There's a certain breed of Baltimorean who would rather have a slab of first-rate peach cake than Eastern Shore crab imperial, Anne Arundel County tomatoes or Frederick County scrapple.
The old-fashioned, like-your-grandmother-served peach cake is a summer delight, known chiefly to Baltimoreans who like good, plain cooking. This marriage of a sheet of yeasty dough and peaches baked with their skins is a magnificent union. But don't bother looking for recipes for this July-August treat.
They are hard to find and aren't listed in most local cookbooks. The peach cake formula is the most requested recipe at The Evening Sun. When one was published July 31, local cooks got out their clipping scissors. I bet the Xerox machines were busy, too.
The other day I dropped by George Simon's bakery at Loch Raven Boulevard and Taylor Avenue. A pair of women were in the shop to pick up a birthday cake. They glanced around the wares until their eyes caught a big baking sheet. "Peach cake!" they both exclaimed.
Simon, the third generation of his family to rise before dawn and heat up the baking ovens, has made peach cake -- in season only -- since he was 16, and that was 43 years ago. His uncle, a baker also named George Simon, was one of South Baltimore's acknowledged peach cake meisters.
The elder Simon's bakery was located at Hanover and Barney streets, in the heart of the old German peach cake belt. Some 40 or 50 years ago, South Baltimore women sent their children to the bakery for warm squares of peach cake rather than heating up their own kitchens on a hot August afternoon. Back then, the basic cake was the dough, peaches and a sprinkling of powdered sugar. It was once a dime a sheet. Simon now sells it for $2.75 a large slice.
"I never knew a baker who peeled his peaches for the cake.
Some just broke open the peaches, threw away the pits and split the fruit into fours and set them into the dough," said Simon, who gets all his peaches from the Armacost Farm Orchard on Mount Carmel Road in northern Baltimore County. When the local peach season is over, he quits making the cake until next July.
Simon also worked at Otterbein's, another respected old South Baltimore firm that moved to Loch Raven Boulevard and Northern Parkway some years ago. Like Simon's Bakery, Otterbein's also is known for its peach cake. Come the fall, both houses of flour will go into major Christmas cookie production.
There was a time, Simon recalls, when people lined up outside his uncle's shop for the peach cake, as well as the breads, pies and other goods he sold. The shop had a somewhat peculiar schedule. Like all bakeries, it was open in the morning. Then it shut down and reopened in the evening, when its competitors were traditionally closed.
"There were traffic jams on Hanover Street," Simon said.
His peach cake recipe is basically the same as it aways has been. He uses the dough that goes into his buns. Next come the peaches, with the skins on, of course, and a sugar glaze. The glaze, he concedes, was not always used in the old days. "The sugar brings out the taste of the peaches," he said.
Baltimoreans love to argue about which bakery makes the best peach cake. From Catonsville to Woodlawn to Highlandtown, there are peach cake feasts.
The dessert is also a mainstay of the annual outdoor luncheon served in the garden arcade of Zion Lutheran Church facing City Hall Plaza, Holliday and Lexington streets. Along with other German treats, the peach cake takes it place along with a delectable plum cake.
I couldn't say which is better. The last time I attended this event, I made the delightful mistake of trying to weigh the merits of the peach versus the plum. This year's Zion luncheon is Sept. 5.
But the best peach cake, of course, is the one your grandmother served.