A Tale Of 2 Very Different Washington Pies, Neither Of Which Is Actually A Pie

Although largely unheard of today, Washington Pie was a very popular dessert in the 19th century, according to Atlas Obscura. The site explains that you can find versions of it in many different cookbooks of that era. But no matter the slight differences in the number of eggs or amount of sugar used, each recipe makes it clear that this "pie" was not a pie at all. Furthermore, the two most famous variations could not be more different from one another: one was a pound cake baked in a pie tin, and one was a bread pudding baked in a pie crust (which debatably earns it its pie status).

The first version is a layered cake that looks identical to a British classic, the Victoria Sponge. The Food Historian notes the irony that Washington Pie isn't a pie and the Victoria Sponge isn't a sponge cake. Both cakes were invented around the same time and named after the leaders of their respective countries, so there is no way to know which inspired the other. Both are two-tiered butter cakes, glued together with a spread of strawberry jam or jelly. 

The other Washington Pie is best described as a bread pudding comprised of old pieces of cake. This version resembles a pie more closely than the layered cake since it is oftentimes baked in a pie crust. While the layered cake version of Washington Pie evolved over time and was replaced by Lafayette Pie and Boston Cream Pie, this bread pudding was long forgotten by the turn of the century (via The Food Historian).

Patriotism or resourcefulness?

Another source of confusion is the name itself, which was in honor of the first President, George Washington. Naming desserts after presidents was a cooking trend among women who wanted to participate in politics and show their patriotism. Atlas Obscura traces this pattern in other contemporary desserts that were named after presidents like Cleveland Cakes and Taylor Cakes. The Food Historian found that the layered version of Washington Pie eventually became Lafayette Pie or Martha Washington Cake in the 1880s, which were both layered cakes that included custard in the middle rather than fruit jelly.

So what of the second type of Washington Pie? Well, the bread pudding version came from Washington D.C., which is most likely what it was named after. This cake pudding began popping up in bakeries in the D.C. area when bakers found a way to use the scraps of cake they had left over. Researching Food History cites a baker's recipe found in the Washington Star: The bits would be drenched in milk or cream, with the addition of raisins or spices like in a normal bread pudding, and enveloped in a double-crust pie shell. This version of Washington Pie was less patriotic, and more a local specialty, which is probably why it's been long forgotten since its heyday, according to Atlas Obscura. Still, both Washington Pies are worth remembering, be it for a celebration of the Founding Father's birthday, or for a decadent spin on a classic bread pudding.