My family is not originally from this area, so although we have lived here for more than 20 years, we are often less familiar with local traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation, especially those that have begun to fade away. One such specialty is Philadelphia Butter Cake (a.k.a. German Butter Cake, but not to be confused with St. Louis Butter Cake), a dessert known for its sweet, decadent, butter-based frosting. We’d actually never heard of this until recently, but once informed, I was quickly determined to find out more and seek some out in the local area.
Though butter cake is not exactly a hot topic online, quite a few posts can be found on message boards, blogs and review sites, written by people who grew up in this area (Northeast Philly especially), that reference it as something that was one of their favorite treats as a kid. It appears this pastry was quite popular through the 60’s and into the early 70s (and surely before that), but started to lose its luster in the late 70s, perhaps early 80s. While there are some bakeries that still make it today, it is a lost art, handcrafted only by those establishments that still remain from the heyday.
Though tracing the specific origins of this treat has proved difficult, it’s a relatively safe assumption that it comes from German settlers to the area, who brought with them Butterkuchen, a sweet yeast cake from northern Germany. Though the German version does use quite a bit of butter, it does not typically have frosting, save perhaps a simple glaze. Leave it to Philly to make any foodstuff more decadent!
True Philly Butter Cake has three essential components. First, the cake, which serves as a base for the dish. It’s yeast-based, so made from a dough that has risen (as opposed to batter), and has the flaky consistency of a danish. Next comes the “filling”, a buttery, VERY sweet, oozy frosting (made from mostly butter and sugar, with some eggs and milk) that lives between the cake and the third component, a paper-thin, golden layer of frosting that has crisped in the oven.
For those who haven’t tried it, this cake isn’t something that will blow your culinary mind; it’s just an old-school, simple, tasty treat that pairs quite well with a cup of coffee or tall glass of milk. If anything, it can be a bit over-sweet, which argues for a strong, black cup of joe.
After some digging, I found two butter cake-baking shops out here in the ‘burbs (feel free to suggest others in the comments): Weinrich Bakery in Newtown Square – serving traditional German goodies since 1961, and D’Innocenzo’s, a mainstay of the Lancaster County Farmers Market in Strafford for more than 25 years.
Both had the basic components, with a few subtle differences. Weinrich’s cake was about twice as thick, with deeply browned sides and an insanely gooey middle. D’Innocenzo’s cake (also available in apple or cherry) was much thinner, with less cake and less frosting, making it a tad drier. Both were tasty and well-made, so it is hard to pick a winner. Weinrich’s was sweeter and generally more intense, so I would probably choose D’Innocenzo’s for regular consumption, because it was more balanced and less overwhelming. For a special occasion or to share with family and friends, however, Weinrich’s might be more likely to make a big impression.
Lancaster County Farmers Market
3545 W Chester Pike
Newtown Square, PA