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Orange Washington Pie

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
July 27th, 2015

Blog post by Jane Metters LaBarbara, Assistant Curator, WVRHC.


I was searching for a fun old recipe to test for this week’s blog post, and I stumbled on a surprising amount of food history.  To start this story, we’ll have to begin with scrapbooks. 


I found this week’s recipe in a scrapbook that belonged to William H. Siviter, son-in-law of Francis H. Pierpont and published humorist and featured column writer for newspapers in the Pittsburgh area, the Derrick (Oil City, PA), Puck, and others.  The content of the scrapbook probably dates to 1872-1880. Scrapbooks at that time were a little different than the modern photo-filled variety; people filled scrapbooks with a lot of newspaper clippings, including interesting articles, fictional stories, witty sayings, and recipes (both for food and for various medical remedies).  Also, people were not afraid to reuse print books as scrapbooks—Siviter pasted his clippings into a copy of the Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the Year 1855. Arts and Manufactures.


Out of the many recipes Mr. Siviter had saved, I chose to bake something I hadn’t heard of before:  Orange Washington Pie.  Unbeknownst to me, Washington Pie has been around since the 1860s, at least, and is well known enough to merit a definition in the Oxford English Dictionary—the OED online definition is “Washington pie   n.  †(a) some kind of pie;  (b) a light cake made of sponge layers with a jam or jelly (†or cream) filling.” (see, accessed July 22, 2015).  Yes, it’s one of those pies, like Boston Cream Pie, which we call a pie despite knowing that it is actually a cake.  If anyone else has wondered about this cake/pie confusion, a possible explanation is offered on page 70 of The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, edited by Darra Goldstein (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).  The book also points out that Boston Cream Pie is likely a cream-filled, chocolate glazed descendant of the original jam-filled Washington Pie.  No word on why the pie was named after George Washington, or when and where Washington Pie originated.


Clipping of recipe for Orange Washington Pie

(If you want to see this recipe in person, ask for A&M 9, box 15, and check page 376)


“Orange Washington Pie.—The cake for it is made of one and one-half cups sugar, one-half cup of butter, two-thirds of a cup of milk, two cups of flour, three eggs, one teaspoon of cream tartar put dry into the flour, one-half teaspoon of soda dissolved in the milk.  Flavor with juice and grated rind of an orange.  Bake very thin in four round pans.  When cool, take the juice of two oranges and grated rind of one orange, sweeten with granulated sugar, and spread it on the Washington pie as you would jelly.  It has a very fresh taste, and it is very convenient to make at this season.”


The source of this recipe is unknown—Mr. Siviter did not name the newspapers from which he took his clippings.  However, I found a very similar recipe on page 184 of The Universal Cookery Book. Practical Recipes for Household Use, by Gertrude Strohm (New York: White, Stokes, & Allen, 1887), listed simply as “Orange Pie. No. 2.”


I wanted to make the recipe as Mr. Siviter would have known it, but I gave in to my need for modern convenience and made a few changes:  I only had two cake pans rather than four, and my head chef/husband used cornstarch to thicken the jelly since it would have taken a lot of time and a lot of sugar to thicken it otherwise.


Orange Washington Pie (updated recipe)

  • 1½ cups sugar
  • ½ cup butter
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 2 cups flour
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar (put dry into the flour)
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda (dissolved in the milk)
  • Zest of one orange (approx. 2 teaspoons of zest, if you pack it tightly)
  • Juice of one orange (approx. 1/3 cup, depending on orange size)

Mix ingredients.  Bake in two 9″ round cake pans at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 20-25 minutes.  [Original recipe recommends 4 pans, which would require adjusted cooking time.]

When cool, remove cakes from pans, top with the jelly (can substitute orange marmalade if desired), and stack them to make a two-layer cake.


Orange Washington Pie Jelly

  • Juice of 2 oranges
  • Zest of one orange
  • 5-6 tablespoons granulated sugar, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch

Mix the cornstarch thoroughly with cold water to dissolve.  Heat juice, zest, and sugar in a saucepan till boiling; stir in the watery cornstarch, whisk until jelly-like consistency is achieved (shouldn’t take more than a few minutes).


Ingredients for pie

Thankfully, this recipe isn’t very ingredient-intense.

Bowl of orange zest

I enjoyed the flavor of the zest and juice so much that I will add more next time.

Two tins of batter

The batter was runnier than typical boxed cake mixes, but it turned out just fine.


On the left:  what the “pie” looks like when it’s done baking.  On the right:  what it looks like when you get so excited that you take it out of the pan before letting it cool.

Orange Washington Pie

Orange Washington Pie topped with homemade “jelly”


None of the historical recipes I’ve seen for Orange Washington Pie have specified what type of orange to use.  I used navel oranges, which are apparently great for zest but less great for juicing than Valencia oranges.  I don’t know what kind of oranges Mr. Siviter would have had access to in the late 1800s, and the recipe’s comment about being “very convenient to make at this season” isn’t helpful—peak navel orange season in the US is January thru March, with Valencia season following in the summer months.  If any food historians out there know the answer, please let us know!


If there are any historical recipes you would like to see the WVRHC bloggers try, let us know by clicking the Comment link below or commenting on our Facebook page!


Previous recipe blog posts:

“West Virginia Blackberries” (blackberry pudding, blackberry jam cake with caramel frosting)

“Lemon Gingerbread from Lucy Washington”

“Recipes from the Archives” (pound cake, fruit cake, corn meal rusk, mince pie filling)

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