Peach cakes just aren't made the same anymore

Remembering the old-fashioned Baltimore delicacy

  • I didn't know peach cake was this big Baltimore thing --every other cake our family bought at a bakery was a Silber's rainbow cake. Even if I had grown up on peach cakes, it wouldn't have occurred to be that it was a native-to-Baltimore thing. But, apparently, peach cake is this big, big Baltimore thing. Today, we're tasting 10 of them at 501 North Calvert.
I didn't know peach cake was this big Baltimore thing --every…
August 12, 2011|Jacques Kelly

At the end of a judging session at The Sun for Baltimore peach cakes, I turned to one of my fellow panelists and commented that really none of these desserts was the one I recall from the 1950s and 1960s. Elaine Nichols, who was also born in Baltimore and raised with the tradition of corner neighborhood bakeries, nodded her head in agreement.

Maybe there is a real, old-fashioned Baltimore peach cake out there somewhere. I'm still looking for it. I keep a list of foods I would like to taste just one more time.

This is not to say that there are not some delicious current versions of the local confection that sings summertime. Many of the cakes we sampled were wonderful. And this is a great peach summer. I begin most morning these days by devouring a peach picked a few days before from South Mountain in Washington County. I'll confess — I stand over my kitchen sink at 5:45 a.m. and inhale the ripest candidate on the counter.

Over the years readers have requested recipes. I am not sure you can really make what I have in mind without a commercial kitchen. The peach cakes I recall were made in bakeries in large ovens.

My co-worker Elaine referred to them as a "slab cake," a Baltimore description if there ever was one. The raised sweet dough was prepared in large commercial baking sheets then implanted with fresh peach halves or quarters, generally unskinned, and then baked. A slab of peach cake sounds a little inelegant, but the real cake does share this characteristic with its cousin, the schmierkase cake, another Baltimore goody offered by traditional bakeries.

The large slabs meant that the centers of the cakes remained moist, an essential part of the peach cake experience. Peach cakes should never be made in small, round baking pans. The oven's heat dries out the edges too much.

Peach cakes must be highly seasonal and highly perishable. In our family, we bought the cake shortly before dinner. My father, Joe Kelly, recalls being sent to Simon's Bakery on South Hanover Street in South Baltimore just minutes before supper time. The baker pulled the sheet out of the oven and dusted the cake and peaches with powdered sugar. There would be nothing left but satisfied diners in an hour or so.

Look at it this way: Real peach cake and pizza share a timing issue. Both have to be consumed as they emerge from the heat.

Sometime in the 1960s an aberration occurred, an aberration that became the norm. Refrigeration was becoming more widespread. Bakers realized they could extend the shelf life of a peach cake by applying an apricot preserve glaze over the peaches. This somewhat improved the look of the product, but added an overly sweet taste to what was already a sugary confection. You wanted to taste the tang of the peaches without any help from an apricot. But this variant seems to have won out. And judging by the cakes tasted at The Baltimore Sun, there are other flavors, including orange marmalade and cinnamon, creeping into some bakeries' versions.

The first glazed peach cake I recall came from the old Muhly's bakeries. Soon it was all over the place. The last unglazed cake I enjoyed I found at the Zion Lutheran Church's annual late summer Gartenfest. This year's is Sept. 8. By the way, the peach dessert at Zion's was also sold with plum cake. It was delicious, too.

Within the family, we also judged the merits of one peach cake over another. Despite the talk about which product was superior, we didn't know how good we had it, with wonderful bakeries on what seemed like every couple of blocks.

Some of the bakeries in the classic Baltimore peach cake era would be Arthur, Burri, Doebereiner, Duane, Ebersberger, Fenwick, Gerstung, Glaser, Hergenroeder, Herman's, Heying, Hoehn, New System, Otterbein, Rice, Silber, Sonnenberg, Stiefl, Stone, Vilma, Woodlea and Zirkler. I am sure I have left out someone's favorite.

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