History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

Malinda Russell’s Washington Cake Recipe – This One’s a Keeper


I’ve been exploring the Washington Cake recipe in Malinda Russell’s 1866 A Domestic Cookbook, the first-known cookbook by an African American.  To learn more about the origins of Washington Cakes, I went to Mount Vernon and did a little historical sleuthing in the works of other historians and in newspapers from the 1800s.

There is still more digging to be done on the Washington Cake.  Why did cakes with this name emerge, as they evidently did, in the 1830s?  That is, why did commemorations of George Washington take a baked form at that time?  We don’t have a satisfactory answer yet and that research will take time.

In the meantime, what better way to learn about the cake than to make it?  I baked it this morning and can say without qualification, this is a great cake.  It’s simple and tender and has bright flavor.  It would be (will be, after dinner tonight) perfect with summer fruits and maybe some crème fraiche.  Frosting and layering the cake with a lemon buttercream would be terrific too.  It’s also delicious plain.

I’ll share Mrs. Russell’s recipe and then tell you what I did.

Here’s her original recipe:

 Washington Cake

Three cups sugar, six eggs, one cup butter, one cup sour milk, one teaspoon soda, three cups flour, one teaspoon cream tartar; flavor with lemon to your taste.

That’s it.  (Mrs. Russell has confidence in your baking skills.  If you don’t and are in DC, sign up for my family baking class based on her recipes.  It’ll be September 21 at the Hill Center.)

I slightly adapted her recipe.  The main thing I did was to halve it, since her recipe is quite large.  I also left out the cream of tartar since it didn’t seem necessary to the leavening.  And I chose to bake it to two 9 x 2” pans, but you could use other pans and adjust the baking time accordingly.

Malinda Russell’s Washington Cake, Adapted by Amanda Moniz

1 ½ c. all-purpose flour

½ tsp. baking soda

Pinch of salt

½ c. unsalted butter (4 oz. or 1 stick)

1 ½ c. sugar

3 eggs

½ c. buttermilk

Zest and juice of one lemon

Preheat the oven to 325 on a convection oven or 350 on a conventional oven.

Grease two 9 x 2” round cake pans.  Put a parchment paper circle in each pan and grease the pan again and flour it.

Sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down after each addition.

Add the lemon juice and zest to the buttermilk.

Alternately, add the flour and buttermilk, starting and ending with the flour and mixing only until the ingredients are incorporated.  You should add the flour in three additions and the buttermilk in two additions.  Scrape down after each addition.

Scrape the batter into the cake pans.

Bake about 25 minutes.  About halfway through the baking time (after about 15 minutes), rotate the cake pans for even baking.  Bake until the cakes are golden and a wooden toothpick or metal cake tester comes out clean.  The cakes should spring back when pressed gently.

Cool in the pans for about 10 minutes and then turn out onto a metal rack to cool completely.  Enjoy.

Thank you, Mrs. Russell, for adding a Washington Cake to my repertoire.

8 thoughts on “Malinda Russell’s Washington Cake Recipe – This One’s a Keeper

  1. Thank you; this sounds really good. I like the idea of pairing it with raspberries and also knowing the history of the dessert. I’ll give it a try soon. Deb Fuller, Massachusetts

  2. I’ve been thinking about “sour milk.” When my mother was making a recipe that called for sour cream, if she didn’t have any, she would put a few teaspoons of cider vinegar (sorry I don’t know the exact proportions) in a pyrex measuring cup filled with the desired amount of whole milk and she would set it in a warm oven. She would heat the oven to maybe 200 degrees and then turn the oven off- just enough to have a warmer than room temperature environment. Within perhaps a half hour, the milk would have soured enough to be used instead of sour cream. I have done this myself in recent years and the recipes seem to do fine with “sour milk” rather than sour cream.

    • I have been wondering if Malinda Russell was using buttermilk or milk soured with some vinegar as you describe. I had some good buttermilk so I used that, but I’d be curious to hear how you like the cake if you make it with soured milk.

  3. I baked my Washington cake today and used a loaf pan, 350 degrees, for 45 minutes. It is extremely tender; thank you very much for both the recipe and the historical story behind it. Deb Fuller

  4. Pingback: WARNING – my food won’t always turn out right but I guess that’s all part of learning. |Welcome to a new friend: Anita Larr | Hey Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite!

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