The recent death of beloved baker George Simon, who had shops in Cockeysville and previously Taylor Avenue and Loch Raven Boulevard, came at a time of year when he would have been eliciting smiles with his peach cakes.
As longtime Baltimoreans know, the peach cake is one of the delights of July and August, maybe a few days of September. It’s highly seasonal, and the mania for it seems to be local.
Simon was related to the Otterbein confectioners and cookie producers and recalled learning peach cake secrets from his ancestors. The cake is often said to be of Middle European origin and can be made with juicy plums, as well.
It’s not a traditional layered cake at all; some call it a “slab” cake, a sheet of a base dough covered in rows of generously sliced peaches, the juicier the better. It’s meant to be moist, this side of runny, and not embellished. The underlying cake dough is closer to a roll or bread than a sweet birthday cake, and it’s ruined if it is doughy or baked for too long.
The peaches do not have to be skinned — the only rules are that they must be pitted, fresh and ripe.
Traditionally, peach cake wasn’t made in private homes because many people didn’t want to heat up their kitchens in the days of no air conditioning. It was a lot more pleasant to buy from the local bakery, where you might run into friends and discuss the summer’s tomato harvest or crab catch.
Boxed up in a white cardboard container and tied with string, it was the quintessential baked product for this time of the year.
Like pizza, peach cake is meant to be consumed fast. In the days of corner neighborhood bakeries, a family member would be dispatched out for the peach cake dash. Customers knew by experience when a fresh baking sheet would be coming out of an oven and make a run for it.
And because it was such a basic and uncomplicated treat, it wasn’t expensive. The trick was to run it home in time for the evening meal. Then it just disappeared.
Old Baltimore bakeries — Arthur’s, Bauhof, Burri, Doebereiner’s, Duane, Ebersberger, Fenwick, Gerstung, Hergenroeder, Herman’s, Heying, Hoehn, Muhly’s, New System, Otterbein’s, Rice’s, Silber’s, Simon’s, Stone’s, Vilma and Woodlea — vied for peach cake superiority.
Home bakers occasionally tested their peach-cake-making skills. Some used a variant of a plain Baltimore cinnamon cake recipe. Homemade peach cakes could be exceedingly delicious if the sugar content was kept low but with a generous pour of vanilla extract.
The Baltimore Gas and Electric Company’s 1985 “Maryland Classics” cookbook provides a recipe for a Baltimore peach cake, saying that bakers can sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and heat up a half cup of apricot jam in a saucepan to glaze the peaches, but not all bakers would do this.
Although a peach cake is perfect on its own, a topping of exceptionally fine vanilla ice cream (in the old days, from, say, Hendler Creamery or Horn & Horn on Baltimore Street) adds to the summertime decadence.
And although the BGE recipe does not call for it, many bakers dusted their creation with a powdered sugar — just a bit — over those peaches.