The History Behind the Legendary Lady Baltimore Cake
A Lady Baltimore cake is among the most elegant and impressive of swoon-worthy Southern layer cakes. It’s three layers of pristine white cake coupled with a boozy dried fruit-and-nut filling and crowned with swirls of fluffy white 7-minute frosting.
But it’s not from Baltimore. No, this classic cake hails from Charleston and its origin story lies in fiction. In 1903, author Owen Wister wrote a romantic novel titled Lady Baltimore in which a cake so impresses the narrator that it becomes the focal point of the story set in fictional Kings Port, which bears strong resemblance to Charleston. A groom with second thoughts about his upcoming marriage goes to a local bakery to order a Lady Baltimore wedding cake. He winds up falling in love with Eliza, the young woman who takes his order, and he marries her instead. They live happily ever after, all thanks to the Lady Baltimore cake.
Wister wrote: "I stepped forward to the counter, adventurous, but polite. ‘I should like a slice, if you please, of Lady Baltimore,’ I said, with extreme formality ... I returned to the table 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. Delighted surprise caused me once more to speak aloud and with my mouth full. "But, dear me, this is delicious!"’
The novel got mixed reviews, but the cake was a hit and recipes for Lady Baltimore cake began popping up in newspapers and ladies’ journals across the country.
The cake Wister described was one that he likely enjoyed in real life at The Women’s Exchange tearoom in Charleston, perhaps baked by Alicia Rhett Mayberry, who is often credited for the cake. (In another nod to fiction comingling with true stories, her niece and namesake Alicia Rhett played India Wilkes in Gone with the Wind.) But a deeper dig into the history of the cake tells us that the recipe was more likely developed by sisters Florrie and Nina Ottolengui, longtime managers of the tearoom. No one knows why they named the cake Lady Baltimore, but there really was a Lady Baltimore (Joan Calvert, second wife of the first Lord Baltimore) and using her name was a bit of a fad in its own right, and was also bestowed on a fancy silver pattern and a showy variety of African violet.
Numerous recipes for Lady Baltimore appear in Southern cookbooks and family recipe boxes, but most are rooted in the recipe found in Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking by Blanch Rhett, a relative of Alicia. The cake layers are made with only egg whites, a style once categorized as a white or silver cake. Miss Rhett’s filling included dried figs, raisins, toasted walnuts, and sherry, although other bakers have substituted other dried fruits and replaced the sherry with brandy or fruit juice.
A Lady Baltimore Cake puts bakers through their paces, but it’s worth the time and care. It’s delicious with stop-and-stare good looks. It was – and is—grand enough to be served as a wedding cake, holiday centerpiece, special birthday, or any occasion where an over-the-top cake is in order.