly, I was skeptical of this recipe, and it was not my first pick to make.  But I was delightfully wrong: this is the perfect snack.  It’s like a delicious warm yogurt treat (tastes better than it sounds): the dairy was filling, the pears sweet, and when poured over hot, buttery bread, it’s just the right amount of food.  Highly recommended, four stars, etc. etc.  Try it.

On a completely  unrelated note, I wrote this post jamming to my friend Gregg Gillis’ (Girl Talk) new album All Day, available for download for FREE.  It is really, REALLY good.

History Dish Mondays: A Very Fine Charlotte Russe

This very fine dessert is the second in my series of experiments with early chemical additives and my second attempt at a Charlotte Russe. Let’s kick off with the epic recipe I followed to make this thing:

A Very Fine Charlotte Russe

From The Lady’s Receipt Book by Eliza Leslie, 1847


I’m not going to provide you with a modern version of this recipe, because I discourage you from making it.  It didn’t taste bad, but the effort just wasn’t worth it.  However, I will walk you through the steps I took to recreate this “elegant” dessert.

First, I baked a cake.  I googled around for an almong sponge cake recipe (thank you, Martha Stewart).  I baked the cake in a glass bowl, so that it would begin to take the shape of a domed mold.  When it came out of the oven, I hollowed out the middle and saved the resulting cake scraps.  While still warm, I pressed the cake into a smaller bowl to create a deep well to recieve to all the very fine custard I was about to make.

I boiled one cup  of whole milk with a vanilla bean and a few blades of mace.  After about ten minutes, I removed the milk from the heat and plucked out the bean and mace, and whisked in one cup of heavy whipping cream.  I set this mixture aside to cool.  In the meantime, I beat three large eggs  in an electric mixer until aerated and light in color.  When the milk mixture was room temperature, I added the eggs in a slow drizzle, whisking constantly.  I returned it to a medium heat on my stove top and cooked it for about ten minutes, stirring constantly.  The resulting custard went into the refrigerator to cool.

In the meantime, I busted out my Isinglass, and dissolved it in a cup of boiling water.  Here’s where things went a little wrong:  I think the isinglass needed to be boiled in the water for a longer time.  After it cooled, and I mixed it with my custard, it left tapioca-like beads in the pudding.  It was an unpleasant texture that I think could have been avoided.  Lesson leaned: cook that isinglass long and hard.

I added four tablespoons of sugar to the custard and isinglass mixture, and set it aside.  I measured out a cup of white sugar into a bowl, and rubbed it on the skins of two lemons.  This is a trick also used in punch making; it releases the flavorful oils contained in the lemon’s skin.  I juiced the lemons and added the juice to the sugar, then added one cup sherry and half a cup brandy.  I stirred the mixture until the sugar was dissolved.  I added four cups of heavy whipping cream, and again used my mixer to beat the heck out of it.  The resulting boozey whipped cream was folded into the custard, and this mixture went straight into my almond-cake-mold.  I covered the bottom with the cake scraps I had set aside.  I put it in the refrigerator to set.

An “icing made in the usual manner” meant a royal icing: a basic recipe of egg whites, powdered sugar, and egg whites.  After about half an hour, the almond cake and custard was set.  I flipped it out of the mold, iced it, and decorated it with fresh raspberries.

Jebus. This is a fussy recipe to say the least.  The luxury of an electric mixer was an incredible time saver; note that to prepare this recipe in 1847 you had to make two meringues and one whipped cream BY HAND.  Not to mention I had the modern conveince of a refrigerator to set the custard.  The entire process still took me well over an hour to complete.  The end result?  Underwhelming.  Edible, sweet, and boozy; but somehow not worth all the effort that went into it.

I think the point of this recipe was not the taste; but rather all the work that went into it.  I find it hard to believe that the average housewife was preparing a Very Fine Charlotte Russe, even for the most special occasions.  However, most middle and upper class households had servants.  Time consuming and labor intensive, the job of the cook was the first to be relinquished by the lady of the house to hired help.

After the turn of the 20th century, when the servant trade began to fade, the lady of the house instead turned to new convenience foods.  Canned, pre-packaged, and easy to prepare, she would use these products to cut down on cooking time, so she could use her day for other pursuits (and when I say she, I mean you and me).

So I believe a Very Fine Charlotte Russe was a recipe desgined to show off the skill of one’s servants and the wealth of one’s household.  At any rate, stay away from it, unless you’ve got a few servants of your own.

Events: The Boston 19th C. Pub Crawl

Hey, Bostonites! (Bostonians?)  Come join us for a night of nineteenth-century debauchery at Boston’s oldest bars and most notorious dens of vice!
We will meet promptly at 5:30 PM at Eastern Standard (528 Commonwealth Avenue) for classic cocktails and complimentary appetizers.  We will then proceed to Red Hat Café; Union Oyster House; Bell in Hand Tavern; and, should we still possess the fortitude and sobriety, Drink.
The crawl is FREE to join.  Appropriate nineteenth century attire is encouraged, but by no means required.
Go to for more information.  Or, rsvp via Facebook here.
Brought to you by The Nineteenth Century Society and Four Pounds Flour.
See you there!

History Dish Mondays: Pain Perdu

Pain Perdu, made with hoo doo.

I had a few slices of Cider Cake left over from last week, so I decided to put it to good use in this recipe for Pain Perdu, or “lost bread.” It’s a Creole favorite similar to french toast.
The source for the modern recipe noted that Pain Perdu was originally flavored with orange flower water, an alcohol based floral flavoring popular in the 19th century. I didn’t have orange flower water, but I did have Florida Water, another 19th century flavouring/perfume with notes of orange flower, lavender, and clove.
According to Florida Water website, it can also be used to treat “Jangled Nerves,” and for “Boudoir Daintiness.” It’s also used for hoo doo. Who knew. (read more.)
I found Florida Water at my local pharmacy, but you can sometimes find it in the Goya food aisle in the grocery store. Orange flower water can be found in the baking section of some grocery stores, or at Middle Eastern food markets.
Pain Perdu
Modern recipe adapted from The American Heritage Cookbook.
Dash Orange Flower Water or Florida Water
2 eggs
1 tbsp confectioner’s sugar
pinch of salt
3/4 cups milk
Grated rind of half a lemon
6 slices of “not too fresh” bread; I used left over apple bread.
Combine ingredients and beat thoroughly. Dip slices of bread in the mixture, then fry in plenty of heated butter until crisp and golden brown on both sides. Serve immediately with maple syrup, honey, or a mixture of sugar and cinnamon.


This was pretty bad. I made a few slices without the Florida Water first, and they were pretty gooshy, but somehow also dry. Maybe it would have been better with regular bread, but I’m not so sure. After the Florida Water was added, it tasted like–surprise–perfume. I drowned it in maple syrup, but it didn’t do much good. I expected the lemon zest to perk it up with a citrus zing, but no. Not really.

Rating: C+ I would stick to a modern french toast recipe.

Apple Rosewater Tart

Ever been curious about the image at the top of this blog? It’s an apple-rosewater tart, a recipe that originally debuted during my thesis project. I recently received an email from one of my college professors that got me thinking about this recipe again. He said:
“I can’t seem to make an apple pie any more without using your Riesling wine and rosewater recipe. Actually, sometimes I use orangeblossom water, a suggestion of the Arabic grocery store where I get the rosewater.”
It tastes divine.
Apple Rosewater Tart
Based on American Cookery (1796) by Amelia Simmons
2 1/2 lbs. Apples,
2 tablespoon Rosewater
1 tsp. Cinnamon
2/3 cup Sugar
2/3 cup Riesling white wine
1 tbls. orange juice
1 tablespoon + 1tsp cornstarch

Crust recipe of your choice
1. Prepare crust
2. Slice apples and mix with sugar, cinnamon, orange juice and rosewater.
3. Melt butter in a large skillet. Add apples, wine and cornstarch. Saute until apples begin to sizzle, then about five minutes more. They will be just tender, but still fairly firm. Let cool.
4. Line tart pans with crust. Pour filling into crust.
5. Bake in an oven at 400 until crust edges are golden brown.