It may not seem like it now, but Baltimore was once a booming peach town. An article in The Sun from July 20, 1886 estimated that 2.581 million baskets of the fruit, grown on Maryland's Eastern Shore and in Delaware, would travel through the port. Peaches from the Delmarva peninsula were then shipped all across the country by rail and ship; in 1884, the supply was so plentiful, The Sun reported, that "[i]t is quite probable that the market will rule high enough to pay shippers all the season."
That same year, according to the paper's archives, was the first mention of the peach cake, a German dessert—a mildly sweet yeasted cake, topped with slices of fresh peaches—that would go on to become a Baltimore staple. And it is an indirect reference. A Sept. 30 item called "A Bavarian Merry-Making" described a celebration of St. Michael's Day in West Schuetzen Park, a beer garden and shooting range in modern-day Carroll Park frequented by German-Americans, where attendees ate onion cake.
"It resembles the ordinary peach cake, except it is covered by a thick layer of stewed onions," according to the report. "It is odorous and savory, and those who like it say it is good. Ten big cakes disappeared rapidly yesterday afternoon."
By 1910, just before the city's already-prominent German population experienced a boom, the dessert had become so well-known in Mobtown that Sun columnist and poet Folger McKinsey, known as The Bentztown Bard, had committed his love for the peach cake to poetry. The final stanza:
"A union of the nectral bliss
Of peach with spice and sweet
Of morning in a dewy world—
Just think of it, and eat!
Ambrosial feasts were no doubt fine,
Arcadian dreams unique—
But when you want both food and wine
Just let the peachcake speak!"
Around the 1960s, articles about peach cake were already rooted in nostalgia for the writers who ate them as children. In the early '80s, when a reporter tried to investigate the dessert's origins, which they deemed "appropriately fuzzy," bakers who had been making them for decades assumed the peach cake had been around forever.
"Since peaches," is how Jacob Levin put it. "I think Adam and Eve had the first peach cake."
Another baker, Coleman Hamburger, recalled how, when he was a child, "the little German baker would come by in his truck and they would open the back door and slice the peach cake out of a big pan and sell it right to the housewives."
Peach cake was a popular staple at such celebrated bakeries as Fenwick, Simon's, and Hoehn's—establishments that are still open to this day and prepare peach cake in the summers. It's not clear when—most likely in the midst of one of the world wars, when anti-German sentiment was running high—the peach cake had our city's name affixed at the beginning.
Like all fabled foods, recipes for Baltimore Peach Cake have variations that lead to hotly contested debates regarding authenticity: glaze or no glaze, cinnamon or no cinnamon, round cake or rectangular slab cake. While a few modern recipes call for baking powder as a leavening agent, a traditional Baltimore Peach Cake uses yeast. Yeasted cakes were common in the 18th century in America, but fell out of favor as the century progressed.
This use of yeast serves as confirmation of its German origin. When you look up recipes online today for "Pfirsichkuchen" or "Pflamenkuchen"—German Peach Cake and Plum Cake, respectively—prepare to be inundated with recipes of this yeasted treat that almost perfectly match Baltimore's Peach Cake recipe.
The beauty of a Baltimore Peach Cake lies in its simplicity, and its seasonality. A hundred years ago, eating seasonally wasn't a choice or a luxury—it was the way of life. Summer's bounty at the Baltimore markets was so dizzying in its variety and volume that it was described as an "Eden of the Epicure." But this cornucopia was always short-lived, as various fruits and vegetables came in and out of season. "Joy—Peaches are Ripe," could be an ad for a farmer's market today, but it was actually a 1910 headline in The Sun. The fleeting ripeness of peaches, strawberries, and other fruits was something that people savored fresh, and then canned, pickled, and put up for winter.
But unlike, say, Berger cookies or Smith Island Cake, the Baltimore Peach Cake is mostly remembered by those who grew up in Baltimore decades ago, when it was a big deal. A cooking instructor stated in a 1983 Sun article that people don't know about the peach cake unless they are "a true Baltimorean." Today, the dessert doesn't have the cache that it once had, nor is it seen as a rite of summer in Baltimore. That should change, however, because all these years later, it is still an easy, delicious, seasonal dessert that lets the fresh fruit take center stage.
And it's easy to make at home, as evidenced by this recipe for Baltimore Peach Cake we found in a 1981 Sun article. Even though some purists insist it's only worth going to the aforementioned bakeries, a homemade Baltimore Peach Cake will make a great addition to your next cook-out, or a snack, or even for breakfast.
Baltimore Peach Cake
(Recipe adapted from Randi Kelly's "Grandma Kay's Peach Cake," 1981 article in the Sun)
Time: 30 active minutes, 2.5 hours total
1/4 cup warm water
1 package yeast
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup melted butter
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup milk
3 cups flour (We used a mix of white and whole wheat)
4 or more ripe peaches
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
Several tablespoons of peach or apricot jam
This is an easy cake to make and only takes about 30 minutes of hands-on effort, but like all yeasted treats, it requires a couple hours due to rising time.
Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let sit for 5 minutes, so that it starts bubbling.
Meanwhile, pour the milk into a small heavy-bottomed saucepan. Turn the heat to medium, and stir the milk constantly. It will start to bubble on the sides as it warms up. When the milk in the middle of the pan starts to bubble, you've successfully scalded it. Turn the heat off, remove from the burner, and let cool for several minutes. (Note that the scalded milk is an important ingredient—by bringing the milk almost to the boiling point, the milk proteins break down, which helps the yeast rise. This makes the cake light and airy.)
In a large bowl, add the yeast mixture, sugar, salt, and melted butter and mix together with a spoon. Then pour in the egg and scalded milk, and mix together.
Add about 1 cup of the flour, and mix until it is just incorporated—it will be very sticky. Mix in another cup of flour, and then the final cup. You may need to add more flour as you work with it. It should be slightly sticky.
Add a couple splashes of canola oil to bowl, and knead the bread in the bowl for a couple minutes, turning it to make sure it's well greased.
Cover the bowl with a towel and let rise in a warm place for about an hour, until doubled in size. Punch it down in the bowl, then cover and let rise again until almost double, about 30 minutes.
While the dough is rising the second time, preheat oven to 375 degrees and prep the peaches. Peel them, pit them, and then slice them into half-inch thick slices, or smaller or larger to taste. You'll want enough peach slices to cover the surface of the cake. After the dough has almost doubled in size, punch it down one last time, and then spread it out in a 9-by-13-inch pan that is either greased or lined with parchment paper. You'll have to work the dough so that it fills the corners of the pan. (Alternatively, you could also make two 8-inch round cakes that will have a thinner dough.)
Top the cake with the sliced peaches. How much you cover it is a matter of personal preference—you can fully cover the surface, or leave an exterior border like a pizza. You can lay the peaches flat, or slightly overlapping in rows.
Bake in the over at 375 degrees for 25 minutes, until the dough is slightly browned. Take the cake out of the oven and place on a baking sheet.
While still hot, add a dusting of cinnamon (optional), and brush some peach or apricot jam on top to serve as a glaze. (We used some homemade Bourbon Peach Ginger Jam that we canned last summer— yum!) If the jam is thick and sticky, you'll want to thin it out with some water so it spreads more easily. Let it cool, and then eat in the next day or two.