It's peach cake time again in Baltimore, and let the debate begin. This is a peculiar season, when locals scramble in search of the perfect summertime confection made of raised dough and peaches. I lament the loss of what I consider the perfect peach cake. I believe that like so much in Baltimore, the perfect peach cake has no frills. But many devotees will give me a loud argument on this one.
Just as Old Bay seasoning has no place in a crab cake recipe, apricot or raspberry jellies — or cinnamon — have no place in a proper peach cake.
Sometime in the past 30 years, a glazed topping has insinuated itself into local baking. I think of this glazing as Formstoning what was once a simple and delicious product. Whoever came up with cinnamon needs an evaluation at the Phipps Clinic.
The late Charles Hergenroeder of the Woodlea Bakery on Belair Road, who would bake a cake the right way if I asked for it, told me the glazing was all about appearance. The sweet (I would say gloppy) glazing gave the cake a nice appearance. It was sweet, and we know sweet sells.
If we are talking nice appearance, most commercial sheet cakes have a nice appearance. They have a wonderful appearance. They just taste like the tubs of commercial frosting that coat them.
The Baltimore peach cakes I knew were quite plain and unpretentious. They had a raised dough base and peaches. The peaches had to be ripe. When run though an oven, their juices flowed and made for a delectable commingling. My father, Joe Kelly, recalls being sent to his neighborhood South Baltimore bakery on a hot July or August afternoon just before suppertime. Bakers would pull sheets of peach cake out of the oven and dust them with powdered sugar. The whole thing would be home and devoured within an hour. Simple and sweet. You ate it quickly because shelf life was an unknown concept in 1930.
I hold that the best peach cake has no frills, but that does not mean there cannot be additions. My family, my grandmother and her sister, were great plain cooks who often combined English and German cooking traditions with dazzling effects. Peach cake is German — some of the best I've consumed in recent years has been at the downtown Zion Lutheran Church's Garden Fest held in the late summer. This year's is Sept. 10 at City Hall Plaza. I've also enjoyed a semisweet plum variant on the cake here.
My grandmother often served peach cakes with sweetened homemade whipped cream, either Sealtest (Western Maryland Dairy) or Lewes Dairy cream from Sussex County in Delaware. My grandfather liked his with a scoop of good vanilla ice cream, meaning Hendler's, Fiske's or Horn & Horn.
Peach cake with ice cream or good whipped cream was a powerful and rich dessert, arguably among the five or six greatest of the year. Some of the other Baltimore contenders would be floating island, lemon meringue pie, boiled vanilla custard, gingerbread with lemon sauce, blackberry flummery or a strawberry shortcake my grandmother made employing an ingredient known as nun's butter icing. Layer cakes are in another category that deserves its own discussion.
One of the things that makes a peach cake so special (beyond its taste) is its limited availability. It is only made with fresh, juicy peaches in season. There is also the question of source. Most people do not make the cake at home, but seek out their favorite old-fashioned Baltimore bakeries. They compare and contrast, argue and counter-argue. All this makes for great fun. And even I will admit that a peach cake that doesn't fit my standards completely is still better than no peach cake. Also, it's good to still have some dishes around that are so plain Baltimore, dishes that other places don't copy because they are almost too simple. Who could envy or claim sweetened raised dough and peaches?
The other night, I was having dinner with a baker friend of mine. He said he was overworked. I asked why. In an exhausted voice, he muttered, "Peach cake, peach cake and peach cake."
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