Lunch with the President

My Web team buddy, Janet, and I have been working together here at King Arthur for almost 20 years. Comfortable old friends, we often like to relax at the end of the day. So late yesterday, she’s reading me the menu for today’s inaugural luncheon.

“It’s supposed to reflect Abraham Lincoln,” she said. “Seafood stew—scallops, shrimp, lobster with a puff pastry topping.”

Really, I thought. Abe Lincoln—The Railsplitter—ate lobster with puff paste topping?

“A brace of American birds: Duck breast with sour cherry chutney and herb-roasted pheasant with wild rice stuffing…”

Wild birds? That’s probably more like it.

“Molasses whipped sweet potatoes and winter vegetables…”

Well, OK—1862, molasses.

“And for dessert, cinnamon-apple spongecake and sweet cream glace.”

Perfect. Spongecake was very popular cake back in Lincoln’s time, as it didn’t require any chemical leavening—just a lot of arm power.

Lightbulb moment: blog the inauguration dessert.

I eagerly Googled “cinnamon apple spongecake inauguration recipe,” knowing I’d find what I was looking for. And sure enough, there it was, direct from Arlington, Virginia’s Design Cuisine: Cinnamon Apple Sponge Cake.

I scrolled down through the recipe, “down” being the key word here. Down, down, down… Man, how can a spongecake recipe be so long? There’s nothing to it but eggs and sugar and flour…

Wait a minute: No eggs? No flour? What kind of culinary travesty is being foisted upon us on this gala day?

Turns out Design Cuisine’s version of “spongecake” is based on slices of brioche. You know, brioche—Abe Lincoln’s favorite bread. 34 slices of brioche, carefully cut into a total of 80 pieces (that’s OK, I couldn’t understand the math, either). No cake; and only a “pinch of cinnamon” in the entire “Cinnamon Apple Sponge Cake” recipe.

Hello, Design Cuisine: What part of “spongecake” don’t you understand?

Ah, well. I guess it’s up to me to plant our feet on firmer ground here. Spongecake is exactly what a jelly roll is based on; so read my jelly roll post, and click to the recipe from there. That’s your cake.

For the topping, follow these pictures. There’s no recipe; so, as President Kennedy famously said in his 1961 inaugural address, “Ask not…”

Or, as President Obama will no doubt tell us in his speech today, we need to be proactive in finding solutions to our country’s challenges—which might include the challenge of following Design Cuisine’s recipe for Cinnamon Apple Sponge Cake.

Don’t ask me; I never got to the bottom of it—literally.

Let’s start with 8  All-American apples: Granny Smiths. I know, they’re not “native”— but they’re grown here, and they’re the best baking apples I know of at this time of the year.


Here’s our handy-dandy apple peeler/corer/slicer.


Peel, core, and slice an apple…


…in under 10 seconds. Yes you can.


Cut slices in half.


Nice, huh?


I was kind of trying to follow Design Cuisine’s topping instructions, so started with 4 tablespoons butter, 1/3 cup granulated sugar, and 1/4 cup water, heated in a large, shallow pan.


I added the apples…


And tossed them around in the butter mixture.


Then I just let them simmer on their own, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes. By the time the liquid boiled off, the apples were about halfway to tender. I turned off the heat, covered the pan, and went off to bake the spongecake, which takes about 30 minutes, start to finish.


Once I’d taken the spongecake out of the oven, I returned to the apples, adding a good splash of boiled cider (about 1/3 cup; or substitute frozen apple juice concentrate); 1/2 cup brown sugar; and 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon.


Stirring gently makes this aromatic apple topping.


Cut the spongecake in squares. Add warm apple. Oh, and don’t forget America’s favorite dessert topping: Cool Whip. So honest! Abe would have loved it.

Buy vs. Bake

Buy: Enjoying Cinnamon Apple Sponge Cake with President Obama, Vice President Biden, their families, the Supreme Court, Cabinet designees, and members of Congressional leadership in Statuary Hall, in Washington, D.C.: never mind, you can’t afford it.

Bake at home: Spongecake with Apple-Cinnamon Topping, $1.22

PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!


  1. Bridgett

    Oh, that looks so delish! What a rotten day to start Weight Watchers! And I even have all the ingredients at home… torture!
    I love your writing style and was quite amused today 🙂

  2. Sue

    I was behind you all the way up to the Cool Whip. What’s more honest and up front than real whipped cream? Nothing but cream and sugar. Mmmm. I’m making shortbread today. Happy Inauguration Day however you all celebrate it!

    Sue, re: Cool Whip — tongue was TOTALLY in cheek. 🙂 PJH

  3. Mike T.

    My gosh, they have a dumb recipe! I just read thru it… Confusing??? That’s putting it mildly…

    Okay, I get the 20 rounds, it would be for 10 ramekins, but then they say to line the dish using 6 slices each. Okay, I’m betting that these are not individual ramekins. Or are they since one fits on a slide of brioche…. Okay, I’m confused again and getting a headache. Must have been a old IBM Mainframe programmer turned pastry chef that came up with this recipe…

    Yours sounds much better!

  4. Mike T.

    Oh, but I think I forgot to say in my last post, what really gave me a headache was the math…

    20 slices for the top and bottom + the remaining 15 slices =?= 34 slices???

  5. Janelle from VA

    I had the same reaction when I read the recipe for Design Cuisine Cinnamon Apple Sponge Cake. Talk about disappointed. Your recipe is a millions time better. Maybe Obama should use his first veto on their recipe

  6. Sue

    Thanks for pointing that out PJ. I was being far too serious. Sorry!

    I feel your pain about Cool Whip, Sue. However – it’s a wicked easy topping when you’re shooting pictures! PJH

  7. Brandee

    Well, I guess you now know what I will be doing tomorrow! You continue to enable my baking addiction and feed my husbands baked good addiction! 🙂

  8. Christine

    Diane Feinstein said that, during one of her remarks today, that the inaugural luncheon recipes webpage was the most visited page on the inauguration website. I wonder if others had the same reaction to the spongecake recipe.

  9. marianne

    I was so confused about the Inaugural luncheon sponge cake that I read the recipe out loud to my mom who was visiting and we tried to figure it out too–it sounded to me like an apple Charlotte. I think we needed more historical detail–was this really based on what Mary Todd Lincoln called “Apple Sponge Cake” or was this just the caterer’s invention?

    The White House site may offer more info, alos colonial Williamsburg has an excellent culinary reference library. Frank from KAF.

  10. A J

    Hey guys! If you think Civil War era recipes were odd…try doing
    medieval recipes! I belong to the SCA (medieval re-enactment
    group). Many of our cooks do a bang-up job redacting old written
    recipes for our “Feasts”. Wonder what the cooks of the past would
    think about our modern day kitchens?

  11. Lenore

    Loved the blog post! I can really relate, having looked at many recipes (not from KA) and wondered what the $#%^ were they thinking!

    There is nothing more discouraging to an inexperienced cook / baker than trying to follow a BAD recipe. Several conversations I’ve had with people who ‘cannot cook’ have revealed past attempts with a recipe that is vague, poorly written, disorganized or unnecessarily complicated. They are made to feel inept because they cannot get it right.

    I try to explain that just because a recipe is printed or posted, does not mean it is good. Recipes are a list of directions and even Mapquest sends people the wrong way on a one-way road occasionally (this happened to me….). I suggest a reliable cookbook, give them some of my favorite recipes and direct them to your site. I’m happy to say, I’ve helped a few of my friends regain cooking confidence.

    Keep up the good work!

  12. Cheryl

    This is a great post–love your recipe. Do you suppose Design Cuisine cheated in the public version of the recipe to keep the real one secret?

    I’ve been using King Arthur Flour since the early ’70’s when I lived in Boston – the bread recipe on the bag gave me the courage to bake bread for the first time.

    Just one note on the Inauguration dinner menu – I think it’s based on a Lincoln inauguration menu – but updated. The original soup was “terrapin”- a large turtle which is either extinct or endangered today. That’s why they went to “seafood” soup.
    I guess the dessert is “updated”, too, although why they would choose brioche over spongecake (hardly an endangered species issue!), I dunno.
    Great post, anyway. I may just try it, too. The apple topping sounds terrific.

  13. Lee

    This is only vaguely related but I had to tell someone that my youngest daughter thought his name was “Morocco” Bama for the longest time. So for our family’s own inauguration day dinner I ended up making Moroccan food. 🙂 But I think they would have enjoyed the apples and sponge cake if I’d seen this in time to make it too!

  14. Jesurgislac

    Properly speaking, I think that “Cinnamon Apple Sponge Cake” is a winter pudding – stale white bread lines a pudding basin, and then with summer pudding you use summer fruits (a mixture of berries) and with winter pudding you use, well, winter fruits – apples, or maybe rhubarb.

    Only it’s been fancied up – individual ramekins, slices of brioche, specially stewed fruit. The point of a summer / winter pudding is that it’s cheap’n’easy – leftover bread, readily available fruits, put together some time before the meal and leave to stand to let the juices soak through the bread. And yet delicious!

    I like your version better.

    Except for the Cool Whip. Real cream, thick and rich, infinitely nicer.

  15. Lucy

    Am I the only one who actually read everything? ‘Pears so. The recipe on by BRETT MOORE, their “Gourmet Food Guide”, is not credited as being Design Cuisine’s recipe at all folks. Having checked out their website, they probably don’t give out recipes EVER. Look at page 15 for some lovely ideas that beg to be created for family use. For catering purposes, honest, true, real Brioche would be a wonderful alternative. It would stand up to the baking process in the recipe featured and hold well for transport etc. Besides, serving it in a ramekin for an individual serving, if that is what Design Cuisine actually did, would be more practical than trying to make hundred’s of plated pretty servings as pictured. Brioche would also have less sugar, which would be more true to Lincoln’s era. I am sure honest Abe would never touch Cool-Whip. Actually, none of us probably should, read that list of chemicals recently? I want to make both recipes though…an apple a day, right!

  16. Teresa

    Great post idea. I wanted to make a apple sponge cake to bring to an inauguration watching party. But I didn’t have enough time to figure it out and make it in time. Instead I made a devil’s food cake from the KA Whole Grains Baking book instead. It was delicious even if not in keeping with the menu in DC.

    I like your version, but have to agree with Jesurgislac. Real whipped cream would be better.

  17. Susan

    This looks delicious, and I would love to make it, but I am not sure what boiled cider is. Is it just regular apple cider that you boil? And what if you can’t get apple cider this time of year? I’ll be watching for an answer. Thanks!

    Hi Susan – Sorry, I need to provide an alternative there, huh? Boiled cider is this wonderful, thick, tart-sweet syrup made from – yes – cider that’s boiled down. It’s a bit tricky to do it yourself, as it takes forever and burns easily. But you can substitute frozen apple juice concentrate. Not as powerful, but it still lends nice flavor. PJH

  18. Christian Carter

    I tried to make this today and halved the cake recipe, boy did that not work out well! It ended up being some sort of sugared egg pancake thing. But the apples were absolutely delicious with vanilla ice cream!

    Christian, I made the sugared egg thing too! I figured out that I added the sugar too quickly, and didn’t beat enough. You really have to sprinkle in sugar gradually, as you’re beating, and beat-beat-beat till thick and light colored. Glad you enjoyed the apples, anyway – now I want to go get some vanilla ice cream! PJH

  19. Ann

    I just discovered the KAF website and I’m in love! I downloaded the apple sponge cake from the inaugural website, and like the other commenters, will be making your version! For Susan, who inquired about cider, we are lucky enough in my town to have a cider press, which produces a wonderful unpasturised product. Alternatively, look for Ziegler’s cider in the refrigerated fruit juice section or fresh fruit section of your grocery.

    Welcome, Ann – hope you enjoy this new discovery. Make sure you subscribe to our email newsletter, which features new recipes and tells you when new blogs are posted. Have fun! PJH

  20. Margaret

    Well, I pieced this together again today(making the thing ‘whole’ rather with ramekins) for the second time (first time was for a local Inauguration brunch) for a bunch of teachers and it worked out great. I made the brioche with a stouter flour (sprouted wheat) and used whipped butter (probably lessens it by only a tablespoon) and flipped it onto a platter after an hour of resting. Big hit, but very, very rich. Could easily get sick from more than one very small slice. Also the caramel apple sauce is really gilding the lily but I served it along side, warm, from a small crock pot. Not practical for the ice cream.

  21. nbabyak

    I took a different spin on the original instructions… I made the math work by cutting some rounds and other rectangles… I wish I could find the pictures…

    I ended up with brioche filled pucks with extra caramel poured over top… it was so much fun I am stalking the internet waiting for the menu for this inauguration!

    Yes, making sponge or brioche from scratch is great fun too… but the soaking and construction is like building a charlotte… only different.

    Just may have to make it again and post the how to on Facebook or somewhere ;-)!

    We’ll definitely look forward to seeing some pictures – sounds interesting! PJH


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