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Griffin to Go: The Third of September Just Calls for Cake

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LadyBaltimoreCake2Any day is a good day for pie. Or cake. Or ice cream sundaes.

I remember when working in Florida that a surprise baked good would be just the morale builder that would give the staff the jump start it needed to meet an upcoming deadline. It wasn’t just the sugar rush, it was the unexpected nature of the treat. And we would always tie it to a little-known event that somebody thought worth celebrating.

I remember in particular honoring Don Cornelius’ birthday years before the “Soul Train” producer was arrested for domestic violence.

I had forgotten those days until I received an e-mail from a former colleague who was known for her fabulous baked goods.

“I have an inkling to make a Third of September cake,” Laura wrote. “It’s the day Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery (in 1838). But just as important, it is the opening line of my favorite Temptations song (“Papa Was a Rolling Stone”: “It was the third of September; that day I’ll always remember. Yes, I will …”)

Wow. Douglass was one of the few heroes I had had as a child. I admired the way he escaped slavery and then went on to prove himself as a statesman, author and humanitarian at a time when few people of color had any opportunities at all. I read several biographies of him before moving on to his own autobiographical writings, marveling at his view of the world. As he said, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

LadyBaltimoreCake1And “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” was a favorite song from when I was growing up. My sisters had the album, and we played it night and day for a long, long while, to my mother’s dismay.

If you can think of any other reasons for making a Third of September cake, then be my guest.

But what kind of cake, I wondered. Let’s see. My mind began playing what I call Synapse Bingo. Random items somehow collide and you come up with an idea, much like it did for Laura. Douglass was born in Maryland, so something Southern would be in order. That’s when I remembered: When I was a kid of about 10, around the same time that “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” was a hit, I won a ribbon at the Kentucky State Fair for my Lady Baltimore Cake, made with nuts, raisins and more in the sticky sweet frosting and filling.

That was it. I hadn’t made one in the decades in between. The question is, could I still make a good version?

I don’t have that recipe from way back when, so I did a Web search and looked through several dozen cookbooks before I decided to take the cake from one recipe and merge it with the filling and frosting from another.

In my research I came across the following passage about the history of the cake, as related in Greg Patent’s authoritative “Baking in America” (Houghton Mifflin, $36):

Lady Baltimore Cake became famous in 1906 when Owen Wister, author of “The Virginians,” described a character eating it in his romantic novel, “Lady Baltimore.” The setting is the Lady Baltimore Tea Room in Charleston, S.C. The novel’s narrator, Augusts, asks the waitress to bring him a slice of a special cake after witnessing a young man ordering it for a wedding.

“And she brought me the cake, and I had my first felicitous meeting with Lady Baltimore. Oh, my goodness! Did you ever taste it? It’s all soft, and it’s in layers, and it has nuts – but I can’t write any more about it; my mouth waters too much.”

Wister’s description caused and sensation, and bakers vied to recreate the cake in their own homes.

So, here’s one for Frederick Douglass, the Temptations, Synapse Bingo, Laura and all the other great reasons to have cake on the third of September.

Lady Baltimore Cake

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
3 cups flour
1 tablespoon double-acting baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
7 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract

2 large egg whites
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup coarsely chopped raisins
3/4 cup chopped walnuts

For the cake layers:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Line 3 buttered 9-inch round cake pans with rounds of wax paper, butter the paper, and dust the pans with flour, knocking out the excess. In a large bowl with an electric mixer cream the butter with the sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy and beat in the vanilla and the almond extract. In a bowl stir together the flour, the baking powder, and the salt, add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in batches alternately with the milk, and stir the batter until it is just combined. In another large bowl beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar and a pinch of salt until they just hold stiff peaks, stir one third of them into the batter, and fold in the remaining whites gently but thoroughly. Divide the batter among the prepared pans, smoothing the tops, and bake the cake layers, in batches if necessary, in the middle of the oven for 25 to 35 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Let the cake layers cool in the pans on racks for 5 minutes, turn them out onto the racks, and let them cool completely. The cake layers may be made 1 week in advance and kept wrapped well in plastic wrap and frozen. Let the layers thaw before proceeding with the recipe.

For the filling: Combine the sugar and water in a small heavy saucepan and heat over medium heat, without stirring, swirling the pan gently by the handle from time to time, until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture begins to turn clear and begins to boil. Gradually sprinkle in the nuts – do not stir. Raise the heat to medium-high, swirling the pan to incorporate the nuts into the syrup. When the mixture begins to boil, cover the pan and cook for 1 minute to dissolve any sugar crystals sticking to the sides. Uncover, attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan, and cook the syrup to 220 degrees to 225 degrees, 1 to 2 minutes. Immediately remove from the heat and set aside to cool to 110 degrees. Do not stir during cooking.

Add the vanilla and almond extract to the cooled sugar syrup and beat with a wooden spoon to combine well. Divide the filling on top of the three cake layers. Do not stack.

For the frosting: Beat the egg whites on medium speed until stiff but not dry in a large bowl with an electric mixer. Set aside. Combine the sugar, corn syrup and water in a medium heavy saucepan over medium heat and cook, without stirring, swirling the pan gently by the handle from time to time, until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture comes to a boil. Raise the heat to medium-high , cover and cook for 2 minutes to dissolve any sugar crystals sticking to the sides of the pan. Uncover, attach a candy thermometer and cook to 244 degrees.


Beating constantly, gradually add the syrup to the egg whites in a thin stream, trying to avoid the beaters. Quickly scrape the bowl well (the syrup will have splattered onto the sides) and continue beating on medium to medium-high speed until the whites are glossy and form stiff peaks. Beat in the vanilla, almond extract and lemon juice. Fold in the raisins and nuts. You must assemble to cake quickly before the frosting sets.

Place one of the layers on a cake plate. Spread frosting over filling. Add the next layer and repeat. Place the third layer on top. Spread the remaining frosting over the sides and top, making the top thicker than the sides and using the back of a spoon to form swirls and peaks. Let the cake stand for about 1 hour, so that the filling forms a thin crust. Slice with a sharp knife.

Adapted from and from “Baking in America” by Greg Patent

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4 Responses to “Griffin to Go: The Third of September Just Calls for Cake”

  1. couki 1 says:

    Celebrate desert and my hometown Any date will do to try this one

  2. I really love the idea of celebrating someone who made significant contributions to society in a personal, meaningful way. (As opposed to the Lincoln’s Birthday Sale, etc.) You have inspired me to do the same… perhaps a Merce Cunningham chance-designed fruit dessert. I’ll get back to you on it! 🙂

    • John Griffin says:

      I might even change the recipe slightly the next time I make it. There is so much almond extract in the cake, the filling and the frosting that I might use dried cherries in the frosting instead of raisins. Those flavors go so well together.

  3. sis says:

    yes I remember that line very well…. the cake sounds wonderful especially with the cherries….