By Eric Lidji
PITTSBURGH — Every decade or so, the legendary Webster Hall Coffee Cake has made an appearance in the local papers. Please join me in welcoming its return for the 2020s.
Its coming out party was in 1948, in the “Excuse Please!” section of Charles F. Danver’s adored “Pittsburghesque” column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “A fancy coffee cake made from his secret recipe comes from Andrew Trautner, head baker at the Hotel Webster Hall,” he wrote. “But please don’t write in for the secret recipe. I got fouled up once on chocolate cake and from now on I’m just a retired recipe giver-outer.”
Webster Hall was a bright idea of the late 1920s, a fancy apartment building for wealthy bachelors. It tanked and soon became a hotel with an all-night kitchen. The kitchen perfectly accommodated the patterns of Oakland, which was coalescing into the rare combination of academic hub and cultural destination that makes it so beloved today.
In the thick of World War II, that all-night kitchen was turned over to Emily Hall Andrews. She was one of the first women in America to run the catering operation of a major hotel. She oversaw 250 employees churning out fine fare, room service and “coffee cake from a famous old German recipe,” as the Post-Gazette described it in 1949.
In those years, under the presidency of Leon Falk Jr., Webster Hall became a popular venue for Jewish events. It attained that status partly on location. It was ringed by a crescent of about 10,000 Jewish households in Oakland, Shadyside, the East End, Squirrel Hill and Greenfield, cutting the distance to downtown by half. By the early 1960s, the hotel was actively pursuing Jewish clientele. It claimed to have the first kosher hotel kitchen in the city. “Kosher available, of course,” its advertisements casually noted.
“The specialty of the house, morning, noon or night is a Bavarian coffee cake, which comes close to looking like a light-based fruit cake,” the Post-Gazette wrote in 1961, providing the earliest documentation of the substance of the cake: its color and its accouterments. “The hotel jealously guards the recipe; sells about 700 orders each day.”
This was the heyday of the Webster Hall Hotel, when Oakland was still delicately balanced between town and gown. The campuses were flourishing, as were the hot spots — the Carnegie Music Hall, the Schenley Theatre, the Syria Mosque, the Duquesne Gardens, and Forbes Field. Every night, the sidewalks were filled with so many different types of people, all of them staying up late, buzzed on life, greedy for an extra hour of conversation. They met at the Webster Hall coffee shop. They ordered coffee cake.
The Webster Hall Hotel closed in 1978. People cited the usual reasons. Bad management. The economy. Looking back, it was just the normal inhale and exhale of a city. The universities expanded. Downtown was being reborn. The patterns changed.
“It used to be that you could find dozens of people in the Webster Hall Coffee Shop at any hour of the morning — usually drinking coffee and enjoying that great coffee cake,” Joe Brown wrote in the Post-Gazette, in an obituary for all those dearly departed gathering spots of the city. “There’s a need for places where people can hang out.”
The Webster Hall Hotel went out with a massive liquidation sale. Deal hunters stripped the place of its furnishings, linens and cutlery. On their way out, some of those scavengers tiptoed over to the shuttered Coffee Shop to ask what was next for head pastry chef Earl Rafaloski. They wanted to know where they could find that coffee cake.
Webster Hall soon reopened as an apartment building. Its new restaurant was called Tiffany’s. Almost immediately, diners were asking for the coffee cake. The new owner spent months tracking down Rafaloski, who had started working at Heinz. He refused to sell his recipe, but he agreed to revive it, along with a few other favorites.
Tiffany’s became Pinocchio’s. Customers again demanded the Webster Hall coffee cake. The new manager, Joyce Abrahams, spent years searching for the recipe, even going so far as to dispatch her staff to wander through the neighborhood where a former Webster Hall baker had once lived, hoping in vain for a serendipitous encounter.
Serendipity struck on its own time, as it does. One night, as Abrahams was lamenting her failed search, a friend at the next table started laughing. The friend ran a bakery in Fox Chapel called Simply Delicious. “I make that coffeecake,” she said.
So Simply Delicious sold its coffee cakes to Pinocchio’s, which resold them at the restaurant without a markup — almost as a public service. “This coffeecake was a Pittsburgh institution,” Abrahams explained to the Pittsburgh Press in 1986. “After a concert or a play at Syria Mosque, everyone would come here for coffeecake and coffee.”
The following year, Le Bistro moved into Webster Hall. Its classically trained patisser Jean-Marc Chatellier developed a miniature version of the coffee cake. He tested it on Vigdor Kavalier, well known as the long-time executive director of Rodef Shalom Congregation.
“During Webster Hall’s heyday in the ‘60s, Kavalier was teaching across the street at the University of Pittsburgh and regularly enjoying lunch in the restaurant,” the Pittsburgh Press explained in late 1987. “Kavalier has given his full approval to Chef Chatellier’s version of this specialty.”
At the end of the 1980s, Le Bistro gave way to Jacqie’s, and the coffee cake seems to have disappeared from the menu. And then a quiet longing became amplified.
That longing was best expressed in 1983, in “Life and Architecture in Pittsburgh,” James D. Van Trump’s memoir of the city and its structures. Recalling faded hours in the old Coffee Shop, he wrote, “It is sacred to the memory of so many friends now gone that I almost feel like placing a wreath in it. Even in the 1960s, it was such a pleasant place to go after a concert to drink tea and consume the famous Webster Hall coffee cake.”
And so, as one chef after another was reviving the coffee cake in the 1980s, area home cooks sensed the need for self-sufficiency. “I recently read about the ‘famous and unequaled Webster Hall Hotel coffee cake,’” Gloria J. Semler of Allison Park wrote to the Pittsburgh Press Food Editor Marilyn McDevitt Rubin in 1980. “The hotel no longer exists, but I was wondering if one of your readers might have the recipe for this item.”
Similar requests followed, and more followed those. The most bizarre was a personal ad in the Pitt News in late 1995. It was tucked discretely amid the X-rated call lines: “Webster Hall Coffee Cake — Get the authentic, secret recipe in time for Christmas baking,” complete with a 1-900 number. “Maximum cost $10; Touch-tone req. 18+.”
Writing in 1986 about one of the recent revival attempts, Rubin noted, “Not one year, of the almost seven I’ve been at the Pittsburgh Press, has passed without receiving requests for information about something called The Webster Hall Coffeecake.”
A few weeks later, a reader causally responded with the recipe. It had been hiding in plain view for decades, published in 1964 in “Margaret Mitchell’s Mealtime Magic Cookbook.” Not the “Gone With the Wind,” Margaret Mitchell. This Margaret Mitchell came from New Kensington, where she ran a home economics department at Alcoa. Her job was to create recipes that convinced people to use Alcoa aluminum kitchen products.
Her cookbook included a recipe for “Webster Coffee Cake.” Once it had appeared in the Press in 1986, that recipe became the answer to all future requests. And so the recipe made appearances in the Post-Gazette in 1996, the Tribune-Review in 2004, and once more in the Post-Gazette in 2011, each time in response to requests from readers. It showed up in other places, such as Temple Sinai’s 1991 cookbook “Incredible Edibles.”
It was canonical, but it was not definitive. There was a contender. A recipe for “Gugelhopf” appeared in newspapers all over the country in 1988, written by Elaine Kahn Light and sent across the wires by the Scripps Howard News Service. Her husband, Sam Light, was president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club from 1952 to 1976. He introduced the iconic cutaway coat and silk top hat worn by members of the club each Groundhog’s Day. But she was a child of the East End, and a University of Pittsburgh alumnus. “From the recesses of my memory,” she wrote, “this seems to me to be the closest approximation of the legendary Webster Hall coffee cake. It is delicious toasted.”
Both recipes are “light-based fruit cake.” Mitchell’s uses shortening and sour cream. Light’s uses butter. Mitchell’s recipe has a streusel. Light’s does not. Light uses more eggs and less sugar than Mitchell does, as well as a tiny bit of lemon extract.
Perhaps someone who remembers Oakland in the 1950s could taste both versions and issue a ruling. But I prefer not knowing. Ambiguity allows the legend to grow.
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.
Webster Coffee Cake
from “Margaret Mitchell’s Mealtime Magic Cookbook,” 1964
½ cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2¼ cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream
½ cup chopped dates
½ cup slices candied cherries
½ cup chopped nuts
¼ cup chopped citron
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
1½ tablespoons flour
⅓ cup brown sugar
¼ cup chopped nuts
Cream shortening. Add sugar, gradually continuing to cream until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla. Sift flour; set aside ¼ cup flour.
Sift remaining flour with baking powder, baking soda and salt. Alternately add sifted dry ingredients and sour cream to shortening mixture; blend. Roll dates, cherries, nuts and citron in the ¼ cup flour. Add to batter mixture; blending well.
Combine topping ingredients and mix well. Set aside.
Pour batter into greased and floured 8-inch tube cake pan. Sprinkle topping over mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 55 to 60 minutes. Cool; wrap in aluminum foil. For short-term storage, place in refrigerator. For longer storage, place in freezer.
by Elaine Kahn Light
½ pound (2 sticks) butter
1 cup sugar
2 egg yolks, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon lemon flavoring
4 cups sifted, all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup mixed candied fruits and raisins
½ cup slivered almonds
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Blend in three of the eggs and one egg yolk and continue to blend thoroughly. Add vanilla and lemon flavoring.
Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Blend flour slowly into egg mixture, a little at a time. Stir in mixed fruits. Spread nuts evenly on bottom of greased 10-inch tube pan and pour batter. Bake about 1 hour or until done.